Jan Steen portrayed the proverb ‘A pig belongs in the sty’ in this peasant scene.1 Rarely did he depict a protagonist’s loss of decorum so mercilessly. The focus of attention is a woman stumbling about in a drunken stupor with her bare breasts hanging out of her torn, half-open clothing. She looks down, dazed, her tongue hanging out of her mouth, while holding a pewter tankard in her right hand and vomiting on the hand of the woman who supports her. Assisted by a couple of drunkards who roar with laughter, she is about to stagger down several steps in the direction of the sty at right, where a pig looks up at her with interest. She is about to be locked up there for her shameful behaviour. A boy stands next to the sty holding a large, red earthenware pot, perhaps full of water to throw on her. The woman is mocked by a laughing fiddle player with a sagging blue stocking, open trousers, and a fur cap with a Gouda pipe perched crookedly on his head, as well as by a crowd of people, young and old alike, all whooping with glee. Another intoxicated character slumps against the tree behind the fiddler. These grinning rustics all look equally ridiculous, except perhaps the boy in the foreground. This figure, seen obliquely from the back, is somewhat detached from the others and serves to lead the viewer’s eye into the picture. In the left background, a stray pig laps up the vomit of an unconscious drunkard, while his companion attempts to shoo the animal away with a stick. Numerous proverbs and sayings show the pig in an unfavourable light as the embodiment of drunkenness and dissipation – obviously these inebriated peasants are not a whit better.2
Steen situated his satirical scene outside an inn, recognisable as such by the sign and the overgrown pergola supported by the tree, which extends across the entire width of the picture. As though this were a play put on by rhetoricians, three figures provide commentary to the scene of wanton excess from their place inside the window at right.3 This detail is closely related to various compositions by Steen in which rhetoricians, whom he was fond of deriding for their notorious drunkenness, are depicted reciting occasional poetry from an open window.4 Such scenes invariably include a ‘declamator’ reading a text from a sheet of paper. These three men are caricatures, like all the other adults in this picture. The wicker broom-head hanging from the sign might refer to the old Dutch proverb ‘de bezem uitsteken’ (literally ‘to stick out the broom’), which is comparable to the present-day Dutch saying ‘de bloemetjes buiten zetten’ (literally ‘to put the flowers outside’, meaning ‘to live it up’).5 A wicker broom-head also lies at the feet of the drunken woman.
This scene, which lacks an explanatory inscription, was not recognised at first as a visualisation of the now-obsolete proverb, perhaps because Steen only portrayed this subject once. Pieter Bruegel the Elder was the first to portray the proverb, to which various meanings are attributed, in a tondo of 1557.6 Several prints and painted copies were made after this small panel, including a well-known engraving by Johannes Wierix of 1568, which Steen must have known.7 It depicts a host of figures pushing a peasant into a pig sty. Steen’s pig, chewing peelings over a trough in front of its thatch-roofed sty, seems to be a literal quotation. The inscription on a rare first state of this engraving points to a meaning that is somewhat different from the one intended by Steen. It refers to the vicissitudes of fortune: you too might one day share the fate of the poor wretch who must go in the pig sty.8 Steen’s interpretation is more in keeping with the inscription on a seventeenth-century copy after this print, published by Claes Jansz Visscher under the title ‘t’Varcken moet in t’schot’ (The Pig Must Go in the Sty), in which the protagonist is called a ‘drunken swine’ (‘dronken zwijn’): ‘Those who squander all their goods / Like drunken swine in Venus’ den / After dreadful torment, should / Go to the pig sty in the end’.9 In Steen’s painting, however, the wastrel is not a man but a woman. Jacob Cats’s illustrated book of proverbs Spiegel van den Ouden ende Nieuwen Tijdt (Mirror of Old and New Times) of 1632 contains a variation of the proverb – ‘If everyone says I’m a pig, I must go in the sty’ (‘Als yder seyt ick ben een vercken, soo moet ick in ’t kot’) – with yet another meaning, which seems to have been the most common one in those days: it is impossible to rid oneself of a bad reputation.10 Cats makes no mention of drunkenness, but clearly nothing can tarnish one’s name as much as alcohol abuse.
Steen lavished particular attention on some passages of the painting, such as the boy holding the pot. His eyes are concealed by his hat, the brim of which is held up by a small pin. His shirt is made of the same blue-and-white striped fabric that Steen normally uses for bed linen. Apparently this striking detail was a later addition, for the sleeve, which is ripped at the shoulder, was originally red, as can be seen with the microscope in small lacunae in the paint surface.11 Various still-life details in the foreground (tree trunk, beer barrel, broom-head, pipe) were also painstakingly executed, as was the drunken woman’s pewter tankard, the gleaming surface of which is suggested by small highlights. This thematically relevant attribute also appears to have been a later addition to an already finished paint surface, as shown by infrared images.
As usual, Steen alternated precisely painted passages with considerably sketchier areas. The figures in the background, for example, are cursorily executed, which makes them seem more distant. The infrared image shows that Steen first painted a little dog, with its snout raised and its front legs flat on the ground and barking at the drunken woman in the place where the beer barrel now stands (see infrared image). The yapping dog is a motif that Steen used more often, with small variations, as seen in ‘Wine is a Mocker’. The beer barrel that replaced the dog demarcates a path to the pig sty. Some changes were also made to the figure of the boy. His feet were originally placed lower, which made him considerably taller (see infrared image). His hat and clothing, as well as the pot he holds, were all adjusted slightly, as so often in Steen’s paintings.
From the 1650s onwards, Steen situated most of his comic scenes in the higher social circles, but in several late paintings he returned to the peasant milieu of his earliest works.12 ‘A Pig Belongs in the Sty’ is generally dated to the 1670s, the last decade of Steen’s life, when he was again living in his native town of Leiden.13 The undated painting can be compared to such works as the Brawling Card Players of 1671, a similar picture of base peasant folk drunkenly misbehaving beneath an overgrown pergola outside an inn.14 Both the composition and the facial types are related. An example is the man holding a tankard at left, whose face strongly resembles that of the drunken man grasping a grape vine in the painting discussed here. An equally Bruegelian depiction of 1673, Peasants Brawling Outside an Inn, portrays the wantonness and lust awakened in debauched peasants by excessive drinking.15 This work is also related in terms of composition, palette and figure types to the Mauritshuis painting, which is datable to around 1673–1675.
Director Abraham Bredius (1855–1946) called this painting a ‘most charming Steen’ (‘alleraardigste Steen’), and bequeathed it to the Mauritshuis in 1946, together with two of the master’s early works.16 Yet for a long time Bredius seems to have been one of the few who could see beyond the exceptional crudeness of the depiction and appreciate its high quality.17 In fact, the piece was not even selected for the large Steen exhibition held at the Mauritshuis in 1958–1959. Only since conservation treatment undertaken in 2009–2010 has it been possible to admire this beautifully preserved painting in the museum’s permanent display.