Jan Steen

Girl Eating Oysters

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Jan Steen
Girl Eating Oysters

c. 1658-1660 On view in Room 14

Jan Steen’s paintings often have a touch of eroticism. Here, a young woman is looking at us coquettishly while preparing an oyster. Oysters were known as an aphrodisiac, and this girl seems to be offering more than just good food.

This small painting is meant to be studied close up. So Steen painted it very precisely and in great detail. Take the silver tray with bread and salt, for example. Or the fashionable jacket with fur and velvet – you can almost stroke it.

Technical details
818 voorzijde

Jan Steen
Girl Eating Oysters

c. 1658-1660 On view in Room 14


Jan Steen painted a wide range of subjects, but he also had distinct preferences, one of which was young women. A splendid example is Girl Eating Oysters, the smallest painting in his oeuvre.1 The girl looks at us sweetly as she delicately sprinkles salt on an oyster, which she offers to the viewer with a smile. She wears a red velvet jacket trimmed with white fur over a blouse edged with bobbin lace. Similar jackets, which were originally worn only at home, often appear in works by Steen and his fellow painters in the second half of the seventeenth century.2 This comfortable article of women’s clothing heightens the intimate atmosphere of a scene by creating the illusion that the viewer is being granted a glimpse of a private, domestic world; it also provided painters with an opportunity to demonstrate their skill in rendering materials. The girl wears a light blue hair band with an intricately tied ribbon. Her hair is tied tightly at the back, but a few playful curls fall on her blushing face. A superbly painted still life on the table before her features several opened oysters, a silver tray with a small packet of pepper, a bit of salt, a half-eaten bread roll and a knife, a glass of white wine and a Delftware jug.3 A man cuts open more oysters under the watchful eye of a woman in the kitchen in the background, where a small landscape painting hangs on the wall and a fire burns in the tiled hearth.

Oysters have always been regarded as an aphrodisiac.4 The physician Johan van Beverwijck described this delicacy in his popular medical handbook of 1651 as ‘the most delicate’ of all shellfish and crustaceans.5 Jacob Cats, in his book Houwelick (Marriage), warned against the use of ‘love potions’, including ‘salty oyster juice’.6 The girl is, therefore, offering not just an oyster, but herself as well. The salt she sprinkles so lavishly is also considered an aphrodisiac, because it ‘awakens the man’s loins’ and ‘through its warmth and sharpness kindles the desire for intercourse’, in the words of Van Beverwijck.7 Oysters are salty in themselves, but the young woman makes both the tasty morsel and the unambiguous message even more spicy. The curtained bed in the background confirms the amorous nature of the scene; besides the table and chair, it is the only other piece in this sparsely furnished front room. Even though the functions of the rooms in a house were not so strictly divided in the seventeenth century as they are today, and the depiction of a bed in a living room did not necessarily suggest anything untoward, the presence of a bed in Steen’s paintings almost always carries a double meaning.8

Steen frequently scattered oyster shells on the floor or table in his scenes of dissolute figures (cf. Mauritshuis inv. no. 742), but oysters are rarely cast in the main role, as they are in this work. Another example is Steen’s Interior with a Man Offering an Oyster to a Woman (London, National Gallery), in which the erotic meaning is even more explicit: in the foreground, a man offers a lady one of the oysters being prepared by a maidservant and her helper, while a couple in the background are about to climb into a curtained bed.9 A painting by Steen of 1660 (formerly Earl of Lonsdale collection) and a somewhat altered second version of 1661 (Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen) both show an old procuress preparing oysters intended for a laughing man seated at the table (Jan Steen himself), who takes salt from a large silver salt cellar and receives a glass of wine from a young woman.10 In the Rotterdam variant, in which the saying ‘Soo gewonne, soo verteert’ (‘Easy come, easy go’) is inscribed on the mantelpiece, he squanders the winnings of a game of tric-trac, which is being played in a room in the background. To underscore the message, a statue of Dame Fortune – resting one foot on a die and holding a wind vane in her hands – stands on the richly decorated chimneypiece. In the version of 1660, the reference to love is made somewhat more explicit by depicting an amorous couple strolling in the back room. The Life of Man in the Mauritshuis (inv. no. 170) affords us a glimpse behind a raised curtain of the crowded tap room of an inn, where oysters feature prominently. Here, too, offering an opened oyster is a frankly amorous gesture. Oysters, drink and love also mingle in the painting discussed here.

