Jan Steen’s Self Portrait In “The Continence Of Scipio” As A Social Commentary

2555 words - 10 pages

Jan Steen’s Self Portrait in “The Continence of Scipio” as a Social Commentary
There is a tremendous difference between a fool and a jester. Fools are regarded as light-hearted, dim-witted, and absent-minded people whose outrageous stupidity amused the rest of the population. These jovial folk represented the lowest in society: too carefree to get ahead in society and too stupid to care. Many people believed that Jan Steen, a prominent and well-educated artist of the Dutch Golden Age, was a fool. It is not a far-fetched assumption to make since he donned the appearance of a fool in his own paintings. However Steen was no fool. Much like the history of jesters, Jan Steen’s unsavory appearances in his own work is often misunderstood and taken at face value. To look into Steen’s own depictions of his life in his paintings one might completely agree that he is a foolish drunkard who happened to be blessed with the ability to paint. It is interesting, then, to realize that Steen is more jester than fool, especially in his self portraits. In medieval times the only person who could get away with insulting the king and royal family was the court jester. Jesters would use their quick wit, silver tongues, and superior intellect to insult or comment on the presiding royalty and would often be received with thunderous laughter and applause. Steen, much like the jester, used a foolish appearance to give social commentary on the world around him. One of the best examples of this is in Steen’s “The Continence of Scipio” (see Figure 1). A goofy cast of characters replace the traditionally serious and dignified roles of the figures in the classic story but none so ridiculous as the narcissistic husband, Aluccius (who looks suspiciously like Steen).Steen purposefully puts himself in the role of Aluccius to show the sheer ridiculousness of the situation and to provide commentary on the current events of his time. Thus Steen takes on two roles: that of Aluccius and of himself.
In order to understand why Steen played the role he did in The Continence of Scipio, it is important to be able to differential between Steen and his characters. Much of Steen’s personal history has been clouded by others interpretation of his work. However we do know that he was born in Leiden around 1626 and was the son of a brewer (Kirschenbaum, 1984; Shaw-Eagle, 1996). Steen’s family was lower-middle class and of no particular prestige among the community. After the reformation Steen’s family remained Catholic, which held the lower rungs of the middle class with little hope of advancement (Chapman, 1996). Little is known about Steen’s childhood, especially in regards to when his artistic talents emerged. It is believed that he may have started actually practicing his craft when he was 14 or 15 years old. Steen studied literature of Leiden University in 1646 and joined St. Lucas Guild of artists (Kirschenbaum, 1984). Steen’s true art career began when he began working under masters. He...

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