Jan Steen Portrait of Jacoba Maria van Wassenaer (1654-1683), known as 'The Poultry Yard'
On view in Room 14
Steen made this child’s portrait into something special. He placed the girl in a poultry yard, where she is giving a drink of milk to a lamb. She is surrounded by a motley collection of birds. Two gnarled servants look on in amusement, and their presence makes the girl look even sweeter and more endearing.
The child is Jacoba van Wassenaer. In the background is the castle where she lived: the castle of Lokhorst, or Oud-Teijlingen. When Steen painted the portrait, he lived nearby in the village of Warmond.
Heiress before her Castle This exceptionally original painting of a girl and two servants in a poultry yard is a favourite of visitors to the Mauritshuis. Here Steen exhibits not only his gifts as a portraitist and genre painter, but also his talent for painting poultry. The child sits on a step in an enclosed yard, surrounded by a colourful throng of poultry: chickens, doves, fancy ducks, a cock, a turkey, a pheasant and an impressive peacock perched on the bare tree. Visible through the gateway is Lokhorst Castle, also known as Oud-Teijlingen, near Warmond. The girl wears a pretty yellow satin skirt and an immaculate white apron. Looking at the viewer, she feeds milk to a lamb. Her summery straw hat lies behind her on the step. An Italian whippet at her feet licks up the milk dribbled on the ground. The two servants, who both watch the girl, were probably entrusted with the care of the animals. Their faces are so portrait-like that we may assume that both men were members of the castle’s staff. The balding man on the right, who holds the jug of milk, has collected the eggs and carries them in his basket and his tied-up blue servant’s apron. On the left, the grinning dwarf with a tear in his coat – adding a comic note to the scene – carries chickens in a wicker basket and one under his arm. The obvious contrast between the prim and proper girl and her inferiors wearing such old-fashioned dress underlines their difference in status. She is, in fact, the heiress of Lokhorst Castle: Jacoba Maria van Wassenaer (1654-1683). In 1660, when Steen painted her, the six-year-old girl was living with her father, the widower Jan van Wassenaer, at Lokhorst, where she had been born. A stone set into the wall above the gateway displays the coats of arms of the girl’s great-grandparents, Nicolaes van Mathenesse and Geertruyt Lockhorst, who had brought the castle into the family. Jacoba’s father undoubtedly thought that his daughter would one day become ‘Lady of Lokhorst’. That did not happen, however. After her marriage she moved away, but her childhood portrait stayed behind in Warmond, presumably until the castle’s movable goods were sold in 1764. At that time the identity of the sitter was no longer known. (It was verified only recently.) For Jan Steen, who was living in Warmond in 1660, this must have been a prestigious commission, which connected him to a noble family of great consequence.
Overpainted Family Arms Set into the stone above the gateway are the family arms of Nicolaes van Mathenesse and Geertruyt Lockhorst, the great-grandparents of little Jacoba Maria. For a long time, however, these coats of arms were invisible. After 1764 there were overpainted, presumably to make the painting easier to sell, since family portraits do not readily attract buyers on the free market. Stadholder William V bought the canvas in 1769 from an Amsterdam art dealer, possibly because he thought it portrayed a descendant of the House of Orange. When the painting was restored in 1848, the family arms reappeared.
Jan Steen’s Neighbours Steen painted few portraits, but when he did, he made something very special. In 1655, five years before painting The Poultry Yard, he painted the portrait of this elegant girl. She, too, is portrayed in a topographically recognisable place: on the front stairs of her house on the Oude Delft canal in Delft. The tower of the Oude Kerk is visible in the right background. The girl’s father sits rather nonchalantly in the centre of the picture, and is being addressed by a woman with a child. This woman and her child are obviously poor, and she seems to be begging. It is possible, however, that she is requesting another form of charity, and the letter in the gentleman’s hand might be a document certifying her genuine need. The identity of the distinguished burgher and his daughter was discovered only recently. He turns out not to have been a burgomaster, as was always assumed, but a wealthy Delft grain merchant: the 43-year-old widower Adolf Croeser. His only child, Catherina, was thirteen in 1655: she looks at us while lifting her skirt to step down the stairs. The Croesers lived in a house on the west side of the Oude Delft canal. Opposite their house stood ‘The Curry Comb’ (‘De Roskam’), the brewery Jan Steen operated from 1654 to 1657, while living in Delft. This father and daughter were therefore his neighbours. A striking detail is the beautiful bouquet of flowers on the windowsill next to the front door. Like The Poultry Yard, this is an exceptional portrait, in which Steen gives ample proof of his versatility as a painter. It is not only a portrait of a distinguished gentleman and his fashionably dressed daughter, but also a genre painting and a townscape with a bonus: a small flower still life. In his work Steen combined various painterly techniques. The shiny satin of Catharina’s skirt is delicately painted, as is the gleaming black of Croeser’s suit. Their faces, moveover, are depicted with portrait-like precision. By contrast, the ‘beggar woman’ and her child are painted in much less detail.
Symbolism Jan Steen’s paintings are full of symbolic allusions. Some of them are relatively easy to interpret, but many are difficult to decipher, and our interpretations are far from certain. The bare tree with one strong new shoot could refer in this context to the nearly extinct Van Mathenesse-Lockhorst family, from which young Jacoba Maria was nevertheless descended. By the same token, the peacock could stand for immortality, but that is much less certain. It seems reasonable to think that in a child’s portrait of this kind, the drinking lamb symbolises innocence.
Jan Steen (Leiden 1626 - 1679 Leiden)
Portrait of Jacoba Maria van Wassenaer (1654-1683), known as 'The Poultry Yard'
On view in
Material and technical details
80.8 x 106.6 cm
Signed and dated
linksonder, op de beschoeiing: JSteen. / 1660 JS ineen
Jan van Wassenaer, Lokhorst Castle, Warmond, 1660; his heirs, Warmond Castle, probably until 1763; Philips van der Schleij Gallery, Amsterdam, 1769 (for 1,000 guilders to William V); Prince William V, The Hague, 1769-1795; confiscated by the French, transferred to the Muséum Central des Arts/Musée Napoléon (Musée du Louvre), Paris, 1795-1815; Royal Picture Gallery, housed in the Prince William V Gallery, The Hague, 1816; transferred to the Mauritshuis, 1822