The curtain is lifted to give us a clear view of an inn, where young and old are enjoying eating, drinking, playing and flirting.
But for Jan Steen, it was not just about cheerful conviviality. His message is concealed in a small detail by the window. Up in the dark attic, a boy is blowing bubbles next to a skull. Although life is wonderful, eventually it will burst like a bubble.
A blue-grey cloth resembling a stage curtain is raised to allow us a glimpse of the busy tap room of an inn, where young and old alike seek diversion. The scene is brimming with small vignettes and anecdotal details: ‘full of figures and accessories’ (‘vol Beelden en Bywerk’), as it was described in the earliest known record of the painting in the 1733 sale catalogue of the collection of Adriaan Bout, the Elector Palatine’s councillor and agent in The Hague.1 This catalogue gave the painting the title it has had ever since: ‘’t Leven van den Mensch’ (The Life of Man), referring to the presence of people of all ages.2 That title was elaborated upon in Pieter Terwesten’s catalogue of the collection of Stadholder-Prince William V of 1770, in which it is listed as ‘A merry company of old and young, uncommonly full of details alluding to the ages of man’.3 Sadly, the blue passages in this work have become discoloured over time. Even so, the painting’s original, amusing scene and refined execution remain impressive.
The people in the inn eat, drink, smoke, make music and play trictrac. Various figures seem to be overindulging, such as the laughing man next to the window, who slumps back in his chair as he is offered a glass of beer by an old woman, and the fat man near the table at right. In the right background, an old woman wearing a pince-nez looks deeply into her beer mug as her companion smiles at her. She is a kannekijker, literally someone who ‘looks into the jug’ – in other words, an inveterate drinker. In the middle of the room, a young woman turns away from an importunate old man who offers her an oyster. The young woman, who wears a bright blue jacket trimmed with white fur, smiles as if to say that she is inclined to accept his advances.4 A hunchback tuning his fiddle seems to be delivering scornful commentary on this ill-matched couple. The man with an elegant moustache who plays the lute at the laid table at right seems to be more successful in courtship. His table partner gives him a sultry look and offers him an oyster, with her hand on her heart and apparently in the midst of a song. Spread out on the table in front of her is a beautiful still life, laid out on the white tablecloth protecting the Turkish Ushak carpet.5 The display includes a plate of oysters, citrus fruits, grapes, a glass of wine, a white earthenware jug, and a silver salt cellar in auricular style that contains salt to sprinkle on the oysters. Aphrodisiacal oysters are being prepared in large quantities by the personnel. Next to the fireplace at left, a man opens up the oysters with a knife. The barrel next to him is for the refuse, perhaps the objective of the begging dog at his feet. In the left foreground, a serving girl kneels on the floor, pouring liquid on the oysters, which are then heated up over glowing coals. Between them sits an old man with a crowing infant in his lap who reaches for the parrot on its perch above. This bird, known for its ability to imitate voices, may well refer to youngsters who are only too happy to copy their elders’ bad example (cf. inv. no. 742).
As usual in the work of Steen, various children scamper about the inn, not the ideal place for them from a pedagogical point of view. In the middle, a girl carries a lap dog in her blue apron. A little boy teaches a cat to dance on its hind legs while he beats time with a silver spoon. Perhaps the cat must dance to earn the morsel in the brandywine bowl on the floor. Steen often painted children teasing a cat (by making it dance, for example) (cf. inv. no. 169).6 This is a literal representation of youthful ‘mischief’ – expressed by the Dutch word kattekwaad, which means ‘cat harm’. Steen’s Haarlem predecessors, such as Dirck Hals, Judith Leyster and Jan Miense Molenaer, depicted the same theme.7 In contrast to the dog, the cat was known for its unchangeable nature and inability or unwillingness to learn. Judging from Steen’s composition, a parallel can be drawn with the obstinacy of human beings. Near the table at front right, a boy with a basket of bread rolls under his arm gazes at the scene. Small spectators of this kind, seen from the back, occur rather frequently in Jan Steen’s oeuvre, and serve to draw the viewer’s eye into the picture (cf. inv. no. 165). Various still-life elements in the painting are beautifully rendered, such as the X-frame chair in the foreground with a waffle iron leaning against it, and the earthenware pot of batter with a wooden spoon sticking out of it. These objects were apparently studio props, and Steen painted them repeatedly, just as he did with the carpet on the table.8 The egg shells on the floor, which appear in many of his inn scenes, are both a concrete reference to the waffle batter in the earthenware pot and perhaps a metaphorical reminder of the frailty of life.
One detail is not immediately obvious, but does provide unambiguous commentary on the scene and emphasises the fleeting nature of human existence. From his place in the loft, a boy with a skull next to him blows bubbles onto the unsuspecting guests below. The saying ‘homo bulla est’, or ‘man is like a soap bubble’, derives from classical antiquity. It was revived by Erasmus in the sixteenth century and generally portrayed as a bubbleblowing putto with a skull.9 The message is ‘beware, for tomorrow your life might burst like a bubble’. The motif occurs only sporadically in seventeenth-century painting, often with a dressed toddler instead of a naked putto in the principal role and usually without a skull.10 Steen painted numerous bubble-blowing children, not as the main theme of his composition, as painters like Frans van Mieris the Elder did (cf. inv. no. 106), but as a fairly inconspicuous motif.11 This, however, is the only time that he combined the child with a skull, thereby making the moralising message explicit. The object appears frequently in still-life painting and portraiture as an allusion to mortality, but it was less common as a motif in genre painting. After all, a skull destroys the illusion of reality that is so important in the everyday scenes typical of genre painting. This may be why Steen’s boy blowing bubbles and the skull next to him are hidden to some extent. It is also possible that the boy’s position, above the heads of the others present, is itself an allusion to death, which is hanging above all of us.12 The gallows in the painting on the rear wall may well be another reference to mortality, as is the ticking clock marking the passing of time.
