Posted by lkkkj on 12. Jul 2012

Jan Steen, The Effects of Intemperance, ca.1663-1665, Oil on wood, National Gallery, London

From Andrew Graham Dixon:

That mischievous pick-pocket probably embodies the Dutch saying that “opportunity makes the thief”.

Clues to the significance of several other details are likewise to be found in the popular proverbs and books of moralised emblems that circulated in seventeenth-century Holland.

The parrot, offered a glass of wine by the eldest child, symbolises blind emulation and indicates that the sins of the mother will be passed on to her offspring.

The flushed face of the kneeling girl and her air of unsteadiness suggest that she has already boozily followed maternal example. Behind, a boy throws roses in the direction of the pig that is snuffling hopefully in the direction of the food.

The detail is puzzling until you know that the Dutch spoke of throwing rosebuds, rather than pearls, before swine. So the rose-strewn pig symbolises those who waste the benefits bestowed upon them with base behaviour, like the rich but dissolute family shown by Jan Steen.

The painter also suggests that these people will not hold on to their wealth for long. The three younger children, feeding a perfectly good meat pie to the cat, stand for the profligacy of the mismanaged household as a whole.

The basket that hangs above the bad mother’s head contains the tools of the beggar’s trade, including a set of crutches, as well as the symbolic birch of punitive justice.


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