Mauritshuis exhibition reveals an unfamiliar side of Jan Steen

January 30, 2018

 Jan Steen, Moses and Pharaoh’s Crown, c.1670, Canvas, 78 x 79 cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague

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 February 15 until May 13, 2018, the Mauritshuis will show – by means of 21 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.

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 been no 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.