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FORTHCOMING OCTOBER 2017
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, 27 October – 28 January 2018 (preceding an exhibition on Steen at the Mauritshius in The Hague in spring 2018)
Pride and Persecution: Jan Steen’s Old Testament Scenes
Paperback, 210 x 210 mm, 80 pages, 46 colour illus.
ISBN: 978 1 911300 09 0
Robert Wenley, Nina Cahill and Rosalie Van Gulick
Full of humanity and even humour, the Old Testament paintings by master visual storyteller Jan Steen are often treated like incidents in 17th-century Holland. This groundbreaking examination considers the influence of Jewish history and Dutch theatre on this element of his oeuvre.
The Leiden-born artist Jan Steen (1626–1679) is widely admired as one of the most engaging and technically brilliant painters of the Dutch Golden Age. This volume accompanies an exhibition that will be the first in the UK devoted to Steen’s Old Testament subjects. The focal point will be his magnificent Wrath of Ahasuerus (c.1668–69), one of the highlights of the Barber’s collection, which will be joined by a select number of other paintings by Steen from private and public collections in Europe and the USA.
Three essays will examine in detail the core themes of the show: the role of Jewish history in Steen’s Old Testament scenes; the influence of Dutch theatre on his work; and the critical response to his Old Testament paintings from the seventeenth century to date.
Robert Wenley (Barber Institute of Fine Arts) will look at how the Dutch nation established its identity in part by associating its people with the Biblical Israelites, seeing themselves as persecuted by the Spanish for their faith, much as the Israelites had been. He will explore the popularity of the story of Esther and other Old Testament subjects in Dutch culture – in plays as well as paintings – and the possibility of Jewish patrons for Steen’s Old Testament paintings. Finally, he will consider the provenance and recent history of two of the paintings in the show, which were both in the stock of the Netherlands-based Jewish dealer, Walter Bachstitz, in the late 1930s.
Nina Cahill (Hamburg University) will put forward new research about how Steen adopted the gestural language of contemporary Dutch theatre, amateur and professional, in order to represent the key figures in these scenes and to convey the pivotal dramatic moments. In some instances, Steen may have been quoting from an actual production of a play based on the Biblical story. Cahill will also consider other visual sources for Steen’s Old Testament compositions.
Rosalie van Gulick (Utrecht University) will consider how Steen’s Old Testament scenes have been received and understood over the years, from records of their initial commissioning/sale to the first direct accounts of them in the eighteenth century. Steen’s approach to this subject matter may be compared to that of Rembrandt and pupils like De Gelder on the one hand and De Lairesse and other classicists on the other. The essay will investigate how the apparent farcical character of these scenes has been understood over the centuries and why they have prompted adversely critical responses from some modern art historians.
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