This masterpiece by Steen equals the best work of the Leiden ‘fine painters’ Gerrit Dou and his pupil Frans van Mieris the Elder.11 The fabrics and materials are almost tangibly lifelike, such as the soft velvet and fluffy fur of the jacket, the fine lace, the colourful hair ribbon, the reflections in the gleaming silver, the dull glow on the earthenware jug, the moist oysters, the freshness of the girl’s skin, even the minuscule crack in the bone handle of the knife. Steen executed every detail in the foreground painstakingly with the thinnest of brushes, in places using the tip of his paintbrush to combine several colours quickly, wet in wet, without actually blending them.12 This enabled him to create the illusion of shot fabric, as seen in the girl’s blue-pink skirt. Characteristic of Steen’s manner of working is the sketchy depiction of background figures in rather opaque paint. In this way he steers the viewer’s eye, which tends to search for the most detailed passages, as it roams within his composition.13

Several aspects of this painting are exceptional in Steen’s oeuvre. The small format of the panel, its rounded upper edge, and the concentration on a single figure, as well as the finely painted execution, may well have been prompted by his association with the Leiden ‘fine painters’.14 For example, the compositional device of the protagonist depicted half-length, seated at a table that is cut off at the edge of the picture, was often employed by Van Mieris, but rarely by Steen.15 These elements correspond closely to those in Van Mieris’s Doctor’s Visit of 1657 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum).16 It is also likely that Steen borrowed the view to another room in the background from Van Mieris.

Steen drew inspiration from the technique of the Leiden ‘fine painters’ as well as from their subjects. Among the most direct predecessors of Girl Eating Oysters are Dou’s portrayals of a girl standing in an arched window or niche and looking out at the viewer, such as his Girl with a Basket of Fruit at a Window (The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor, The James A. de Rothschild Collection). The laughing girl leaning out the window offers the viewer not just the fruit in her wicker basket, but herself as well.17 Steen incorporated the shape of Dou’s window niche in the rounded top of his panel, but omitted the painted architectural frame, thereby enhancing the girl’s seductive directness. Yet Steen kept the message subtle by depicting her with a chastely covered bosom and a smile that is not too effusive. The girl – with her high forehead, slightly protruding lower lip and round chin – occurs repeatedly in Steen’s paintings (cf. Mauritshuis inv. no. 779).18 She always holds her head at the same angle and establishes contact by looking directly at the viewer. The painter probably had a stock of examples from which he could draw, though he never lapsed into unimaginative repetition.19

All in all, it is likely that Steen painted this undated work – undoubtedly the most ‘Leiden-like’ of his career – at the end of the 1650s. He was then living in Warmond, near Leiden, where he paid his dues to the Guild of St Luke in April 1658.20 In the years around 1660, Steen painted a series of music lessons, oyster meals and doctor’s visits, as did Van Mieris, who was his junior by nine years. According to the artists’ biographer Arnold Houbraken, the two masters were good friends and seem to have engaged in a form of artistic rivalry. Van Mieris apparently loved Steen’s buffoonery (‘boerteryen’),21 and Steen drew inspiration from Van Mieris’s extremely refined technique. In fact, Girl Eating Oysters may well have been an attempt on Steen’s part to surpass Van Mieris’s sublime rendering of materials. In turn, Van Mieris may have been responding to Jan Steen in his Oyster Meal of 1661 in the Mauritshuis (inv. no. 819). Not only is it similar in composition and style, but Van Mieris added a ‘Steen joke’ by portraying himself as the laughing gentleman offering oysters to a young woman (his wife) against the backdrop of an imposing curtained bed. The scarcity of dated works by Steen makes it difficult to determine which of these works was painted first, and who was reacting to whom.22

Jan Steen and his fellow Leiden painters undoubtedly painted their intimate scenes for a clientele who had a high regard for ‘fine painting’, full of allusions to love. The intimacy of the scene, the format and the refined style of painting make this small panel a precious gem that encourages close scrutiny.


General information
Jan Steen (Leiden 1626 - 1679 Leiden)
Girl Eating Oysters
c. 1658-1660
Room 14
Material and technical details
15.1 x 20.4 cm
linksboven, boven de deur: IS


Pieter Locquet sale, Amsterdam, 22 September 1783 (Lugt 3611), no. 349 (for 501 guilders to Van Winter); Pieter van Winter, Amsterdam; his daughter, Lucretia Johanna van Winter, 1822; through her marriage to Hendrik Six van Hillegom (not in his sale, Amsterdam, 25 November 1851), to Jan Pieter and Pieter Hendrik Six van Vromade, until 1899/1905; Jan Pieter’s son, Prof. Jan Six, until 1926; sale 16 October 1928, no. 45 (for 190,000 guilders to Beets for Deterding); gift of Sir Henri W.A. Deterding, 1936