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.
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