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Leven in de brouwerij: Jan Steen in het Mauritshuis

Spice of life: Jan Steen at the Mauritshuis Exhibition: 3 March - 13 June 2011

From the museum press release

This spring the Mauritshuis will host an exhibition focusing on Jan Steen (1626-1679). The museum owns a superb collection of fourteen paintings by this important Dutch Golden Age painter. Loans from other museums and private collections will be displayed alongside highlights from the Mauritshuis’s collection, such as The poultry yard, Girl eating oysters and The way you hear it, is the way you sing it. This display will give visitors the opportunity to become acquainted with Steen’s versatility, sense of humour and unrivalled talent as a storyteller. Jan Steen always packed his images full of anecdotal and humorous details, his work epitomises the ‘spice of life’.

The last room of the exhibition will be turned into a temporary conservation studio, where visitors will be able to follow the restoration of two of Steen’s paintings. The exhibition has in part been made possible thanks to the financial support of Siemens Nederland.


The work of Jan Steen is at once familiar, humorous and exceptionally versatile. Not only did he paint peasants, burghers and the rich in his portraits and scenes of everyday life, he also depicted stories from the Bible and classical mythology, as well as proverbs and sayings. Moreover, he was the master of many styles, ranging from a meticulous and precise manner to a rapid and loose style of painting. It is possible that it was Steen’s wanderings that turned him into a jack-of-all-trades. He is thought to have trained under Jan van Goyen in Leiden, Adriaen van Ostade in Haarlem and Nicholaes Knupfer in Utrecht. Once his training was complete, he continued to move around, living in Leiden, The Hague, Delft, Warmond and Haarlem before eventually returning to his native Leiden. In contrast to his profligate image, Steen was a hardworking artist who produced a great number of paintings. Furthermore he held a number of important posts, whilst also being active as a brewer and innkeeper.


Jan Steen is best known for his cheerful scenes of people making merry. His boisterous images showing children running wild and undisciplined grown-ups who are invariably setting a bad example are so characteristic that they gave rise to the Dutch expression: ‘a Jan Steen household’, meaning a chaotic household.
The Dutch saying ‘to bring life to the brewery’ (the Dutch title of this exhibition), meaning to liven things up, is directly attributed to Steen. It comes from an anecdote related by the 18th-century biographer Arnold Houbraken. Steen, who also managed a brewery, had been neglecting his business and as a result, his wife urged him to keep things lively. In response, Steen purchased some ducks, which he allowed to swim around in a large hop boiler. When Steen’s wife came in to find the ducks flying around, Steen asked: “Now is it lively enough in the brewery?”

Like no other, Steen was able to poke fun at all manner of human weaknesses and vices. Spice of Life includes a number of painted proverbs. While these are all entertaining stories, there is also always a lesson to be learned. The painting The way you hear it, is the way you sing it illustrates in no uncertain terms that adults must set a good example to children, otherwise bad behavior will follow bad. And in A Pig Belongs in the Sty, the consequences of excessive drinking are there for all to see.

Genre Portraits

Jan Steen was always able to make something special of the few portraits he painted. This is true of the Portrait of Adolf and Catherina Croeser, known as ‘The Burgomaster of Delft’ (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). As well as being a painting of Steen’s neighbours – a distinguished gentleman and his daughter – this picture is also a genre scene, a cityscape and a small flower piece. Moreover, Steen has managed to combine several painting techniques in this work. Steen’s original painting of a young girl and two servants in a poultry yard entitled Portrait of Jacoba Maria van Wassenaer, known as ‘The Poultry Yard’ is a firm favourite among visitors to the Mauritshuis. In it, Steen not only demonstrates his talents as a portraitist and genre painter, but also his skill at painting poultry.

Alluring Women

Steen painted countless scenes of young ladies involved in some way or another in affairs of the heart or more erotic pastimes. He depicted amorous young girls pining for their loved ones, scheming women deceiving their admirers and drunken ladies struggling to remember their virtue. It is the seductresses, more than the other character types, who draw attention. Steen places them in the spotlight and paints them with extra detail and care, often showing them attired in expensive and colorful clothing. Fine examples of this are Girl Eating Oysters and Woman Playing the Cittern, both from the Mauritshuis’s own collection, and Couple in a Bedchamber from the Bredius Museum in The Hague.

Restoration Room

The last room of the exhibition will be turned into a temporary conservation studio, where at set times Mauritshuis conservator Sabrina Meloni will work on two of Steen’s paintings: The Doctor’s Visit and Dancing Peasants at an Inn. During the exhibition, visitors will have the opportunity to see the restoration of these works at first hand. Various stages in the technical research and restoration process will also be filmed, allowing the public to remain up to date, either in the exhibition itself or via our website. Sabrina Meloni will also regularly be posting her findings on Twitter ( In due course, all the latest news about the restoration will also be available on our website.


This exhibition has in part been made possible thanks to the financial support of Siemens Nederland.


The richly illustrated book Jan Steen at the Mauritshuis, written by Mauritshuis curator Ariane van Suchtelen, will accompany the exhibition. This attractive publication, aimed at a broad readership, will tell – in an accessible manner – the story of just what makes Jan Steen’s paintings at the Mauritshuis so special. The book also gives a brief overview of the popular master’s work. Available in Dutch and English, the book is priced at €14.95.

News about this exhibition