Here, Steen has depicted the proverb ‘As the old sing, so pipe the young’, meaning that a bad example leads to bad conduct. The woman on the left with the open cleavage is having her glass topped up. On the right, the laughing father is teaching one of his children to smoke a pipe. This is Steen himself.
Besides his gift for telling humorous stories, Steen was also a skilled painter who could suggest a variety of materials, such as the earthenware jug on the floor, the lilac skirt and the sparkling wine.
Proverbs that offered general, educational or moralising truths in a witty and entertaining manner were not only very popular in the seventeenth century, but were also considered useful didactic tools.1 Jacob Cats, who published his illustrated book of proverbs Spiegel van den Ouden ende Nieuwen Tijdt (Mirror of Old and New Times) in 1632, emphasised that proverbs should be ambiguous.2 People appreciated humorous and playful double meanings, in accordance with the classical motto ‘ridendo dicere verum’: ‘mockingly telling the truth’. The earliest portrayals of proverbs in the Low Countries can be found in the border decorations of late-medieval manuscripts and in tapestries. The popularity of the genre is due, above all, to Pieter Bruegel the Elder. His famous and much-copied painting Netherlandish Proverbs of 1559 portrays more than 120 proverbs and sayings.3 In the seventeenth century, Flemish artists such as Sebastiaan Vrancx, David Teniers the Younger and Jacob Jordaens followed in his footsteps, and the tradition was carried on in the Northern Netherlands by Adriaen van de Venne, the illustrator of Jacob Cats, and by Jan Steen.
It stands to reason that Steen liked to paint proverbs, given his fondness for puns, witty ambiguities, anecdotes and jokes (cf. inv. no. 736). The one he depicted most often was ‘As the old sing, so pipe the young’.4 These are merry scenes, in which children learn to smoke and drink in imitation of their undisciplined parents and grandparents.5 The comic possibilities of the proverb must have appealed to Steen, for the exhortation to give children a good upbringing can be portrayed by depicting the very opposite. In a painting from the Mauritshuis in the Prince William V Gallery, we read this proverb on a piece of paper tacked to the mantelpiece (inv. no. 169). The painting discussed here portrays a variant of this still-popular proverb.6 The title is the first line on the sheet of music held by the grandmother, seated at right at the table, who peers through her pince-nez and uses her index finger to follow the text of the ‘Liet’ (song), which goes like this: ‘Soo voer gesongen, soo / na gepepen / dat is al lang / g[e]bleken ick sing u vo[or] / so[o] volcht ons na[er] / van een tot hon[derd] jaar’ (‘As it is sung, so it is piped, that’s long been known, I’ll sing first and you follow along, from one to a hundred years’). Steen often clarified his paintings with explanatory texts embedded in the composition.7
Three generations of one family boisterously celebrate the baptism of the youngest scion, the child in its mother’s lap at the heart of the composition. Perched crookedly on the head of the laughing old man at left is a kraamherenmuts, a hat traditionally worn by new fathers.8 But when a man this old becomes a father, it truly is a topsy-turvy world, and further evidence of it is given by the adults, who smoke and drink and watch their bad behaviour being imitated by their offspring.9 The broadly grinning man at right, clearly Jan Steen himself, mocks his paternal duties by teaching his son to smoke, thus providing a literal portrayal of the younger generation’s ‘copycat piping’ (‘na-pijpen’). ‘Piping’ is also portrayed by the older boy at far right, who wears a red, furlined hat and is the only figure looking at us. He plays the bagpipes, an instrument with dubious associations that was played by the basest sort of people.10 At left, the woman slouching in her chair with her blouse half open makes a rather dissolute impression. Steen depicted her more often, and she is generally identified as his first wife, Grietje van Goyen.11 The coloured ribbons in her hair are the same as those on Steen’s hat. With outstretched arm, she raises her wine glass, which is filled by a servant with a large white napkin over his shoulder. The foot-warmer with glowing coals beneath her skirt, on which she has placed her feet, may well have erotic connotations.12 A parrot (a red-winged macaw) sits on its perch behind her. This notorious imitator will repeat anything, just as children do.13
The proverb portrayed in this merry scene warns of the danger of setting a bad example, but it can also be interpreted in a different way.14 Jacob Cats grouped this and related proverbs together in a chapter called ‘’t Wil al muysen wat van katten komt’ (‘Those born of cats all want to catch mice’).15 In other words, it is in feline nature to chase mice, and human nature cannot be changed either. Seen in this light, a child’s upbringing is irrelevant to its development. The cage of song birds on the wall possibly points in the same direction, for ‘elk vogeltje zingt zoals het gebekt is’ (‘every bird sings its own song’), and so it makes no difference whether or not grownups set a good example. For Steen and his contemporaries, such word-play was an appealing aspect of proverbs, in both word and image.16
Steen even goes so far as to portray himself as a bad father, and this self-mockery makes the picture even more comical. He often plays a role in his own paintings as a figure whose characteristic laugh underscores the satire of a scene as he ridicules himself as well as the other characters.17 In the past, this painting has been interpreted as a family portrait that includes the painter, his parents, his first and second wives, and several children.18 It is going too far, however, to assume that Steen portrayed his entire family here. He merely used familiar models from his own circle, beginning with himself and possibly his wife.19 Numerous paintings by his hand portray human vices and weaknesses in every comical way imaginable. This painting not only typifies the kind of chaotic family scene at which Steen excelled but also illustrates his proverbial household (‘huishouden van Jan Steen’). The fact that he often portrayed himself in such pictures no doubt contributed to the notion, formed early on, that his farcical paintings were a reflection of his private life.20
