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'Country people playing a ball-game' c1640s-1660s, by Jan Steen (1626 - 1679)

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About the artwork

Jan Steen is best known for his slightly comical genre paintings, of which this is an example. A genre painting is a picture that shows a scene from everyday life. Genre painting in the Netherlands began with the depiction of proverbs, allegories and folklore by sixteenth century artists, notably Pieter Breugel the Elder (1528 - 1569). It became a major type of painting in the 1600s. Artists specialised in genre and even in one type of scene such as quiet interiors. As a category of painting it was considered quite lowly in the art world and inferior to portraiture and religious or historical pictures.

By the early 1600s the Netherlands had come to prosper through trade and commerce. Soon a new middle-class emerged. These people had enough money to buy things to decorate their homes. Artists began to develop images that this new type of buyer would be able to relate to. These were usually subjects that they would see around them in their daily lives. Unlike the high art paintings that the very wealthy would specially commission from artists, genre works were sold on the free market to anyone that could buy them. In order to sell they had to be subjects with popular appeal.

Images of caricatured drinking or brawling peasants appealed to the impression held of country folk by the townspeople that would buy the pictures. Steen painted several scenes of peasants at their leisure in the grounds of country taverns, as established by Adriaen van Ostade. 'Country people playing a ball-game' is probably not a real place but a generalised image of people enjoying a day off. There do not seem to be any particular moral messages beyond the most obvious ones of drinking and smoking in moderation. The three figures in the foreground on the inn's court seem to be playing a game of 'beugelen', like pall-mall, a predecessor of croquet.

In the background a comical man drunkenly holds his glass up. A smartly-dressed man behind the court leans in inappropriately to talk to a young woman with an older woman listening behind like a procuress. This may hint at something untoward, though their dress is respectable and an interpretation of prostitution seems far-fetched. More likely it is a reluctant girl being courted by an older, wealthier man. Steen did paint taverns that also acted as brothels. One sign of this is the presence of a dovecote, as in Dutch 'dove house' (duyf-huys) also means brothel. However it would seem unlikely that this dual meaning applies to this painting.

The influence of van Goyen may be seen in the diagonally receding composition of the painting and the considerable amount of sky. The sketchy biography and continually changing quality of Steen's work make the dating of his pictures very difficult. 'Country people playing a ball-game' is similar in theme to 'Skittle Players outside an Inn', 1660-3, in the National Gallery. The latter has a more developed sense of mood and therefore the Walker's picture could be earlier.

Jan Steen was born in Leiden in around 1626 to a middle-class brewer Havick Steen. The facts are scarce regarding Steen's life and career. He would have gone to Latin school before he enrolled at Leiden University in 1646, from where he never graduated. By 1648 he was registered as a master painter with the Leiden guild of artists. It was traditional for sons to follow their father's trade and there is no evidence as to why Steen chose to be a painter. His father's sister married the brother of the renowned portraitist and draughtsman Jan Lievens (1607 - 1674). He could have had direct contact to art through his family. In less than two years Steen was a trained painter. This very short artistic training may account for some of his weaknesses, such as peculiar perspective. He may have had some training from Nicolaus Knüpfer (c1603 - 1655) and very likely from the genre painter Adriaen van Ostade (1610 - 1685) and his brother Isack van Ostade (1621 - 1649). Adriaen's influence may be seen in Steen's choice of subject matter and Isack's in his loose handling of paint.

Steen lived variously in the Hague, Delft, Warmond, Haarlem and Leiden. In 1649 he married his first wife Margriet, daughter of the great landscape painter Jan van Goyen (1596 - 1656). Steen's father gave him charge of a brewery and in 1654 he took out a lease on one in Delft. He may have been using the inn to supplement his artist's income. The escalating wars with England may have affected the art market. A general slump in drinking would also have lowered Steen's income and he would not have been very well-off. By 1657 he had to give up the brewery and must have concentrated fully on his art. He is known to have settled some debts by bartering with his paintings, sometimes for very low sums. In 1660 he moved to Haarlem. On the death of his father in 1670 he inherited his father's home in Leiden. Here he opened a tavern in 1672, re-marrying a widow Maria Dircksdr van Egmond in 1673. He died in 1679 leaving very little to his family.

There are often comic, erotic and moral aspects to Steen's pictures. These references would be easily recognisable to his buyers, either in the subject of a picture or a subtler layer of meaning. Common symbolism features relating to the dangers of drinking, gambling, smoking tobacco and loose women. Steen's contact from an early age and throughout his life with taverns resulted in his being branded a drunkard by 18th century writers elaborating on the relationship between the artist and their subject. One said of Steen: 'The landlord of the Three Masts is sooner drunk than his guests'. This is probably an exaggeration, as it would seem implausible for an artist who was a drunkard to have produced the prolific output that Steen did.

'Country people playing a ball-game' is on loan to the Walker from a private collection.

Steen's 'Skittle Players outside an Inn can be seen on the National Gallery website [opens new window]