Jan Steen’s Histories

In the exhibition Jan Steen’s Histories, the Mauritshuis will exhibit a selection of Jan Steen’s finest history paintings. This seventeenth-century Dutch artist is best known as a painter of chaotic and disorderly scenes of everyday life, which gave rise to the popular Dutch proverb ‘a Jan Steen household’. But he also painted very different subjects: stories from the Bible, classical mythology and antiquity. From 15 February until 13 May 2018, the Mauritshuis will show – by means of twenty-one paintings – that Steen was a versatile and ambitious artist with a keen eye for amusing stories and anecdotes.

Neglected oeuvre

The exhibition Jan Steen’s Histories looks at the little-known part of Jan Steen’s oeuvre: the history paintings. Until the mid-eighteenth century, these paintings were among Steen’s most expensive works. But as time went on, their value diminished, presumably because their humorous character became increasingly unfashionable. It would be no exaggeration to say that the history paintings form a misunderstood part of Steen’s oeuvre to this day.

Steen depicted a broad range of subjects taken from the Bible, apocryphal writings and classical mythology, which he depicted in a highly original way. Stories taken from these sources were known as ‘histories’ in Steen’s day. Some seventy-five history paintings by Steen survive today, representing around a sixth of his oeuvre.

They are tales full of torment, treachery and temptation, all expressed by Jan Steen in his own playful way. In his history paintings – just as in his genre pieces – Steen pays particular attention to the interaction between the figures and pokes fun through the behaviour of his main characters.

Tentoonstellingen Jan Steen Vertelt
Jan Steen, Moses and Pharaoh’s Crown, c.1670, Mauritshuis, The Hague

Mauritshuis and Jan Steen

The Mauritshuis often works on Jan Steen, who is considered one of the leading painters of the Dutch Golden Age (alongside Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals). The museum owns fifteen of his paintings. In 2011 the museum expanded its sizeable collection of Steens with its first history painting: Moses and Pharaoh’s Crown. The fact that there hasn’t been a history piece in the collection before this time demonstrates that this part of Steen’s oeuvre had been undervalued for many years. This acquisition now provides the impetus for this exhibition that will shine a light on Jan Steen’s versatility as an artist.

The initial results of the technical examination of Jan Steen’s work – undertaken over the last few years by the Mauritshuis together with Shell as Partners in Science – will appear in the exhibition. Mauritshuis conservators and experts from Shell have been investigating the pigments used by Steen in Shell’s research laboratory. The aim of the research is to gain a better understanding of Steen’s painting technique and the chronological development of his work.

With thanks to

The exhibition Jan Steen’s Histories is realised in part due to the generous support of Nationale-Nederlanden, part of NN Group, as well as the Friends of the Mauritshuis Foundation, the BankGiro Lottery, a donation from the late Mr Gerard van Meurs, the Zabawas Foundation and the American Friends of the Mauritshuis.


The Mauritshuis and Waanders Publishers have produced a richly illustrated catalogue (in Dutch and English) to accompany the exhibition Jan Steen’s Histories, available in the museum shop and all good bookshops. The catalogue is written by Ariane van Suchtelen (Mauritshuis Curator) with contributions from Wouter Kloek, Mariët Westermann, Yvonne Bleyerveld, Lea van der Vinde and Rosalie van Gulick. Jan Steen’s Histories; € 27,50 (ISBN: 978 94 6262 1664 NUR 644).