Dutch and Flemish Art

Jan Steen (Dutch, Leiden 1626 - 1679 Leiden)
Merry Company, ca. 1667-69
Oil on panel (oak)
17 5/8 x 14 5/8 in. (44.8 x 37.2 cm)
Signed lower left: J. Steen
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, Mrs. F. F. Prentiss Fund, and Charles F. Olney Fund, 1957
AMAM 1957.14

Jan Steen's lively and gezellig (cozy) Merry Company depicts eleven people eating, drinking, conversing, and making music in what is presumably a tavern, notoriously the realm of temptation and transgression. The exact nature of the scene depicted, however, is purposefully left slightly vague. Indeed, the potential for multiple interpretations is a significant factor in many of Steen's narratives.

The fictive tapestry drawn up in the immediate foreground was a common pictorial device in seventeenth-century Dutch painting intended to distance the viewer from the painted world and to emphasize the theatricality of the depicted scene. Partly on the basis of this device, Braun identified Steen's merrymakers as rhetoricians, the members of a local rederijkerskamer or amateur literary society.1 First established in Netherlandish cities in the sixteenth century, these chambers of rhetoric presented dramatic readings, performances, and literary competitions. Officers in the rederijkerskamers assumed stock roles, readily recognizable through the use of conspicuously outmoded (and therefore inherently comic) dress and other traditional attributes.2 Many artists were members of rederijkerskamers; although Steen himself was not, he appropriated the traditional character types and aspects of the theater into many of his paintings.3

In Braun's interpretation of the Oberlin picture, a group of rhetoricians have cajoled the demure young woman into performing (either singing or reciting) a risqué song, hence her withdrawn and "embarrassed" demeanor.4 A more convincing interpretation, perhaps, would center on the bearded older man who leans intimately over the woman's shoulder to read from her song sheet. His old-fashioned dress--high-crowned hat, narrow ruff, doublet, and slashed sleeves--often signals the besotted old suitor or the quack doctor in Steen's paintings: both were stock character types traditionally regarded with humorous contempt.5 Here, a sprig of flowers tucked into his hatband represents the old man's vain attempt to spruce up a costume fashionable in the previous century, and to render himself more youthful.

The relationship of the ill-matched pair, the old suitor and the young woman, was treated by Steen on numerous occasions, usually accompanied, as here, by a younger, more attractive rival. In the Oberlin picture, the discreet placement of the woman's slippered foot suggests the object of her interest, the young violinist, who twists his head to look at the old man. The fourth figure in this group, laughing and hoisting his glass, is identified by his flat red cap as the sot, or fool, who traditionally functioned as observer or commentator on actions within a scene or theatrical performance. Typically Steen gives a degree of information about individual characters, but leaves the viewer to ponder the specific twists of the narrative, and to admire the artist for his clever allusions.

Although the focus in the Oberlin painting is clearly on the action in the foreground, the man with the flat cap silhouetted in the doorway at the rear has been identified as a portrait of the artist. Steen frequently inserted his own very recognizable likeness into his paintings, thereby personally inviting, as it were, the viewer's complicity in the goings on.6

Stechow dated the Oberlin Merry Company to about 1667-69, which seems correct.7 From about 1667, Steen's works began to exhibit more muted lighting, swifter brushwork, and a slightly darker palette than employed in his earlier works. He tended to paint the background in more subdued tones (as in the warm browns in the present picture), and used accents of light and color selectively, to draw attention to the primary figures and foreground details. Other stylistically similar works of the period are the artist's Scene in a Brothel (ca. 1665-68; Paris, Musée du Louvre),8 or Samson and Delilah (dated 1668; Los Angeles County Museum of Art).9

M. E. Wieseman

Jan Steen was born in Leiden probably in 1626; although the precise date of his birth is not known, in 1646 he was recorded as a student at Leiden University, aged twenty. He was a pupil of Nicolaes Knüpfer (ca. 1603-1655) in Utrecht, Adriaen van Ostade in Haarlem, and of the landscape painter Jan van Goyen in Leiden. Steen married van Goyen's daughter Margaretha (Grietje; d. 1669) in 1649. In March 1648, Steen was one of the first members of the newly-formed artist's guild of St. Luke in Leiden. He worked in The Hague from 1649 until 1654, then ran a brewery in Delft for a few years. Steen settled in Haarlem by 1661, but returned to Leiden upon the death of his father in 1670. He served as hoofdman (leader) of the Leiden guild in 1671-73, and as deken (dean) in 1674. Steen died in Leiden in 1679.

A highly productive painter of exceptional narrative and comic genius, Steen painted history paintings and some portraits in addition to his more well-known genre scenes. His engaging oeuvre is rich and varied, drawing upon pictorial tradition, literary sources, and popular culture, and always acknowledging the artist's own often wry and humorous view of the world.

General Reference
Chapman, H. Perry, Wouter Th. Kloek, Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., et al. . Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1996.

Collection Dukes of Sachsen-Gotha-Altenburg (possibly acquired by Herzog [Duke] Ernst II von Sachsen [1745-1804]), later Dukes of Sachsen-Coburg and Gotha

Herzogliches Gemäldegalerie, Gotha (inv. 257)

Collectiono Helmhold Hoffman, Germany

With G. Cramer Oude Kunst, The Hague, from whom purchased in 1957

The Hague, G. Cramer, 1955. Cat. no. 9, ill.

