In addition to the famous scenes of everyday life, Jan Steen also also produced a remarkable group of at least 60 history paintings, with subjects taken from the Bible and classical mythology and history. Pride and Persecution will be the first exhibition to focus specifically on Steen’s Old Testament subjects, which include some of his most ambitious works, and demonstrate to the full Steen’s unmatched abilities as a narrative artist. It will also be the first ever museum loan exhibition in the UK devoted to an aspect of Steen’s work, and the first international loan show devoted to his paintings since 1997.
Pride and Persecution takes as its focal point and inspiration Steen’s magnificent The Wrath of Ahasuerus, of about 1668-70, with its subject taken from the Book of Esther, one of the highlights of the Barber’s collection.
The exhibition looks at how the emerging Dutch nation in the 17th century associated its people with the Biblical Israelites, both persecuted by greater powers for their faith. The resulting popularity of the story of Esther, an account of the deliverance of the Jews in ancient Persia, and other Old Testament subjects was reflected widely in Dutch culture. Also considered will be the possibility of Jewish patrons for Steen’s Old Testament paintings. Finally, the exciting 20th-century history of two of the show’s key paintings – the Barber’s Wrath of Ahasuerus and Samson and Delilah from Los Angeles County Museum of Art – will be explored. Both were in the stock of the Jewish dealer Kurt Walter Bachstitz in the late 1930s, and offered to the Barber by him for sale in 1938. The Barber chose the Ahasuerus, while Samson was later forcibly ceded to Hitler’s Deputy, Fieldmarshall Goering, as Bachstitz’s fee for escaping the Nazi-occupied Netherlands in 1944.
The exhibition will also explore the sources for the distinctively expressive approach of Steen’s Wrath of Ahasuerus and other Old Testament paintings, and how his contemporaries treated the story. These include visual antecedents, such as paintings and prints that Steen might have known, but also the surprising but undeniable influence of contemporary Dutch theatre – particularly evident in the group of works painted around 1668-70, which forms the heart of the exhibition.
Pride and Persecution is curated by Robert Wenley, Deputy Director of the Barber Institute, and draws on his extensive recent research and that undertaken by Nina Cahill (National Gallery, London) and Rosalie van Gulick (Mauritshuis, The Hague). It will feature major paintings and works on paper by from private and public collections from Britain, Europe and the USA, as well as a fine Esther scroll, made by the scribe to the Jewish community in Amsterdam. Accompanied by a full-colour catalogue, the exhibition will be further augmented by a lively programme of related public events, which includes a study afternoon, lectures, gallery tours and talks, and practical art and writing workshops.
The Barber’s exhibition also heralds the major exploration of the artist’s wider history paintings – Jan Steen Tells Tales – at the Mauritshuis, The Hague, (15 February – 13 May 2018).