In His Biblical Scenes, the 17th-Century Dutch Painter Jan Steen Rivals Rembrandt Himself

Like Rembrandt’s, Steen’s art reflects a tremendous effort to humanize Jewish figures.

From The Mocking of Samson by Jan Steen, 1675-1676. Wikipedia.

From The Mocking of Samson by Jan Steen, 1675-1676. Wikipedia.

Observation
May 3 2018
About the author

Menachem Wecker, a freelance journalist based in Washington DC, covers art, culture, religion, and education for a variety of publications.


In a dimly-lit palace, an entourage of some 50 figures surrounds the biblical Samson, his hands shackled behind his back but his vision still intact. An African clad in Oriental garb and holding a dagger in his right hand points with his left to his eyes, in a gruesome foreshadowing of the hero’s blinding. The hair clippings at Samson’s feet testify to the dwindling of his Herculean strength; dwarves pull at the ropes tied to his feet.

And that’s only half the drama in The Mocking of Samson by the Dutch painter Jan Steen (1626-79). Across the room, Samson’s Philistine lover Delilah, completing his humiliation, reaches for the pile of money that is her gain for betraying him. Unabashed, she permits a leering man to grope her as she gazes directly at Samson, his teeth clenched and his face an agonized study in bright red. No world-weary stoic, the Israelite strongman may already be planning to topple the building. A dog, symbolic of fidelity, and fully aware of the injustice, looks up at Samson and barks.

The genius of this painting—newly acknowledged as an original Steen after having been previously attributed to an 18th-century copyist—lies in the poetic license it takes with the biblical account. As Judges 13-16 tells the story, the Philistines first trim seven locks of Samson’s hair and then blind the now-diminished hero before transporting him to a jail in Azah (Gaza) and binding him in heavy chains. As they trot out their trophy during a celebration of the god Dagon, Samson asks the boy guiding him (perhaps inspiring Steen’s dwarves) to leave him at two load-bearing columns. The building is packed with partying Philistines, with some 3,000 on the roof alone. In a grand act of wholesale murder and suicide, Samson buries the lot.

Steen’s inventive decision to choreograph Samson in the Philistine palace while still sighted opens up the narrative and theological possibility that his Samson also serves as a double of Jesus. In this reading, Delilah’s blood money echoes the 30 silver pieces for which Judas betrayed the Nazarene; although Samson wears no crown of thorns, his torture similarly mirrors that of Jesus.

 

This ingenious riffing on the Bible is only one among several examples on offer in a recent exhibit of Steen’s work at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague. The show, Jan Steen’s Histories, comes on the heels of another, Pride and Persecution: Jan Steen’s Old Testament Scenes, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, England. Taken together, the two suggest that, as a biblical commentator, Steen can at least keep pace with if not occasionally even outdo his much more famous countryman and contemporary, Rembrandt van Rijn.

Although well known in Holland, Steen (pronounced “stain”), a Catholic who lived and worked in Protestant Leiden, is a less familiar name to U.S. museumgoers, who may be more acquainted with his genre scenes. These, often set in taverns or brothels, show Steen at his most sardonic, as the crafter of a motley crew ranging from drunkards to fraudulent doctors. Thus, the medical charlatan in the Rijksmuseum’s The Quack (1650-60) displays a stone he’s purportedly extracted from the head of a man tied to a chair on a stage while a monkey—symbolic of base passion—sits atop a pole upon which a violin hangs from a peg; in the bottom right corner, a woman pushes her wasted husband along in a wheelbarrow. In The Dancing Couple (1663) at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, two boys play instruments as a couple dances and, all around, others drink and flirt, including a grinning Steen stroking the chin of a bibulous woman.

At the Mauritshuis, by contrast, a very different Steen emerges, evident not only in his Samson but even more pronouncedly in Supper at Emmaus (c. 1665-68). A long line of artists had addressed this New Testament tale in which Jesus, somehow disguised, appears to two disciples who recognize him only after he has blessed and distributed the bread; then, once identified, he disappears. Steen would have certainly been familiar with Rembrandt’s own takes on this subject, including one in which Jesus is shown in such stark silhouette against a powerful light source that his shadowed figure almost begins to melt.

In nearly every one of these works, Jesus remains visible to his disciples; but Steen takes the disappearance a step further. In his portrayal, the two disciples sit prominently at a table, evidently in prayer or contemplation, while a boy with his back to the viewer pours wine and a woman serves bread from a basket behind the table. In the background, and to the left, a misty Jesus is already fading from view.

By placing the two disciples front and center, Steen has shifted the focus from Jesus to them, leaving us to ponder what they must be thinking about the man with whom they have just broken bread. In this post-recognition glimpse of the scene, with Jesus already unseen by the forward-facing disciples, we are brought into their experience and implicated in its drama.

 

This artistic device, the Mauritshuis exhibit reveals persuasively, is a Steen specialty. To return to the Hebrew Bible, we find the same effect in his Amnon and Tamar (ca. 1668-70), The Dismissal of Hagar (ca. 1662), and other works in which a figure, often young, looks directly and knowingly at the viewer.

