Rembrandt’s later life belongs to Amsterdam; but Leyden had other illustrious sons who were faithful to her to the end. Chief of these was Jan Steen.
Harmens the miller, as we have seen, became the father of a boy named Rembrandt in 1606; it was twenty years later that Steen the brewer rejoiced over the birth of a son called Jan.
Of Jan’s childhood we know nothing, but as a young man he was sent by his father to Utrecht to study under Nicholas Knupfer. Then he passed on to Adrian van Ostade and probably to Adrian Brouwer, with both of whom and Frans Hals we saw him carousing, after his wont, in a picture by Brouwer in Baron Steengracht’s house at The Hague. Finally he became the pupil of Jan van Goyen, painter of the beautiful “Valkhof at Nymwegen,” No. 991 in the Ryks Museum, a picture which always makes me think of Andrew Marvell’s poem on the Bermudas. Like many another art pupil, Jan Steen married his master’s daughter.
Jan van Goyen, I might add, was another of Leyden’s sons. He was born in 1596 and he died at The Hague in 1666, while London was suffering under the Plague.
Jan Steen seems to have intended to make brewing his staff and painting merely his cane; but good nature and a terrible thirst were too much for him. From brewing he descended to keeping a tavern, “in which occupation,” to quote Ireland, “he was himself his best customer”. After a while, having exhausted his cellar, he took seriously to painting in order to renew it, paying for his liquor with his brush. Thus “for a long time his works were to be found only in the hands of dealers in wine”. Who, after this, shall have the hardihood to speak evil of the grape?
Jan is not supposed to have lived at Leyden after his marriage to Margaretta van Goyen, in 1649, until 1669, when his father died. In 1672 he is known to have taken a tavern at Leyden at the Lange Brug.
Of the intervening years little is known. He was probably at Haarlem part of the time and at The Hague part of the time, In 1667 he paid his rent—only twenty-nine florins—with three pictures “painted well as he was able”. Margaretta died in 1669—a merry large woman we must suppose her from her appearance in Jan’s pictures, and the mother of four or five children who may often be seen in the same scenes. Jan married again in 1673 and died in 1697.
He was buried in St. Peter’s Church, Leyden, leaving more than five hundred pictures to his name. The youth who, in the absence of the koster, accompanied me through St. Peter’s Church, so far from knowing where Jan Steen was buried, had never even heard his name. (And at the Western Church in Amsterdam, where Rembrandt is said to have been buried, his resting-place cannot be pointed out. But never a Dutch admiral’s grave is in doubt.)
For all his roystering and recklessness, for all his drinking and excess, Jan Steen’s work is essentially delicate. He painted the sublimated essence of comedy. Teniers, Ostade, Brouwer are coarse and boorish beside him; Metsu and Mieris genteel. Even when he is painting low life Jan Steen is distinguished, a gentleman. And now and then he touches the springs of tears, so exquisite in his sympathetic understanding. He remains the most lovable painter in Holland, and the tenderest—in a country where tenderness is not easily found.