The raised cloth or curtain confirms that this is not just any inn scene, but one that represents ‘the world stage’ on which human life unfolds. The comparison of life with a theatrical performance stems from antiquity and was a common metaphor in the seventeenth century. This is apparent from the couplet written by the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel to grace the entrance to the Amsterdam playhouse: ‘The whole world is a stage; each man plays his part and gets his wage’.13 Steen’s realistic rendering of the curtain’s fabric includes the creases in the gleaming satin. Just as the Turkish carpet on the table looks rather old and worn, Steen depicted a few loose threads hanging from the tip of the cloth at the left. Such a detail heightens the trompe-l’oeil effect of the motif, making it seem like a real cloth being raised to unveil the scene. In addition to ‘the world stage’, however, the curtain can also refer to an anecdote from antiquity about the Greek painter Parrhasios, whose painted curtain was so lifelike that his fellow painter Zeuxis asked him to push it aside so that he could admire his painting. Steen’s lifelike cloth could also be the same kind of protective curtain, briefly raised to unveil the painting. In Steen’s ‘As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young’ in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, the pulled-back curtain hangs from a rod, in contrast to the composition discussed here, where the cloth has been rather carelessly tossed over a holder of some kind that is hidden from view by the cloth itself. The middle of the cloth is raised even higher than the rest so that we can see the boy blowing bubbles in the loft. In his history paintings in particular, Steen frequently depicted above his figures curtain-like draperies intended to lend the scene a theatrical character.14 A cloth or curtain like this one, so detached from the scene and so clearly intended as a trompe-l’oeil element, is rare in Steen’s oeuvre.15
An infrared image shows that Steen altered numerous details during the painting process. Before the painting took on its final form, he made the raised cloth hang down somewhat lower on the left, modified the X-frame chair, and moved the serving girl’s slippers more to the left. Thematically, it is notable that Steen initially depicted stairs or a ladder going up to the loft at back right, next to the doorway (see infrared photograph). In the end he removed it, perhaps to avoid focusing too much attention on the loft, where the boy blowing bubbles is ensconced. Another element in the picture was also altered, but by someone other than Steen. The hunchback tuning his fiddle behind the ill-matched couple in the middle was overpainted at some point, but reappeared during the restoration carried out in 1957. In any event, this figure was painted out before 1829, when a line engraving of the composition without the fiddler appeared in the collection catalogue of the Mauritshuis. This hunchback is also missing from a drawn copy by Reinier Craeyvanger.16
As observed elsewhere, the chronology of Steen’s oeuvre is not established. The Life of Man is generally situated in the middle of his Haarlem period (1660–1670), a dating based on Adriaen van Ostade’s renewed influence on Steen’s work.17 In the 1640s, the painter had probably been apprenticed in Haarlem to Van Ostade, whose influence on his early work is unmistakable.18 Twenty years later his former teacher was still active in Haarlem, and Steen seems to have studied his work once again, particularly his later, more polished and colourful figure paintings (cf. inv. no. 129). It is not difficult to discern the influence of Van Ostade’s inn scenes from the period 1650–1660 in The Life of Man. It is similar to Van Ostade’s depictions of large interiors with vignettes of closely observed figures.19 In contrast to Van Ostade’s rustic inns, however, Steen’s establishment makes a rather elegant impression with its marble-tiled floor, the gilt frame of the painting on the rear wall, the brass bird cage hanging by the window, and the costly still life on the table. A foothold for dating this work is perhaps Steen’s choice of motifs, based on the assumption that he only used some compositional elements after a certain date and that some of his studio requisites came into his possession at a certain time. For example, the earliest dated painting with the same kind of floor, consisting of white and red-brown marble tiles, stems from 1663; the Turkish carpet is depicted in another painting, also dated 1663; the earthenware pot with spoon appears in a work dated 1662; the frequently depicted X-frame chair first crops up in a painting made in 1660.20 Even so, the scarcity of dated paintings makes it impossible to be certain if this is a valid theory.
At the sale of the Benjamin da Costa collection, held in The Hague on 13 August 1764, the 16-year-old stadholder, Prince William V, paid the substantial sum of 1,745 guilders for this work by Jan Steen. This was much more than the 160 and 460 guilders he had paid the previous year for his first two paintings by the artist (inv. nos. 165 and 168). The 1770 catalogue of the collection of Prince William V, compiled by Pieter Terwesten, describes The Life of Man in glowing terms as ‘first-rate, very fine in composition, and powerfully painted in great detail.’ The prince eventually succeeded in acquiring six paintings by Jan Steen.21
Jan Steen (Leiden 1626 - 1679 Leiden)
The Life of Man
68.5 x 81.6 cm
at right, on a column: JSteen JS in ligature
Adriaan Bout, The Hague; his sale, The Hague, 11 August 1733 (Lugt 427), no. 134 (515 guilders); Benjamin da Costa, The Hague; his sale, The Hague, 13 August 1764 (Lugt 1400), no. 62 (for 1,745 guilders to Tethart Philipp Christian Haag for Prince William V); Prince William V, The Hague, 1768-1795; 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