Golden age of dutch art: Jan Steen (1626-79)

To further grasp the era of the Dutch Golden Age, several historians have relied on artistic interpretations as one of their primarily sources. Artist during the Dutch era, were able to decipher the historical period without statistical facts or textual analysis, they had the benefit of first-hand observations.

Artist were able to capture beyond objective data, they were able to unravel the underlying feelings during and after the Dutch Golden Age. One artist that has been able to denote the Dutch Golden Age in accordance to the people of the time era was Jan Steen. Jan Steen is established for mastering genre painting, portraying a scene that adapts to the period with an exaggerated anecdote. Steen was able to observe the Dutch people by traveling from town to town, endeavoring to depict all aspects of Dutch lifestyle. Analyzing Jan Steen’s paintings is another way of studying the theological, political, economical, and social aspect of Dutch lifestyle, during their Golden Age.

In the painting of Samson and Delilah (1667-70) by Jon Steen, the main theme of betrayal is portrayed. The characteristic of the genre painting evokes the biblical tragedy of Samson, in order to emphasize mistrust and corruption. The concept of mistrust and corruption is evident in the Dutch republic’s political and religious state. Prior to the Dutch Golden Age, the Dutch republic was conducted under Catholic Spain.

The rebellious spirit against Catholic Spain evoked a fervent spirit of Calvinist Protestantism. In the background of the painting Samson and Delilah, it seems that the people are entertained by another’s defeat (Samson), similar to the defeat against the catholic Spaniards Efforts to remain a Calvinist republic caused resentment. Religious toleration was superficially used to avoid conflict, emphasizing hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is observed through the relationship of Delilah and Samson. The Philistine wanted to discover the secret of Samson’s incredible strength, thereby, using Delilah as an ally. Delilah’s cynical motives with Samson are triggered through the hopes of gaining a great sum of money. The root of the Delilah’s sin is greed, similar to the greed of Dutch society politically.

After gaining independence, bitterness towards centralized government grew. A representative government quickly emerged; each provincial estate assigned a stadholder, who had aristocratic military experience. When in crisis, the Dutch estates would gather together and appoint one single stadholder to represent the entire republic. Power rivalry between regents and stadholders forced a decentralized government: individual stadholder and individual local militias. The regents’ distrust for stadholders was based on greed and the potential threat from royal pretenses.

The regents new that the weakness of the stadholders was based primarily on taxation; therefore, they opposed to grant taxes in favor of maintenance for the stadholders. Delilah’s deceiving coaxing allowed her to discover Samson’s weakness was based on his hair. In the picture, Jon Steen shows Samson’s cut strands of hair on the ground, allowing him to be captured and destroyed.

Delilah’ swiftness to betray Samson was to gain prestige, thinking only of self-gain, causing a disunited cynical relationship with Samson. Samson’s weakness for Delilah caused him to lose power and strength, inevitably causing his defeat. Similarly, the disunity of the Dutch estates, allowed a leeway for rivaling European nations to prod conflict. The French and English’s military unity defeated the individualistic Dutch estates, ending the Dutch Golden Age.

The Dutch Golden Age is also highlighted by its economic features. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch was prominently the wealthiest of the European states. Dutch wealth was accumulated through monopolized urban trade and manufacturing. The Dutch East Indies Company was the governmental monopoly that dominated European import and export trade. Dutch economic dependency on trade led them to deal with their enemies. For instance, Spain was their biggest threat, yet they still traded sold arms and supplies.

Dutch economic prosperity took a severe transformation when their stock of Tulips caused a trading surplus. Several invested their life savings on tulips, causing automatic economic ruin. The overindulgence of obtaining so much wealth and then for it to quickly dissipate caused disastrous results for the family structure of the Dutch. Jon Steen describes the disastrous aftermath of economic ruin, through his painting of The Effects of Intemperance (1663-65). The brief economic prosperity caused for great indulgences and carelessness.

For example, the women on the far left is suppose to be teaching her children morals and virtues, yet she is drunk to the point of sloppily sleeping. Without discipline her children are no longer obedient, one of the children is attempting to pick pocket her. Food is not being treasured with care and conservation. Several fruits and breads lay on the floor wasting away and the children eagerly give their food away by feeding it to a cat.

The household maid is evidently drunk, giving wine to a parrot, symbolizing Dutch reliance on excess indulgences. When economic ruin occurred, people began to analyze their life and realize that their excess riches are their downfall, inevitably leading them to damnation. Hence, historian Simon Schama called Dutch wealth “embarrassment of riches”. The painting is a warning to Dutch society of what is occurring to their children and household structure without proper parental guidance.

During the Dutch Golden Age, theological, political, economical, and social aspect of Dutch lifestyle is analytically depicted through the paintings of Jan Steen. The painting Samson and Delilah (1667-70) symbolically describes the deterioration of Dutch political life and hypocritical religious toleration. Jan Steen’s painting of The Effects of Intemperance (1663-65) showed that the reliance on temporary economic benefits proved to be disastrous. The change from economic bliss to economic ruin caused societal issues in the Dutch family-life to become apparent. Jan Steen’s paintings were able to capture Dutch society without hindering reality; he explicitly showed the flaws and restraints that the Dutch Golden Age put forth.