Art and morality meet in Jan Steen's canvases Art review: He painted in the 1600s, but the first major American show of his works, at the National Gallery, reveals ideas as fresh as today.

April 28, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Going to the Jan Steen exhibit at the National Gallery is a bit surreal, but in a totally rewarding way. It's like party time, Sunday school and a museum visit all at once.

Add in that these paintings, created hundreds of years ago, are as up to the minute as yesterday's warning from the surgeon general, and it's not surprising if the mind reels. But what a stimulating reel it is.

Steen, one of the foremost of the 17th-century Dutch genre painters, is here given his due with the first major exhibit of his work in the United States -- 48 paintings covering his entire career.

Of them all, none provides a better example of Steen's art -- at once funny and sobering, informal in appearance but beautifully made -- than "As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young," (about 1663-1665). The largest of his genre paintings, executed when he was at the height of his powers, it sums up Steen at his best.

For starters, the picture announces the multiplicity of Steen's artistic intentions with what you notice at once: A lot is going on here.

Into an image a little more than 4 feet by 5 feet (large by Steen's standards but not by ours) the artist has fitted 10 people, a dog, a parrot, a still life on a table and various other objects, all packed into a shallow, stage-like space. And on this stage a morality play takes place.

Grouped around a central table in this domestic scene are three generations of a family having a high old time. The grandfather looks on amiably enough, while the grandmother points out on a piece of paper the proverb that gives the picture its title -- "As it is sung, thus it is piped."

Members of the next generation are really enjoying themselves. The father (Steen introduces his own image here, as he does frequently elsewhere), laughing raucously as if he's had a few, teaches one of his children (representations of the Steen children) to smoke. The mother (Steen's wife) lolls in her chair in an inebriated fashion, while a servant pours her another glass of wine. Another woman (probably a sister) holds a baby, who also will grow into this high-spirited family.

That's the party-time part.

The Sunday school part, the moral lesson, could not be clearer. Even without the title, it's obvious that the present parents are following the irresponsible example set by the grandparents and are passing it on to their children.

To underscore the point of the title, Steen has one of his children playing a bagpipe and the other smoking a pipe (" So Pipe the Young").

And he adds a parrot, "symbol of learning and imitation," as the show's catalog entry points out. In its rich red color and its placement at the upper left of the picture, the parrot serves as well as anything else to lead one to a consideration of Steen's ability as a painter.

The picture is a tour de force of colors, textures and life-like representation of everything from facial expressions to the coat of the dog in the foreground to the half-peeled lemon on the table.

The lemon is the centerpiece of a compositional plan that unifies the picture in two overlapping ways. There's an X composed of two diagonals, one running from the grandmother's arm to the parrot, the other from the mother's arm to the child's hat (red like the parrot). The lemon, with its spiraling peel at the picture's exact center, starts the composition's spiral outward in successive concentric circles until it ends with the parrot on its perch and the jug on the floor.

Drawing on reality

"As the Old Sing " and the 47 other paintings here, together with the excellent catalog, examine both Steen's life and his art.

A product of the extraordinary flowering of Dutch 17th-century art, Steen (1626-1679) was born toa brewer and became both a brewer and a tavern owner. But he also went to Latin School and briefly attended the university at Leiden. His art training is thought to have come at least in part from the painters Adriaen van Ostade and Jan van Goyen. He married the latter's daughter and pursued his commercial and artistic careers in The Hague, Delft, Haarlem and Leiden.

The exhibit covers his career from the somewhat awkward peopled landscapes and interior scenes of the early 1650s down to the late "The Garden Party" (1677), suffused with a softness of light and an air of nostalgia.

Although his pictures possess a natural spontaneity, he was a serious and erudite artist, knowledgeable about both contemporary and earlier art. Among many examples, he reworked elements of Raphael's famous Vatican fresco, "School of Athens," into paintings as serious as "The Wedding Feast at Cana" (about 1670 to 1672) and as boisterous as "A School for Boys and Girls" (about 1670).

In terms of subject matter, his "history" (mostly religious) paintings, without eschewing seriousness, possess a certain warmth and immediacy. A woman in the forefront of "The Wedding Feast at Cana" carries some of her dinner home in her napkin -- a 1670s doggy bag.

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