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Jan Steen


Jan Steen. Self-Portrait Playing the Lute, about 1663–65. © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Also known as
Jan H. Steen, Jan Havicksz. Steen
Date of birth
Date of death

One of the most adaptable painters of the 17th-century Dutch Republic, Jan Steen is best known for producing a type of genre scene that married comic or amusing scenes of coarse behavior with the middle-class domestic environment.

The son of a brewer, Steen was born in Leiden in 1626 and eventually enrolled at Leiden’s university for one year. Instead of continuing his academic studies, he began a series of undocumented apprenticeships: first, with the painter Adriaen van Ostade, from whom he learned to create boisterous peasant scenes, then possibly with the history painter Nikolaus Knupfer, and finally, with Jan van Goyen, who taught him the fundamentals of landscape. After joining the painters’ guild in 1648, he spent the following 30 years working throughout the Dutch Republic, in The Hague, Delft, Haarlem, and Leiden. In each city, he absorbed influences that evolved his scenes of moralizing humor according to the changing taste of clients and connoisseurs.

The Family Concert illustrates Steen’s adaptation of his characteristic comic mode to the elegant scenes popularized by Gerard ter Borch and Johannes Vermeer in the 1650s. The windmill seen through the window and the lute and recorder that the young men play in the middle ground are images derived from contemporary emblem books, which explain their symbolism related to love. Playing music was among the most common of courtship activities in the 17th century. The young boy in the foreground, imitating the behaviors of the adults behind him, strums a cello with a pipe and breaks a string, a subtle allusion to the perils of unbridled passion. Such visual witticisms rely heavily upon the notion that comedy mirrors everyday life.

This work was part of the founding purchase of Old Master paintings for the nascent Art Institute in 1891 and remains at the core of the museum’s collections.

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