Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dutch Baroque (pt. 3)

Jan Steen, another Dutch painter, produced a prime, exemplary painting of the Protestant Genre painting style in his painting of St. Nicholas Day.  Genre paintings, remember, are scenes from everyday life; so this painting presents a kind of stage picture of a normal event which Dutch viewers of the painting would be familiar with.  "St. Nicholas Day" is Christmas.
In the painting, a Dutch family celebrates Christmas.  A woman on the right points to something outside the frame, perhaps St. Nicholas.  Another boy, who has evidently been naughty this year instead of nice, is unhappy for receiving a switch.  For those of you who don't know, a switch is what the parents used to do before they invented the "spanker"; you'd have to go outside and choose the branch or stick you would be reprimanded with.  Here it's in his shoe.  I was interested to see this tradition going so far back in history, because on Christmas morning my parents still put presents inside our shoes.  The little girl who takes center stage in the painting has emptied her shoe of all its presents and left it on the floor at the bottom.  The grandmother signaling the boy in back of the scene is either issuing him to come out and receive his punishment or else (it has been suggested) has some other gift to cheer up the poor lad.  Interestingly enough, the lines of the chair, the table, and the canopy point to the unhappy boy.  The long cake at the bottom left points to the center.  This painting carries what appears on first look a dizzying construct that causes our eye to look here and there to get the full picture of everything that's going on.
This is a typical Genre painting.  Like real life, the scene is muddled in some confusion, but the situations are not so out-of-the-ordinary that we can't see, with careful inspection, what is going on.  We can identify with easily-conveyed emotions: the girl is happy because she got a present; the boy is crying because he's going to be spanked; etc.  This is the beauty of everyday life that can be enjoyed and celebrated now that Lutheranism has provided a system for belief that allows all men to be saved, even common people and peasants.  Jan Steen seems to almost be suggesting that these people could be saints, they could be believers; and that this is the new face of "religious" art (even though there's nothing religious about it).  In Protestantism, normal people, too, are part of the body of Christ and "the Elect."  This, therefore, is a celebration of the lives of ordinary individuals, with a focus on the somewhat sentimental connections of family and communal affection.  Other than that, it's just a big mess of people all in the same room and probably being very loud.  (Is this what Christmas looks like at your house?  Some things never change, right?)


  1. Actually, the Grandmother in the back has a present hidden for the naughty boy that she is fetching for him, now that he has suffered his initial disappointment. (That's what I learned in art school).

    1. Good point! Thanks for sharing, and I'm sure you're right. This is, after all, a happy painting, and the motif with this second, reconciliatory gift for the boy could point to added themes of Protestant forgiveness within the work.

    2. Also, you can see her forefinger gesturing to him to follow her. This is one of my favorite paintings from that era.