Jan Steen based his paintings of ‘As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young’ on the example of his Flemish predecessor Jacob Jordaens, who was the first to portray this generally known proverb in a series of paintings and drawings.21 The earliest of these, a painting of 1638, was engraved by Schelte Adamsz Bolswert.22 Steen borrowed various motifs from Jordaens, whose portrayals of this proverb also show three generations of a family gathered around a laid table: a mother with a child in her lap, a grandmother (sometimes accompanied by a grandfather) wearing a pince-nez and singing from the sheet of music or songbook, and youngsters engaged in ‘copycat piping’ by improvising on recorders or bagpipes. A cartouche bearing the explanatory inscription ‘Soo D’oude Songen, Soo Pepen de Jongen’ (‘As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young’) appears prominently in Jordaens’s earliest portrayal of the subject. Other versions by his hand also feature a parrot or a bird cage, in one case held up by a fool, who grins as he points at the chirping birds.23 Compared with Steen, however, Jordaens’s companies are rather polite and contained. His characters drink, but not to excess, and no one smokes a pipe. Pipe-smoking as a humorous allusion to the youngsters’ ‘copycat piping’ was Steen’s idea.
Representations of this popular proverb are thematically related to the Feast of the Epiphany (Twelfth Night), which Jordaens and Steen also portrayed a number of times.24 On this Catholic holiday, the world is turned upside-down for a day, and a mock king rules the roost. This reversal of roles is also seen in portrayals of the proverb, and the link between these two subjects is evident from the fact that Jordaens painted them as pendants. Steen might have done the same. In 1712, two paintings attributed to him were offered together at auction, presumably as companion pieces: a version of As the Old Sing and a Twelfth Night (present whereabouts unknown).25 Steen also seized upon the subject of Twelfth Night as a means of presenting a colourful array of figures so bent on revelry that they ignore their rowdy offspring. Steen even heightened the effect by crowning a toddler king in, for instance, a Twelfth Night of 1668.26 This child-king, wearing a paper crown, sips wine like an adult, for the feast cannot begin until the assembled merry-makers proclaim ‘The king drinks!’ In these portrayals of Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day, the adults do not behave as they should, and their bad habits are eagerly imitated by the youngsters.27
‘As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young’ is one of Jan Steen’s largest paintings.28 It is a monumental and self-assured work, painted with rapid, unerring brushstrokes in a warm palette of complementary colours. Its large size suggests that it was not made for the free market, but painted to commission. The broad brushwork used to apply the paint, which is somewhat dry in places, also suggests that it was meant to be viewed from a distance. Compared with a variant of the composition in Montpellier, the scene has been enlarged, zoomed in on, and reduced to essentials, and the wine-pouring motif has been greatly magnified and emphasised. This suggests that the painting in the Mauritshuis is the second version.29 The jug stands out beautifully from the white-plastered wall, as do the façon-de-Venise wine glass and the stream of red wine poured by the servant. His grand pouring gesture connects the woman at left to the figures at right, thereby forging a unifying link in the composition. Even on this large scale, Steen produced a nearly palpable rendering of the various fabrics and materials: the green velvet jacket trimmed with white fur, worn by the woman at left; the pink satin of her skirt; the Turkish carpet draped over the table, which is laid with a pewter plate of oysters, a large lemon and some grapes; the dog’s fluffy, brown-and-white coat of fur; and the white-plastered wall, on which the cast shadows display different colour intensities. The artist captured other elements beautifully, such as the reflections of the stained-glass window on the wall, the transparency of a bottle of liquid and a glass on the windowsill, the gleam of the earthenware jug at lower left, and the parrot, which Steen rendered with just a few streaks of red paint.
The smaller variant of the composition in Montpellier portrays the six most important figures in the same arrangement: the slouching woman with the wine glass, the old man behind her (here wearing a top hat), the wine-pourer with the white napkin on his shoulder, the mother and child, and the singing grandmother. Despite their obvious similarities, however, the painting in Montpellier differs in important ways from the Mauritshuis painting, which is certainly not a slavish copy. Not only is the canvas in Montpellier much smaller, but the figures are depicted on a smaller scale and the colour of their clothing is different, the interior is much more complex, and there are more accessories, including a curtain pushed to the side, which alludes to the notion that ‘all the world’s a stage’. The painting in Montpellier was probably the first version, and was followed by the improved and enlarged version in the Mauritshuis. This hypothesis is confirmed by the detail of the grandfather’s top hat. An X-radiograph shows that this hat initially appeared in the Hague version too (see X-radiograph), left in reserve in the background and worked out in the undermodelling. Later Steen decided to change it with a ‘new-father’s cap’ (kraamherenmuts), thus introducing an additional joke.
