Jan Steen Exhibition at Mauritshuis The Hague – review

The Mauritshuis is home to some of the most famous Dutch paintings of the Golden Age. The gallery is a perfectly formed and fitting contemporary venue for its much-loved collections. It has a beautiful and leafy location in the heart of The Hague and it houses masterpieces such as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Goldfinch by Fabritius. Both these works draw crowds, and this allows Mauritshuis to introduce its visitors to other artistic gems.

Jan Steen 1In this new exhibition, Jan Steen’s Histories, the Mauritshuis offers a vibrant collection of Jan Steen’s lesser-known paintings. But there is more than just canvases on the walls. There are the initial results of the technical examination of Jan Steen’s work, too. A unique project has been undertaken by the Mauritshuis in partnership with Shell, as Partners in Science. The museum’s conservators and experts from Shell have been investigating the pigments used by Steen. The aim of the undertaking is to better understand Steen’s painting technique and the development of his work through the decades.

Jan Steen is a celebrated seventeenth-century Dutch artist, and is well known as a portrayer of scenes of everyday life. Those lives were not of the polished elite but rather the more colourful and riotous citizens. There is even a Dutch proverb that describes a disorderly home as ‘a Jan Steen household’. But to balance the aforementioned subject matter he also painted scenes from the Bible and ancient mythology.

Tales full of sin and anguish

Jan Steen 2The exhibition looks at the little-known part of Jan Steen’s battery of work: The History Paintings. Until the mid-eighteenth century, these were among Steen’s most costly works, although their value diminished over time as they became less fashionable. Stories taken from the Bible were known as ‘histories’ in Steen’s day. They are tales full of sin and anguish, here expressed in the artist’s distinctive style.

Jan Steen’s Biblical and mythological paintings are full of humour and personality. There is a jester who looks out at the audience and encourages those visitors to behave better than the characters hanging before them. A merry chap ogles a buxom wench, a peasant slurps soup by the fire. Yes, the narratives are from the Good Book and ancient Greece, but these illustrations are charmingly pure Dutch.

From February 15th until May 13th 2018, the Mauritshuis will show 21 paintings by Jan Steen.

Plein 29
2511 CS Den Haag
The Netherlands

Visiting hours: 10am – 8pm

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Exhibition review by Chrissie Walker © 2018