Here it is one of those scenes in which the Dutch painting has always exercised itself with happiness. In it we find all the qualities of this art, so charming in its vulgarity, at once jovial and precise, which treats with the same meticulous precision the religious episodes and the disheveled kermesses, with the same realism of the bloodless face of the dead Christ and the illuminated trogons of the drinkers.
The scene represented here probably takes place in some of Leyden’s taverns, perhaps even in the own house of van Steen, who was at the same time a painter, a tavern-keeper of his state and a hardened drunkard. In the disorder consecutive to debauchery, we see in it a kind of well-to-do peasant, with his head heavy with wine, his eyes heavy with drunkenness, who makes an effort to collect his pipe that has fallen to the ground. One can guess that the slightest false movement will cause him to lose all balance and that he will fall from his chair, drunk-dead, on the ground. Beside him, in a high-backed seat, a beautiful and sturdy young woman – no doubt her orgy partner – sketches of the hand a movement of withdrawal of her skirts as to avoid being hit by the inevitable fall of the drunkard. His face has something bestial, like that of the drinker something naively dazed. And while the sad partygoer dozes, careless of everything, the good parts that surround him get along wonderfully to rob him. Standing to his left, a second woman, apparently a servant of the inn, explores the pockets of the sleeper, removes her watch, which she hands over to an old usurer, hidden in the shadows, who will pay the price of the theft. In the background, in the back of the room, a man sitting quietly smokes his pipe while a standing musician continues to play, to cover the noise of bargaining and both look at the scene laughing.
This painting, one of the best of van Steen, is recommended by the care of the episodic detail, particular to the Dutch school. Nothing is forgotten about what can add to the interest of the scene. With a superior art, van Steen has lavished all the accessories likely to help the perfect understanding of his work. A painter of first-rate genre, he describes what he sees, as he sees it, with the sole preoccupation of being true. On the other hand, moral conceptions leave him indifferent. If he paints a scene of orgy, it is not to show the effects of debauchery or to make us hate it. So much philosophy does not enter into his views. What he threw on the canvas is the daily episode of drunkenness that capsizes the brains and stuns the bodies. There is no teaching. In the arrangement of the characters, it is easy to imagine that Van Steen amuses himself with the misfortune of his drunkard, and that the spinning of which he is the victim seems to him a good turn kindly played.
Be that as it may, the work is charming of naturalness and malice.
Jan Steen is the most skilful and the most witty of the Dutch masters in the 17th century, the one who brought perfection in the genre painting. He is an attentive, meticulous observer, and in every object that solicits his attention, the sharpness of his gaze makes him discover the ridiculous comic side on which his verve can be exercised.
Compatriot and contemporary of Gerard Dow and Terborch, it has neither the broad way of the first nor the meticulous thoroughness of the other. Terborch is superior to Jan Steen by the marvelous correction of his drawing and the harmonious freshness of his color, but van Steen undoubtedly wins by his fantasy, his mocking verve, his jovial vivacity. Everyone else has shut himself up in a special way: Terborch has made himself the painter of rich interiors, and the personages whose pictures he paints are people of good company, of correct dress and of elegant manners. Gérard Dow seems to have chosen his models in the middle class, and his finished, polished and gold-plated canvases had to please the careful Dutch bourgeoisie. Jan Steen looks for his painting subjects in cabarets and places of pleasure. The thousand paintings which compose his work are entirely devoted to the painting of feasts, orgies, peasant nuptials, and burlesque scenes. It is the environment he prefers, the one in which he lives daily, and he spends to translate it an overflowing fantasy, an enormous gaiety and a talent of the first order.
Anyway, Jan Steen had previous experiences. He had worked for a long time in Haarlem in the studio of van Ostade, then in The Hague, in that of van Goyen, whose daughter he married. There is no very precise information as to the life of this artist, who seems to have left his native town of Leiden with an unfortunate reputation as a drunkard and debaucher; His paintings were none the less highly appreciated, on account of their spiritual delight.
From the considerable work of Jan Steen, the Louvre has only three pictures: the Festival in the interior of an inn, the Family meal, and the Bad Company.
This last painting was part of the Charles Cope collection in London. He sold for 2250 guilders to the Taylor and the Ministry of Fine Arts bought it in 1881 for the sum of 4750 francs. He is currently in the Jan Steen Hall.
Height: 0.47 – Width: 0.36 – Figures: 0.25.
Translated By Nicolae Sfetcu from the book “Louvre Museum”, by Armand Dayot