Jan Havickszoon Steen – One of the Greatest Artists of the Dutch Golden Age

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Jan Havickszoon Steen (born ca. 1626, died early 1679), was a 17th century Dutch genre painter who is considered to be among the greatest artists of the Dutch Golden Age. His use of vivid colors, his sense of humor and his ability to capture facial expressions contributed greatly to his popularity. His greatest talent was his exquisite portrayals of children, which remain unsurpassed.

The exact date of Jan Steen’s birth is unknown, but he is thought to have been born in 1626 in Leiden, home to several other Dutch masters, notably Rembrandt. His parents were prosperous Catholic brewers and, like Rembrandt, the young Jan was educated at the Leiden Latin School. He received his first art lessons in Utrecht from German historical painter Nicolaus Knupfer, who influenced Steen’s use of composition and color, and it is thought that he may also have been apprenticed to Adriaen van Ostade in Haarlem. At the age of 22, Steen studied briefly at the University of Leiden and in 1648 he joined the Sint Lucas Guild of master painters in Leiden.

In 1648 Jan Steen moved to The Hague where he studied under successful landscape painter Jan van Goyen and in 1649 he married Van Goyen’s daughter, Margriet. The couple had eight children and Margriet posed for several of Jan’s paintings. They lived in Warmond, near Leiden. Jan Steen and his father-in-law worked together for five years until Van Goyen faced financial ruin through poor speculation. Steen’s father came to the rescue, setting Jan and his young family up in a brewery business in Delft in 1654, but the business did not succeed and in 1660 the family moved to Haarlem.

Jan Steen remained in Haarlem for ten years, period in which he painted his best pictures. Most of his works are genre paintings, many of which are set in taverns, but he also broached portraits, biblical and mythological themes, and still-lives. He excelled at painting children. But in 1669 tragedy struck: Margriet died and Steen was in debt. The following year the town apothecary seized all his paintings and auctioned them to cover the medical bills. The following year, Steen’s father died. After these misfortunes, Steen moved back to Leiden where he remained for the rest of his life. He opened a tavern in 1672 and remarried in 1673. His new wife was Maria van Egmont, a widow with whom he had two children.

Steen continued to paint while running the tavern. He was a congenial host and his new wife brought him financial stability. In 1674 Jan Steen became the president of the Saint Lucas Guild. His jovial works were greatly appreciated and he was able to command good prices. Steen did not have any students, but his work was a source of inspiration to his contemporaries. His paintings were lighthearted and humorous, often with a moral message in the tradition of Dutch genre painters. Much emphasis was placed on facial expressions, body language and poses. Sometimes Steen included himself and other family members in his works. Jan Steen was always experimenting and in his final years his style became more flamboyant and foreshadowed the Rococo style of the 18th century.

Steen was a very productive artist, producing some 800 works during his short career, yet despite this he never managed to earn a living by painting alone. Upon his death in 1679 at the age of fifty-three he left his widow with heavy debts. He was buried in a family grave in the Pieterskerk in Leiden.

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