The room depicted in the present painting is highly simplified with respect to the elegant interior in the Montpellier version. It only shows a corner of the room, with two plastered walls, a bit of the window and a simple floor of wooden planks (with beautifully observed grain). The other painting depicts a complicated interior with a fireplace, beamed ceiling, tiled floor, and a view into a room at the back. In the Montpellier painting, Steen clearly struggled with the interior, and its complexity distracts from the central motif of the composition, the pouring of wine. The fireplace does not join up convincingly with the beamed ceiling, and the original floor was painted over – infrared images indicate that the lines originally ran vertically. The boy with the wine cooler was placed as an afterthought in the lower left-hand corner,30 where he serves to obscure the awkward transitions in the architecture. As is almost always the case in Steen’s work, the perspective is not quite right in either picture, and neither can be said to have a vanishing point. This is not disturbing in the Hague painting, however, because the figures fill nearly the entire picture plane. The parrot on its perch was placed in front of the shadowy corner of the room, and Steen added the large earthenware jug and the dog where the sloping floor boards in the foreground threatened to become disconcerting. In other respects, too, the illusion of space in the Mauritshuis painting is an improvement over the Montpellier version. The slouching woman and the grandmother sit closer together in the large canvas, so that their skirts touch, and the awkwardly floating table leg could be omitted.31 The woman with the child in her lap is in the heart of the Hague composition, below the outstretched arm of the servant pouring wine, in the place where the earlier version has a child who secretly drinks from the spout of a pewter jug.32 In the Montpellier painting, only a bagpipe player and a man smoking a pipe are depicted behind the grandmother, whereas Steen added himself and two children to the Hague version. Here the boy being taught to smoke replaces the drinking child in the earlier version.
Steen’s oeuvre contains a number of compositions of which he made a variant, but it is not always possible to determine which version came first, as few paintings are dated.33 The assumption that an ambitious painter like Steen would have made continual improvements to his compositions enables us to hypothesise about the relative chronology of his oeuvre. Which of two variants of a composition was made first? In the case of the paintings in The Hague and Montpellier, the altered hat is a clear sign. The present painting is no easier to date than others in Steen’s oeuvre. The rapid style of painting is sometimes attributed to the influence that Frans Hals supposedly exerted on Steen during his time in Haarlem (1660–1670).34 It stands to reason that this work originated in that period, but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when.35 One clue is provided by the Turkish carpet on the table: Steen depicted the same carpet in several other paintings that certainly originated after 1660, including A Woman at her Toilet of 1663 in the British Royal Collection.36 That painting and ‘As the Old Sing’ in Montpellier both display a larger area of the same carpet, and it is draped over the corner of the table in the same way. In the Mauritshuis painting, the geometric decoration has been enlarged, proving yet again that Steen never made slavish repetitions of his own motifs. As suggested above, the present painting should be dated to the late 1660s, because the brown-and-white dog appears in the same position in a painting dated 1668 in Kassel, Twelfth Night.37 In that work the animal looks intently at an egg-dancing man playing the rommelpot, thus fulfilling a role in the composition, whereas the dog in the Hague version of ‘As the Old Sing’ looks at nothing in particular. Steen often borrowed motifs from his own work, some of which lost their original context in later applications. An infrared image shows that Steen changed the dog’s hindquarters several times in the Hague painting (see infrared image). Here, too, he cannot be said to have slavishly copied a motif.38
In fact, the large scale of the figures in the painting discussed here – especially the two eye-catching women in the foreground – is very rare in Steen’s oeuvre.39 The most plausible dating is the end of the 1660s, when Steen made several history paintings on a similarly monumental scale.
Jan Steen (Leiden 1626 - 1679 Leiden)
'As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young'
On view in
Material and technical details
162.5 x 133.7 cm
op het blad dat de oude vrouw vasthoudt: Liet / Soo voer gesongen soo / na gepepen dat is al lang / g[e]bleken ick sing u vo[or] / so[o] volcht ons na[er] / van een tot hon[derd] / jaar
Probably Cornelis Pieter, Baron van Leyden, Warmond, before 1790; his widow, Hermina Jacoba, Baroness van Leyden, born Countess de Thoms; her sale, Warmond, 31 July 1816 (Lugt 8948), no. 35 (for 1,260 guilders to C. Josi for Steengracht); jonkheer Johan Steengracht van Oostcapelle, The Hague, 1816-1846; acquired at a family auction by his second son, jonkheer Hendrik Steengracht van Oostcapelle, The Hague, 1846-1875; by inheritance to his nephew, Hendricus Adolphus Steengracht van Duivenvoorde, The Hague and Voorschoten, 1875-1912; his sale, Paris, 9 June 1913 (Lugt 72900), no. 70 (375,000 francs); acquired with the support of the Rembrandt Association, 1913