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Netherlands • 1626−1679

Biography and information

Jan Steen (Jan Havickszoon Steen, c. 1626, Leiden – February 3, 1679, ibid.) was an artist of the Dutch Golden Age, master of genre painting. Only such artists as Rembrandt van RijnJohannes Vermeer and Frans Hals were more popular than Steen.

Features of Jan Steen’s works: The painter was famous for his energetic humorous genre paintings in which he considered life as an extensive comedy of morals. There was the expression “Steen’s house” in the Dutch language, meaning a noisy and sloppy farm, depicted in many of his paintings. Small figures in the artist’s early landscapes implied the influence of Adriaen and Isaac van Ostade, however, in his later works the human figures became clearer and more endowed with individual features. The painter masterfully conveyed the subtleties of facial expressions, especially in children. As the son of a brewer and the owner of a brewery and tavern himself, he often portrayed inns. Although Stan did not always work smoothly with color, his best paintings demonstrated the masterly technique and elegant combinations in the palette.

Famous paintings by Jan Steen: “As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young”, “The dissolute household”, “Beware of Luxury”, “The Dancing Couple”, “Peasants before an Inn”, “The Feast of St. Nicholas”.

A skillful storyteller

Arnold Houbraken (1660 - 1719), an artist and art historian, wrote: “Steen’s paintings resemble his lifestyle, and his lifestyle resembles his paintings,” and he especially emphasized the “buffoonish” side of his work in the painter’s biography. But that was a mistakenly one-sided look at the extraordinary master, since his work had many other aspects. Steen was a skilled storyteller. He painted portraits (1, 2, 3), paintings on historical (1, 2), mythological (1, 2) and religious themes (he was a Catholic), and his works could easily compete in detailing animals, birds and still lifes with the works of any of his contemporaries.

Furthermore, even his most comical paintings often contained a serious background behind them, revealing human stupidity or depravity. His favorite themes were various forms of excessiveness, including excessive drinking, careless attitude towards money, lust, or anger. A lot of his works contained inscriptions explaining or emphasizing the meaning.

Leiden, The Hague, Haarlem

Although Jan Steen was born in Leiden and died there, he moved a lot during his life, and a significant part of his career belonged to The Hague and Haarlem periods. The future artist was born in 1626 and was the eldest of Havik Steen and Elisabeth Capiteijn’s (a daughter of the secretary of the city council) eight children. Initially, his father traded in grain, but later, he opened a brewery called “The Red Halberd”. In their testaments, the couple appointed each other as heirs to 10 thousand guilders amount of capital, so it was safe to say that Steen was from the middle class, that’s for sure.

Jan Steen was believed to have been educated by the historical painter Nikolaus Knüpfer in Utrecht, followed by Adriaen van Ostade in Haarlem and Jan van Goyen in The Hague. However, that assumption had not been fully confirmed.

On March 18, 1648, Steen registered as a master artist in the newly created Guild of Saint Luke in Leiden (according to other sources, he was one of its founders along with Gabriel Metsu). Such associations were traditionally named after the evangelist, who, according to the legend, painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary.

A little over a year later, Steen settled in The Hague, where he helped his former teacher Van Goyen. The already mentioned biographer, Arnold Houbraken, described in detail and with humor how the young man seduced and impregnated Margaret, the daughter of a mentor, whom he later informed about that. Her father had no choice but to give the couple a blessing. The wedding took place on October 3, 1649.

“A taste of beer”

In 1654, Jan Steen’s father put him in charge of a leased brewery in Delft, but the enterprise was unsuccessful. In October of the same year, a significant part of the city was destroyed by an explosion in a powder warehouse, the economy and the art market fell into decay. However, after 18 years, he made a decision to go into business once again and opened a tavern in Leiden, without abandoning art. Because of those attempts, “with a taste of beer”, the artist was oftentimes perceived as a drunkard and a spender, but there was not a single reliable fact confirming that reputation. On the contrary, aside from the scenes of everyday life in taverns, there were paintings on the theme of impeccable nobility and piety (1, 2, 3, 4) in his work. And, judging by the number of artworks created in a fairly short period of his career (about eight hundred works were attributed to Steen), the painter was devoted to his first profession.

Apparently, his decision to engage in the production and sale of beer could be affected by him losing interest in art during the First Anglo-Dutch War. But, unfortunately, the conflict also negatively affected the brewing industry, and, soon, Steen and his family were faced with serious financial difficulties. Despite the fact that the lease of the brewery expired only on November 1, 1657, he called himself a “former brewer” four months before that date. His father-in-law, Jan van Goyen, died a year earlier, bequeathing his property to his daughter and his son-in-law. However, the economy was so mired in debt that it had to be auctioned off, and the proceeds were barely enough to satisfy the claims of numerous creditors.

Authoritative, respected, impoverished

After the collapse of the Delft enterprise, Steen returned to Leiden for a short period of time before moving to Warmond which was nearby, where he paid a village tax until 1660. The house in which the artist lived has been preserved to this day.

The next place of residence was Haarlem. The years spent in the city became the most thriving in his career. With the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War in March 1665, the art market experienced another crisis, and Steen’s workshop faced enormous financial difficulties. The situation got much worse with the death of his wife in 1669 – the painter was forced to take care of seven children. According to biographers, he never established control over his home.

In 1670, Steen returned to Leiden for the third time and joined the local Guild of painters already as an authoritative and respected master. He was immediately elected as a headman (he held that position three times), and then he was appointed to the position of the dean. Unfortunately, those positions were not paid, debts grew and creditors lined up at the door of the artist. In 1672 (it was called the Year of Disasters), France attacked the Netherlands and a war broke out, putting an end to the Dutch Golden Age. The art market had experienced its worst crisis. The City Council granted Steen a license to manage the inn called “The Peace” [De Vreede]. It became a kind of club where painters regularly gathered, Frans van Mieris was among them, who often drank a lot with the owner.

In the spring of 1673, Steen married the widow of the bankrupt bookseller, Maria van Egmond, who bore him another son. She also had a small business – she sold sheep’s legs and heads, boiled at home, in the market. But the meager incomes of the new wife could not ease the financial burden of the family. The artist died in 1679, leaving a widow with many children and great debts.

A sophisticated colorist

As it had already been mentioned, art historians had found evidence that Jan Steen created more than eight hundred paintings during his career, of which three hundred and fifty were tracked. His best works were distinguished by the exceptional technique, the richness of subjects portrayed, and the compositions were also very inventive. The first president of the British Royal Academy of Arts, Joshua Reynolds, spoke highly of the “decisive and bold” strokes of the Dutchman, whose dexterity sometimes resembled Hals, but with a more thorough study of the details.

Paintings by Steen, created in his later years, anticipated the Rococo style of the 18th century. They became more sophisticated and somewhat less energetic, showed a strong French influence and were particularly bright, for example, the painting “Nocturnal Serenade” (c. 1675) from the collection of the National Gallery in Prague.

As a colorist, Jan Steen was one of the most sophisticated artists of his time, with a special style of using pink, salmon red, pale yellow, light gray and blue-green. He did not have a single famous student, but his work inspired many painters all around the world. One of the teen’s followers was the famous genre painter Richard Brakenburgh.

Written by Vlad Maslov