Steen & Jordaens: As the Old Sing…
11 July 2017 - 14 January 2018
Two portrayals of the proverb As the old sing, so pipe the young will grace the walls of the Mauritshuis starting in July. Our large painting by Jan Steen will be complemented by a painting by Jacob Jordaens, on loan from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp - a wonderful opportunity to compare these two cheerful paintings and to discover how two different artists approached the same topic.
Jacob Jordaens’ The Old Folks sing, the Young Folks chirp
At first sight, it seems as if Jacob Jordaens has depicted the proverb very literally in his painting. Three generations of a family are making music under the grandfather's guidance. A young boy is playing the recorder, and the child sitting on the mother’s lap is blowing in the small flute on his rattle. Behind the table, the father is playing the bagpipe with rounded cheeks. For the sake of clarity, Jordaens added the proverb to the depiction as an inscription: Soo d’ouden songen, soo pepen de jongen.
However, the keener observer will discover a double message. For instance, the bagpipe was an instrument of the worst sort, which would typically trigger negative associations.
The mother's feathered hat gives her a somewhat loose character, as feathers were associated with vanity in the 17th century. These adults are not able to provide a the good example, yet they are still diligently being imitated by their children on their flutes.
Jan Steens ‘As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young’
Jan Steen, 'As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young', c. 1668 - 1670. Mauritshuis.
When Jan Steen painted the same proverb at the end of the 1660s, he took over the idea of the 3 generations from his Flemish predecessor. He also borrowed various themes from him: the mother with the child on her lap, the bagpipe player, and the singing grandmother with the pince-nez on her nose. However, where with Jordaens the gathering around the table still seems somewhat civilised, in Steen's case the depiction is a much more licentious one.
The family is gathered around a table where a mother with a small child on her lap is at the centre of the representation. A new father's hat, the headgear traditionally worn by the father during the baptism of a child, adorns the head of the laughing old man, hanging sideways. However, the child is too old to have been recently baptised, and the man no longer has the age of a new father. We are shown a kind of upside down world here, as is also shown by the behaviour of the parents.
The adults are unashamedly transmitting their poor habits to the children. On the left, a slumped woman with a half-open blouse is getting her wine glass refilled once again. The laughing man on the right—Steen himself— mocks his fatherly responsibilities by teaching his young son to smoke; thus literally bringing the "piping" into the picture. In the left corner, a parrot is sitting on a stick, repeating the examples just like the children.
The proverb depicted in these colourful paintings by Jordaens and Steen warns against the consequences of a poor education, but can also be explained in another way. Jacob Cats, who published a proverb book in 1632, listed "As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young" together with related proverbs under the chapter ‘’t Wil al muysen wat van katten komt’, roughly translated as "cats mouse by nature". In other words: much like a cat naturally hunts mice, human nature is also innate and immutable.
From that perspective, education would be irrelevant for a child's development. The cage on the wall with singing birds in Steen's piece could also point in the same direction, since "a bird is known by its note and a man by his talk". It is then irrelevant whether or not the adults give a good example to the youth.
Detail singing birds: Jan Steen, 'As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young', c. 1668 - 1670. Mauritshuis.
Look and compare
Detail grandmother by Jordaens
The similarities between the singing grandmothers are striking: a pince-nez on her nose, her attention focused on the sheet in her hand. Most likely, Steen was familiar with Jordaens' representation from a print that Jordaens had made of it.
Detail grandmother by Steen
Detail mother by Jordaens
The immoral woman
An open décolleté, a filled glass. The lady on the left in Jan Steen's painting is not exactly the best example for the children. The fabric with glowing coals under her skirts could even give it an erotic tinge.
But do not let yourselves be misled by the tidy mother in the painting by Jordaens. The feathers in her hat were associated with vanity in the 17th century.
Detail woman by Steen
Detail bagpipe by Jordaens
In both representations, someone is playing the bagpipe. This is no coincidence; the instrument (then also known as 'lullepijp') was typically associated with the lower social class and had a negative connotation.
Detail bagpipe by Steen
Detail father by Jordaens
With Jordaens, the father playing the bagpipe doesn't make the best impression; but the father in Steen's painting (Jan Steen himself) makes things even more colourful. He teaches his son to smoke the pipe, roaring with laughter. The fact that Steen depicts himself in this role indicates a self-mockery that makes the representation even funnier.
Detail father by Steen
Detail dog by Jordaens
In both paintings a dog adds extra liveliness. For Jordaens, the pet is part of the representation - he points his ears as he listens attentively to the family's song. What the dog does in Jan Steen's painting is not yet entirely clear. His attention is not on the family but on something outside the scene.
Detail dog by Steen
Detail proverb by Jordaens
Detail proverb by Steen
For the sake of clarity, Jordaens included the proverb as an inscription in the representation: ‘Soo d’ouden songen, soo pepen de jongen’ reads the cartouche at the top.
Jan Steen also included the proverb in his painting, in the sheet that the grandmother has in her hand. She points with her finger: ‘Soo voer gesongen, zo na gepepen’.
Better a good neighbour than a distant friend, so the saying goes. In the second half of 2017 the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (KMSKA) will be lending the Mauritshuis Flemish Old Masters from its collection such as Jordaens, Van der Weyden, Rubens and Van Dyck.
Steen & Jordaens: As the Old Sing is the first exhibition in a series. From 7 September 2017 through 14 January 2018 the Mauritshuis will tell the story of Flemish portraiture in the exhibition Neighbours: Portraits from Flanders 1400-1700.