Day 12 – Jan Steen, The Effects of Intemperance, about 1663-5, National Gallery, London.
Originally posted on 30 March 2020
I thought about this painting the other day, as I was taking my daily exercise. I saw someone walking directly towards me right down the middle of the pavement who clearly wasn’t going to shift out of the way, so I stepped out into the middle of the road and cut along the dotted line as if I were saving a voucher for my own well-being. And I thought, whatever happened to ringing bells and shouting ‘unclean, unclean’, even if we are all healthy? After all, we can’t know that we are.
So naturally I thought about this painting, ‘The Effects of Intemperance’, by Jan Steen. You’re probably already worrying about social distancing, but they are a family unit, just a somewhat dysfunctional one. Mum has fallen asleep, pipe in hand, while her eldest daughter is giving the parrot a drink of wine. Two of the kids are feeding the cat a rather impressive pie, another throws roses at a pig, while the last, on the far left, has got his hand in his mother’s purse. It’s appalling behaviour, why are they doing this? Any of you who are home schooling probably understand the situation far better than I do, but notice the flagon resting on the ground by the eldest girl’s hand – it has toppled over and the lid is open, but nothing is coming out. Mum’s drunk the lot – with the exception of the glass being held by her daughter. The temptation to hit the bottle at the present time must be enormous. Mum’s clearly had a bit too much and has fallen asleep. So the kids are running riot.
So far it all makes sense, but who would dream of giving wine to a parrot? Well, what do parrots do? They talk, for one thing – or rather, they copy what other people do. They parrot. Now look at the parrot, and look at the mother – the posture, the curve of the back, the position of the head, and the angle of the head to the body, not to mention the colours – greys, reds, and whites. They are the same. In image as well as in behaviour, the bird is parroting the mother – she has been drinking, and so the parrot has too. Before long, they will both fall off their perches. The mother is setting a bad example. To quote a Dutch proverb commonly illustrated by Steen, ‘As the old sing, so the young pipe’.
The daughter will be the next to fall off her perch. We know this, because she is holding a pretzel. Nothing wrong with a harmless, salty snack, you might think, unless we look at a genre of literature that was popular in the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th Centuries, the Emblem Book. Each emblem has a title and a picture, together with some text explaining the connection between the two. One of these emblems features a pretzel, being held on either side by the little fingers of two different hands. It seems that the Dutch used to play a game with pretzels, very similar to the game I used to play after Sunday lunch roughly once a month, when we’d had roast chicken: pulling the wish bone. Each person grabs hold of one end of the Y-shaped bone and pulls until it breaks, and the person who gets the larger part of the bone wins. The same rules apply for the pretzel. But who, in the emblem, is playing this game? The text explains that, from the moment they are born, children are a prize fought over by God and the Devil: who would get the larger part? If this young lady doesn’t mend her ways – and follows the example of her mother – she will go to the Devil.
What about the children feeding the cat? It’s clearly a waste of good food, and their lives could be similarly wasted. The image of the boy throwing roses to a pig comes from another emblem, which is ultimately derived from the teachings of Jesus, in the gospel of Matthew: ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you’. If I had any pearls, I’d certainly hold on to them. As for roses and pigs, ‘they don’t go well together’, to quote the title of emblem, so again, life, and its beautiful possibilities, are being wasted. And finally, the boy stealing? Well, that’s just criminal, and it’s where Steen’s light-hearted touch gets a little bit heavy.
Whose fault is all this dreadful behaviour? Well, of course, it’s the mother’s fault. She hasn’t been doing her duty. But, you might ask, what about the father? I remember asking that question to a group of children once (taking care not to assume that everyone lives with two parents), only to receive the answer from one of the seven-year-old lads, in loud and ringing tones worthy of Barbara Windsor in Eastenders, ‘Ee’s messin er abaaaaaht!’ And how right he was.
You can see Dad at the far right of painting, in the background, a young woman on his lap, and he’s got a whole pie to himself. Why is he behaving like that? Again, it’s the mother’s fault, of course. If she had been a good wife, he wouldn’t have run off with someone else. Of course he’s in the right – he is on the side of the church, which is shown directly above him. Now you might be thinking, ‘But surely, she’s hit the bottle because he’s run off with a younger model’. But that’s because you’re not living in the Dutch Republic in the 17th Century. Or 1950s England, for that matter, when, I’m led to believe, mothers were still saying to their daughters, ‘If you don’t give him what he wants he’ll only go and look for it somewhere else’.
What’s going to happen to the mother next? Or to put that question another way, what can you see hanging over her? I love it when paintings can be so directly translated into words. Well, in this case, she has a basket hanging over her head. In it you can see some sticks and a crutch, as well as a rattle dangling down the left-hand side. Dutch society said that, if a wife proved to be a disappointment, she could be sent back home without her dowry. She could end up homeless. She would be beaten for her wrong-doing (the sticks), and might get ill (the crutch). And if she got really ill, she would have to warn people by shaking the rattle: ‘Unclean! Unclean!’
All this is dreadful. It is unbelievably harsh. And yet the painting is – well – fun. It is, after all, one of the very few paintings in the National Gallery where someone is actually smiling. So what is the artist saying? Steen is, of course, a product of his time, and the Dutch Republic had the first real art market. As a result, it also had the first real art collectors. Rather than most paintings being commissioned, or ‘made to measure’, a lot of the work was ‘off the peg’ – so if you wanted a particular genre of painting you would go to a particular artist. If you wanted a fun, satirical painting, you would go to Jan Steen, for example. A consequence of this was that artists’ incomes were not guaranteed, and many of them had a second job. Jan Vermeer was an art dealer, for example. Jan Steen ran a pub. Yes! He sold the very alcohol which could so easily prove to be the mother’s ruin. He would have seen drunkenness and its results every day.
I once asked a group of children – possibly the same ones – what the ‘moral’ of this painting is. ‘Don’t drink or smoke’ came back the answer. I could foresee enormous problems for some of them if this got back home – and in any case, that’s not the message. Even if it were, Jan Steen softens his lesson with humour. He would never put anything quite so bluntly – nor was he so entirely proscriptive. ‘Just look at this’, he says, ‘and now, make up your own minds’. We now call the painting ‘The Effects of Intemperance’ – or basically, ‘Don’t Drink and Smoke Too Much’. In other words, as the ads say, ‘Please Drink Responsibly’. And while you’re at it, wash your hands and stay at home.