Amnon and Tamar is based on the account in 2 Samuel in which Amnon, who has feigned illness and arranged for his half-sister Tamar (who is also King David’s daughter) to bring him food, instead rapes her. We come upon them immediately afterward as Amnon, his lust having just as quickly turned to revulsion, pushes her away with his foot, the rumpled bed and her half-undone belt testifying to the violence that has transpired. At this point, as the book of Samuel records, Amnon, his passion dissipated, calls an attendant to remove the pleading Tamar from the room.

That’s the exact moment captured by Steen. The young servant, wearing a red cap with a feather, takes hold of Tamar’s arm while gazing directly—and impishly—at the viewer. This servant, writes Yvonne Bleyerveld in the Mauritshuis catalog,

clearly takes pleasure in fulfilling his task. With his direct gaze, he seems to be commenting on the scene, telling us that what just happened, though improper, is also a laughing matter.

The figure, then, is heir to the traditional character of the fool who often appears in 16th-century erotic scenes to tell us how we should interpret what we see.

Next, in The Dismissal of Hagar, the patriarch Abraham stands in the doorway as he compassionately sees off a weeping Hagar, the handmaiden who has been banished at the jealous insistence of Sarah. Behind him, Sarah plays indoors with the infant Isaac. In the foreground, a young boy kneels on the ground with a bow and a quiver of arrows, meeting the viewer’s gaze. The boy is Hagar and Abraham’s son Ishmael, and the bow is a nice touch: not only will the boy grow up to be an archer (Genesis 21:20) but in in their desert wanderings his mother, standing a bowshot away from him, will nearly leave her parched and famished son for dead (Genesis 21:16). In engaging the viewer’s attention, the boy adds a theatrical note that makes it all the easier to empathize with this forlorn and outcast pair.

The invention of figures who appear out of character and break down the picture’s “fourth wall,” as well as the sheer imaginative force that Steen brings to these biblical interpretations, makes a strong case for putting them in conversation with Rembrandt’s own consummate biblical works.

 

What drew these two artists, each in his own way, to the scenes of the Hebrew Bible? In the case of Rembrandt, the question is easier to answer and has been extensively explored in Mosaic. Among other affinities, Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter, associated with the famous 17th-century rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, and made frequent use of Jewish models.

None of these things is true of Steen, who for his part—as Robert Wenley, deputy director of the Barber Institute, summarizes in the Pride and Persecution catalog—produced about two-dozen biblical canvases representing sixteen different scenes from seven different books. But Wenley speculates that Steen may have worked for Jewish patrons: although it is “generally not known if Jewish buyers of art commissioned Old Testament scenes from Christian artists, Steen’s oeuvre may provide a partial exception.”

Contributing to that possibility is Steen’s Moses and Pharaoh’s Crown, which portrays a scene that appears neither in Christian nor in Jewish scripture but is found in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews and in the midrash. As the story is told in Exodus Rabbah, the infant Moses was so beautiful that when Pharaoh’s daughter brought him to the palace, no one could stop looking at him. Both she and Pharaoh would hug and kiss him, and Moses would playfully pluck Pharaoh’s crown off his head and place it on his own. Fearing the symbolism, Pharaoh’s magicians worried that Moses would fulfill their prophecy by replacing their master, so they encouraged Pharaoh either to behead or to burn the child. Luckily, Moses’ future father-in-law Jethro happened to be an adviser at court. He proposed a test: let the baby choose between a burning coal and a piece of gold. If he reaches for the coal, he has no regal ambitions and should be spared.

When the test is administered, Moses begins to reach instinctively for the gold, but the angel Gabriel guides him instead to the fire. In pain, Moses thrusts both hand and coal into his mouth, scalding it irrevocably—accounting, according to the midrash, for the lifelong speech impediment of which he complains in Exodus 4:10 and 6:12. Steen depicts the already-injured child at the feet of a Romanized Pharaoh who looks grumpily on as a shrewd adviser whispers in his ear.

Given the relative obscurity of the topic, Wenley suggests that this painting may have been a special commission from a wealthy Sephardi patron in Amsterdam or Haarlem. The suggestion fits with a preparatory drawing, on view in the Mauritshuis exhibition, that shows slight differences from the finished picture. Could it have been a sketch shown by Steen to his Jewish patron before executing the final commission?

Wenley also traces the Jewish paths taken by some of Steen’s pictures in later eras. In the 20th century, the Austrian Jewish dealer Kurt Walter Bachstitz, desperate to flee the Nazis, was compelled to turn over a different Samson and Delilah, now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as a bribe to Hermann Göring. From the Philistines to Hitler, Wenley writes mordantly, “The persecution of the Jews had come full circle in Steen’s art.”

But there is more to be said. Like Rembrandt’s, Steen’s art reflects a tremendous effort to humanize Jewish figures. In the case of the former master, with his well-known penchant for Jewish models, one cannot avoid the impression of a dab of empathetic philo-Semitism mixed in with his paints. But once again Steen goes a step further. Where Rembrandt often portrays scenes and characters from Jewish scripture, even occasionally obscure ones, and does so with marked fellow feeling, Steen also frequently provides his viewers with a kind of narrator or personal guide to draw them in and help them understand what to make both of the depicted scene and, by extension, of the biblical tale itself. Seen from this angle, to experience a Steen work on the Bible is to encounter a visual mapping of not only a scene but also, and simultaneously, its exegesis.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Hebrew Bible, Jan Steen, Rembrandt