Jan Steen (1626 – 1679)

Kweiseye was a mostly weekly art blog written by myself (Tom Kwei) from June 2014 – October 2015. Initially conceived as but a challenge to keep myself writing regularly, art criticism soon became something I just really enjoyed doing. In total I covered more than 60 artists from over 20 countries and multiple genres – for a full list of all the artists analysed so far, click HERE.

I still love art and will definitely write more Kweiseye in the future, it’s just at the moment I’m more involved with another passion of mine, podcasting. Check out my ‘Down in the Hole’ podcast if you’re a fan of the great Tom Waits’ music, I also interview the great writers of battle rap longform on my ‘Battle Rap Resume’ podcast. here.

Thanks for all your kind comments and messages on the blog so far. Please get in touch via the blog or tomkweipoet@gmail.com. I’d love to hear about what you think on the pieces featured. 

Tom Kwei, February 2016 


My favorite paintings are those nestled in that sweet middle between contemplation and investigation. Whilst the aforementioned Alfred Sisley is undoubtedly of the former, today’s artist, the Dutch Jan Steen, seems to stray between both of these parameters. His bustling scenes of the everyday always aglow with the subtle life inside them.

‘Rhetoricians at a Window’ – 1662


Straight out of the canvas we perceive four distinct figures (though more lurk in the viscera), whose clarity of humanity is quite astounding. On the bottom left is the reader of a poem, his face so jovial and clearly thrilled with the piece. Across from him, a critic listens and stares with great intent. By positioning both of the men slightly out of the window frame, Steen plays expertly with the contrast of light on their clothes and bodies, there is great skill in-particular in the fold of the reader’s elbow as well as the recess of the critic’s hat. The men just feel as if they are actually together, not figures painted in abstraction on a solid plane, but really together, all in someway responding to the presence of their companions.

After taking in these  figures however, more pragmatic thoughts took me over. How high up are we? The climbing vines and insignia hanging from the frame suggest a certain tallness, so why then are the men performing and to whom?

The jester seems to know in some regard, his farcical expression in contrast to his more humane companions marking him out as the piece’s centre. With his piercing looks he stares straight out into the viewer with his little finger focusing you back into his gaze just to make sure you’re paying attention. Indeed, the rhetoric that the men seem to be practicing has much in common with painting as a whole – both only truly acknowledged if given an audience, both in need of response. Whilst we can’t hear what the men are saying then, the Jester, just like Steen himself, encourages us to listen.

‘The Christening Feast’ – 1664


As with all pictures of this clustered sort, it’s always worth scouring every inch of the piece to get a genuine scope of the image’s intent. The picture is so crammed of activity for example that I all but ignored the busy floor on my first viewing.

It is not only the subtle splashes of egg yolk on the tiles are are wonderful, but also the rigour of the ground’s checkerboard design . The way the relief retreats into the background helps to give surface and depth to the busy christening, drawing our eyes towards the back of the painting eventually up to the scribble of skin that is the baby.

I find however the woman with her back turned to us as a far more captivating figure, her melodious colors strike out perfectly across the wash of beige that covers the contemporary image. Her apron, which apes the shawl of the baby in its peachy blossom, helps to cut a nice slice of flair across the setting.

Supposedly though this painting is more intended to be subversive rather than triumphant. Steen is actually the figure in the background just entering, the one holding his hand above the child’s head – a supposed sign of cuckoldry at the time. The broken eggs scattered amongst the floor too seem to solidify this intent.

Enjoy reading that? Click HERE to see a list of all the art analyses on Kweiseye to date.

To keep up with the blog and all the art I write about, follow me right here on this blog or here @tomkweipoet


2 thoughts on “Jan Steen (1626 – 1679)

  1. Pingback: Tarsila do Amaral (1886 – 1973) | Kwei's Eye

  2. Pingback: Judith Leyster (1609 – 1660) | Kwei's Eye

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