JAN STEEN’S HISTORIES at the Mauritshuis in The Hague

Jan Steen is famous for his paintings of naughty scenes and slightly dysfunctional families. Yet he was also an excellent portrait painter: take his Burgomaster of Delft portrait. The Mauritshuis is currently highlighting yet another side of Jan Steen – his history paintings.

In the museum’s exhibition wing, about twenty history paintings of the over seventy-five Steen created, illustrate this forgotten side of him. We know him as a jolly joker? He painted himself in this role in a few of the exhibited paintings. Yet Jan Steen was also well-read, ambitious, an excellent story-teller – and great painter of historical scenes.

Like Rembrandt, Steen took stories from the Bible, history, myths. Like Rembrandt, Steen used his subject matter to paint exotic costumes, rich silks, tapestries; even dromedaries. Yet, Steen treats his themes in his very own, unique way.

Take the two versions of The Marriage of Tobias and Sarah. One is from a private collection. The other one now belongs to the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in Braunschweig.

The carpets, bride’s gown, theatrical draperies are wonderful. But Steen also ensures, we first notice three folks on the left. They are hammering out the marriage contract. Then we notice the bride and groom, who practically hide Raphael.

Serious theme, serious stuff- until we notice the servant to the right of the couple. Just a leering servant ready to open a cask for Sarah’s umpteenth marriage? Or is this one of the naughty jokes Steen is famous for?

Another set shows The Wrath of Ahasuerus. The earlier version is now owned by the Cleveland Museum, while the other one belongs to the Barber Institute in Birmingham. Loaned to the Mauritshuis for this exhibition, they hang next each other.

Easy to spot, Steen mirrored the scene. But he also slightly changed the later version. With its broken Delftware, peacock pie sliding to the floor, everybody pulling away from an erupting Ahasuerus, this one is even more dramatic.

Very interesting is the Mauritshuis’ own history painting Moses and Pharaoh’s Crown. Near it hangs one of two remaining Steen sketches. Notice the odd white part in the Ashmolean sketch? Steen was not happy with his drawing of Pharaoh. He redrew him on a small piece of paper, pasted this onto the sketch, then used the sketch to create his masterwork.

Only twenty of Steen’s finest history paintings; yet so much drama, temptation, treachery – and the occasional joke. A lovely exhibition with many paintings full of details needing time to discover – before visiting Steen’s paintings in the other part of the museum.     Kate Den     13th February 2018

Jan Steen’s Histories opens on 15th February and continues until 13th May.

Jan Steen, Moses and Pharaoh’s Crown, c.1670, Reproduced and © Mauritshuis, The Hague

The exhibition was realised with help from other museums, brilliant staff and generous sponsors including Nationale-Nederlanden, Friends of the Mauritshuis Foundation, the Dutch BankGiro Lottery, a donation from the late Mr Gerard van Meurs, the Zabawas Foundation and the American Friends of the Mauritshuis.