Delft, Kunstbeurs, 1955. No cat.

Kenwood, London County Council, 1962. An American University Collection: Works of Art from the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio. 3 May - 30 October. Cat. no. 31.

Milwaukee, Wisc., Marquette University Art Collection, 1964. Great Art From Private Colleges and Universities. 20 - 27 February. No cat.

The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1975-76. Extended loan for exhibition with permanent collection. 9 April 1975 - 22 December 1976. No cat.

Parthey, Gustav. Deutscher Bildersaal: Verzeichniss der in Deutschland vorhandenen öelbilder verstorbene Maler aller Schulen. Vol. 2. Berlin, 1864, p. 547.

Schneider, H. J.Katalog der Herzoglichen Gemäldegalerie. Gotha, 1883, p. 27, no. 257.

Aldenhoven, Carl. Katalog der Herzoglichen Gemäldegalerie. Gotha, 1890, p. 53, no. 252.

Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. Vol. 1. London, 1908, p. 154, no. 593.

Stechow, Wolfgang. "Jan Steen's Merry Company." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 15, no. 3 (Spring 1958), pp. 91-100.

Hamilton, Chloe. "Catalogue of R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund Acquisitions." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 16, no. 2 (Winter 1959), cat. no. 42; no. 3 (Spring 1959), ill. p. 238.

Bernhard, Marianne. Verlorene Werke der Malerei: In Deutschland in der Zeit von 1939 bis 1945 zerstörte und verschollene Gemälde aus Museen und Galerien. Munich. 1965, p. 128.

Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Oberlin, 1967, pp. 142-43, fig. 68.

Tzeutschler Lurie, Ann. "Jan Steen, Esther, Ahasuerus and Haman." Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 52 (1965), p. 95.

Spear, Richard E. "Baroque Paintings from Ligozzi to Hogarth." Apollo 103, no. 168 (February 1976), p. 109 ill.

Kirschenbaum, Baruch D. The Religious and Historical Paintings of Jan Steen. New York and Montclair, 1977, p. 47.

Braun, Karel. Alle tot nu toe bekende schilderijen van Jan Steen. Rotterdam, 1983, p. 134, no. 325 (as "De rederijkers en de ondeugende lied" ["The Rhetoricians and the Bawdy Song"]).

Technical Data 10
The panel is constructed from a single quarter-cut oak panel with vertical grain, hand hewn and with chamfered edges. There is a very slight convex warp. The warm brown tone of the wood is used as a basis for the painting's palette; white ground is only found locally in the foreground area at the bottom of the panel. The paint layer is generally thin and semitransparent, revealing the grain of the wood, except in the more thickly painted light-colored areas. The paint surface is in good condition, with some very minor retouchings along the wood grain near the center of the panel, and some localized areas of cupping.

1. Karel Braun, Alle tot nu toe bekende schilderijen van Jan Steen (Rotterdam, 1983), p. 134.

2. On the connotations of dress in Steen's paintings, see S. J. Gudlaugsson, De Komedianten bij Jan Steen en zijn tijdgenooten, trans. James Brockway (Soest, 1975); and, most recently, Mariët Westermann, "Steen's Comic Fictions," in Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1996), esp. p. 60.

3. Steen's connections with the theater are discussed by S. J. Gudlaugsson, De Komedianten bij Jan Steen en zijn tijdgenooten, trans. James Brockway (Soest, 1975).

4. Karel Braun, Alle tot nu toe bekende schilderijen van Jan Steen (Rotterdam, 1983), p. 134.

5. Similarly dressed old suitors appear in Steen's Cock-Fight (ca. 1658-60; private collection; reproduced in Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller [exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1996], p. 136; Harpsichord Lesson, (mid to late 1660s; London, Wallace Collection, inv. P154); and Tavern Scene with Tric-Trac Players (ca. 1667; Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. A3347). Instances of quack doctors wearing much the same garments include The Doctor's Visit (ca. 1663; London, Wellington Museum, inv. no. 89), and The Lovesick Maiden (ca. 1667-69; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. 46.13.2).

6. See H. Perry Chapman, "Jan Steen, Player in his own Paintings," in Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1996), esp. pp. 17-21.

7. Wolfgang Stechow, "Jan Steen's Merry Company," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 15, no. 3 (Spring 1958), pp. 95-100 passim. Braun's dating of ca. 1668-72 is somewhat too late; see Karel Braun, Alle tot nu toe bekende schilderijen van Jan Steen (Rotterdam, 1983), p. 134.

8. Oil on panel, 41.5 x 35.5 cm, inv. R.F. 301.

9. Oil on canvas, 67.5 x 82 cm, gift of the Ahmanson Foundation, inv. M.87.64. See also the additional works cited in Wolfgang Stechow, "Jan Steen's Merry Company," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 15, no. 3 (Spring 1958), pp. 91-100.

10. For general discussions of the technical aspects of Steen's paintings, see Marigene H. Butler, "An Investigation of the Technique and Materials Used by Jan Steen," in Jan Steen, Comedy and Admonition (Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 78, nos. 337-38 [Winter 1982-Spring 1983]), pp. 44-51; and Martin Bijl, "The Artist's Working Method," in Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1996), pp. 83-91.