Jan Steen: ‘As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young’
Title: ‘The way you hear it, is the way you sing it’
Genre: genre art
Date: circa 1665
Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: Height: 134 cm (52.7 in); Width: 163 cm (64.1 in)
About this painting:
Jan Steen’s work The Way you Hear it is the Way you Sing It depicts a Dutch Proverb, As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young. It shows us a family carousing and overindulging in rich foods. Luxurious fabrics, a foot warmer, and rare birds show off this family’s wealth, which they are spending lavishly as fast as they can.
A young piper, who closely resembles a young Jan Steen (possibly one of his sons?), entertains them. He looks directly at us as if to ask what he’s gotten himself into.
Mother and Father, dressed as the King and Queen, are sumptuously attired, being served wine in an overlarge crystal goblet by the family’s servant. Both are indifferent to the chaos, too sated and drunk to care.
To the right of Father (his left, our right), a younger woman, perhaps an unmarried sister or eldest daughter, is holding the baby but has nodded off, having indulged too freely.
The wasting of money on so much luxury that one can’t consume it all is clearly represented here. Mother raises her glass high to have it refilled, as if it is the most important thing–indeed, the wine cascading down into the crystal goblet is the focal point of the picture.
A bottle of clear liquor (distilled?) and a beaker of ale are set on the windowsill behind Father, and a covered pitcher stands on the floor beside Mother. The table is laden with grapes and oysters, expensive luxuries.
Grandmother is singing from sheet music, leading the song that the family sings. This is the direct allegory for the proverb, as the old sing, so twitter the young.
A youngish man, either the eldest son or the Drunk Uncle (every family has one), finds it hilarious to teach the children to smoke.
Neither the dog nor the piper is impressed with the carrying on, and the servant has no comment, merely serving the wine as required.
In essence, Steen tells us that children learn what they live, so if you want sober, morally upstanding children, you must be a sober, morally upright parent.
About the Artist, via Wikipedia:
Jan Havickszoon Steen (c. 1626 – buried 3 February 1679) was a Dutch Golden Age painter, one of the leading genre painters of the 17th century. His works are known for their psychological insight, sense of humour and abundance of colour.
In 1648 Jan Steen and Gabriël Metsu founded the painters’ Guild of Saint Luke at Leiden. Soon after he became an assistant to the renowned landscape painter Jan van Goyen (1596–1656), and moved into his house on the Bierkade in The Hague. On Oct 3, 1649 he married van Goyen’s daughter Margriet, with whom he would have eight children. Steen worked with his father-in-law until 1654, when he moved to Delft, where he ran the brewery De Slang (“The Snake”) for three years without much success. After the explosion in Delft in 1654 the art market was depressed, but Steen painted A Burgomaster of Delft and his daughter. It does not seem to be clear if this painting should be called a portrait or a genre work.
Steen lived in Warmond, just north of Leiden, from 1656 till 1660 and in Haarlem from 1660 till 1670 and in both periods he was especially productive. In 1670, after the death of his wife in 1669 and his father in 1670, Steen moved back to Leiden, where he stayed the rest of his life. When the art market collapsed in 1672, called the Year of Disaster, Steen opened a tavern. In April 1673 he married Maria van Egmont, who gave him another child. In 1674 he became president of the Saint Lucas Guild. Frans van Mieris (1635- 1681) became one of his drinking companions. He died in Leiden in 1679 and was interred in a family grave in the Pieterskerk.
Daily life was Jan Steen’s main pictorial theme. Many of the genre scenes he portrayed, as in The Feast of Saint Nicholas, are lively to the point of chaos and lustfulness, even so much that “a Jan Steen household”, meaning a messy scene, became a Dutch proverb (een huishouden van Jan Steen). Subtle hints in his paintings seem to suggest that Steen meant to warn the viewer rather than invite him to copy this behaviour. Many of Steen’s paintings bear references to old Dutch proverbs or literature. He often used members of his family as models, and painted quite a few self-portraits in which he showed no tendency of vanity.
Steen did not shy from other themes: he painted historical, mythological and religious scenes, portraits, still lifes and natural scenes. His portraits of children are famous. He is also well known for his mastery of light and attention to detail, most notably in Persian rugs and other textiles.
Steen was prolific, producing about 800 paintings, of which roughly 350 survive. His work was valued much by contemporaries and as a result he was reasonably well paid for his work. He did not have many students—only Richard Brakenburgh is recorded—but his work proved a source of inspiration for many painters.
Credits and Attributions:
The Way you Hear it is the Way you Sing It, Jan Steen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:The way you hear it.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:The_way_you_hear_it.jpg&oldid=428340634 (accessed January 8, 2021).
Wikipedia contributors, “Jan Steen,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jan_Steen&oldid=994869815 (accessed January 8, 2021).