Steen, “Beware of Luxury” (World Upside Down)



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Steen, “Beware of Luxury” (World Upside Down), c. 1650

If the domestic scenes of De Hooch, Vermeer, Ter Borch and others depict an ideal of bourgeois life rarely encountered in reality, Jan Steen takes us to the opposite extreme, where all is comic, vulgar, riotous, and disordered. In Beware of Luxury, three generations of family life carry on in a rather theatrical scene which parallels contemporary Dutch comedies about domestic life and the breakdown of traditional Dutch values of austerity, sobriety, hard work, and family discipline. In their place came a new, more courtly, Dutch burgher culture of conspicuous consumption, courtly refinement, and hedonistic leisure. This change in Dutch values took place slowly, accelerating after 1650 and becoming particularly visible after 1660.


Traditional Dutch values were grounded in republican, burgher, and Calvinist culture. Yet none could withstand the long-term impact of the unprecedented prosperity in Dutch society. Here one might make rough parallels to the changes in the United States as the austere, Protestant values of 1945-65 gave way, under the impact of an equally unparalleled period of prosperity, to the more materialistic, consumer values of the later twentieth century.
In the lower right, a tablet warns against luxury and wantonness. At the left, a modern mother sleeps at the table. Dressed in the new, elegant, fur-trimmed jackets sported by Vermeer's wealthy women, she represents the new, bad mother who neglects her children. The mayhem around her shows how the sleep of adult reason produces immorality, or at least, disorder. The girl steals from the larder, the boy smokes a pipe, the baby hurls food or dishes to the floor, and the spaniel gets on the table to eat the dinner.
At the upper right, a monkey, emblematic of bestial appetites, disrupts the clock which symbolized moderation, order, and virtue in burgher culture. (In court culture, time is world history and empire. In burgher culture, time is sometimes a precious commodity which should be devoted to profitable industry of some kind, not wasted in the courtly idleness, frivolity and sleeping shown by Steen. Or it is a reminder that great empires crumble to dust and nothingness, like the Dutch vanitas paintings featuring ticking clocks and implements of courtly power.)
The young couple at the center of Steen's composition, embody the values of the new generation with its proverbial extravagance. Drunk and amorously entwined, they sport the courtly silks and satins of the new, courtly, "Frenchified" Dutch burghers. Equally courtly is the woman's décolletage and the man's hair, worn long in the French courtly fashion.
The painting's satirical edge has something in common with the inscription on a Dutch seventeenth-century engraving of wealthy burgher youths absorbed in amorous courtly dissipation.
Long live love, our honeymoon has begun

Our parents were peasants, they have conquered avarice.

Grease in the pan, sunny skies, there is so much to devour.

We have more than plenty, how will we ever consume it all.
The fashionable burgher couple at the center of Steen’s painting is rebuked by an older, pious couple, dressed in the severe blacks and whites of the first half of the century and reading from a Bible. Interestingly, the younger generation ignores the traditional lessons offered by their elders, something Steen allegorized by introducing a pig smelling roses at lower right. Invoking the Dutch proverb, “Don’t cast roses before swine”, Steen’s pig rebuked the folly of the new generation even as it allegorized their gluttony on a second level. The roses cast before swine may also refer to the wealth which is wasted on idle good for nothings.
Despite the moral tone of the allegorical pig and inscribed tablet, the painting maintained a comical lightheartedness typical of Steen’s genre scenes and history paintings. By placing a duck on the old man's shoulders, Steen made him into an old fart quacking away with his pious sermons. If anything, the older generation looked as ridiculous as the new, "extravagant youth". Instead of listening to the older woman scolding him, the young man laughs. Most telling of all, the lascivious young woman at the center of this mayhem looks out at the viewer with a bemused or wicked smile, inviting us to share in the sensual excess.
Like Jordaens’ paintings depicting The King Drinks and As the Old Sing, So the Young Pipe, Steen's Beware of Luxury accepts the new generation, excesses, foibles and all. A new comic acceptance of human folly and "sinfulness" is emerging here. In the world of Steen, "sinfulness" is neither the deadly path to hellish torment seen in Bosch' Haywain nor the serious lack of moral control seen in Bruegel's Peasant Dance. It is the comic folly of a human nature attributed to everyone and rendered more acceptable. Indeed, Steen seems incapable of making any severe moral judgments. The one potential moral voice - the grandparents - is just another example of folly.
This refusal to take a strong moral stand is clear in Steen's many riotous scenes where the artist appears as the biggest drunk and lecher. If this sense of life as an inebriated comedy drew on Steen's own history as a tavern keeper, it also reflected a new kind of social imagery which entertained as it criticized. In its function as entertainment, this comic imagery also reveals a new, limited acceptance of moral and social foibles as the universal destiny of mankind.
We might see in Steen's art a new ambiguity toward ethical culture which has some roots in the theater of everyday life and genre painting. If clear moral distinctions were easy in the realm of history painting such as the Continence of Scipio or allegories such as Hercules's Choice Between Vice and Virtue, such neat distinctions were harder to sustain in the familiar, close-to-home imagery of genre painting. Steen's comic voice should not be seen as a turning away from serious intentions for the world of genre painting. On the contrary, its comic nature and its ambiguous moral outlook were signs of an unmistakable seriousness and purpose and a rethinking of the simplistic morality of an earlier age.

Steen, Marriage of Tobias and Sarah, c. 1668 /
Here religious art is phrased not in the exalted forms of Italian, French, and Flemish Baroque art, not in the grand, universal forms recommended by Aristotle for tragedy, but in the everyday, genre style found in so much seventeenth century Dutch art. If all Renaissance and Baroque art, particularly Northern art, attempted to bring religion (and myth) down into a familiar world while retaining a sense of the sacred, the grand, the transcendental, Steen's Wedding at Cana takes things down into a more radically ordinary, even vulgar realm. The story where Christ miraculously multiplied the loaves and the wine, thereby demonstrating his infinite bounty is here relegated to the background. The main figures are a drunken, carousing, well-dressed fop who receives another glass of wine from the inn keeper while pointing to a drunken child and maid to the lower left. Though the mirror hanging on the wall may be a traditional allusion to the vanitas of earthly pleasures and though the keys may evoke the door to heaven, the overall mood is one of burlesque comedy. Here then is a radically redefined, fundamentally modern sense of what is universal, a universality not of the lofty and ideal as codified by Aristotle, but of the common, the everyday, even the bodily and vulgar. Steen's intent is not to trivialize or mock religious subjects, but to translate them into this bourgeois universality of everyday life, complete with comic elements and a mild moralizing tone. Such works signal the start of a gradual turning point away from the ideal to the ordinary, a change which spread to France in the 18th century art of Chardin and Greuze and all over Europe in the 19th century movements of Realism and Impressionism.

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