Jan Steen didn’t seem to understand that people will not be able to unsee some of the ways in which he portrays himself. I’ll bet that bit him in the ass socially.
The cheeky art critic column
By Owen Hebbert, Contributor
If you ever want to feel better about how messy your home is, spend some time perusing the catalogue of iconic Dutch artist Jan Steen. He makes domestic mismanagement the cautionary subject of many of his paintings. Many commentaries have suggested that the name Jan Steen is a household Byward in the Netherlands, used to denote a messy or disorganized home. I asked a Dutch friend of mine if he was familiar with this and he was not. Bullshit is everywhere–everywhere you look, lo, there is the shit of bulls.
In this painting, dating from the early ‘60s—the 1660s, so like the 1960s, but completely different—Steen can be seen sitting in the centre of the room, filling the role of the delinquent man of this chaotic house. This isn’t the only time Steen saw fit to put himself in one of his paintings. It seems that he had quite a self-deprecating sense of humour, as he almost always portrays himself as ugly and disreputable.
As we examine this work, we’re supposed to understand that this family is not everything it ought to be. Note the presence of drunkenness, tobacco, disorderly children, infidelity (man of the house flirting with the maid). Steen didn’t seem to understand that people will not be able to unsee some of the ways in which he portrays himself. I’ll bet that bit him in the ass socially.
The woman resting her feet on a book is meant to show irreligiosity. It’s generally assumed that this is the Bible; it’s not marked, which means it could theoretically be anything I suppose. Maybe this is actually showing us how the household disrespected Stephen King. Neglect of nobler pastimes (disused lute and backgammon board) and disregard for the poor (unwelcomed beggar at door). Also, they have a cat in the house, which is just perverse.
If you’re looking at this painting and you’re thinking “Have I seen another Jan Steen very much like this?” then you’re a nerd and nobody likes spending time with you, not even your mother. You’re also probably right. There’s another painting, called Beware of Luxury In English. Presently displayed in Austria as something completely different. (Why do we do this? Do you know how many paintings you know by one title that aren’t called that in other languages?) That was painted in the same year as this that contains an almost identical message of warning for the dissipated. Most notably, it has the same basket of goodies hanging over the proceedings. That basket, a gesture of heavy-handed symbolism, preaches a veritable sermon of consequences upon those whose lives are filthy with loose and undisciplined living.
In both The Dissolute Household and Beware of Luxury (and many other Jan Steens) there is prominently displayed a half-peeled lemon. What the hell that means, I’ve no idea. Perhaps I should leave half-peeled lemons out in front of Dutch people and see if their reactions are in any way enlightening.