Angela Jager and Jørgen Wadum describe their latest research in the artwork: The Children’s Meal.

Signed ‘J.Steen’, c. 1665. Oil on panel, 82 x 70.5 cm.

Angela Jager and Jørgen Wadum describe their latest research in the artwork: The Children’s Meal.

Signed ‘J.Steen’, c. 1665. Oil on panel, 82 x 70.5 cm.

One of the most wonderful and gorgeous paintings in the Nivaagaard Collection is Jan Steen’s The Children’s Meal, acquired by Johannes Hage in 1904.

In this painting, Jan Steen presents to the viewer an intimate glimpse into his real life. The children in this scene are the painter’s own: his oldest daughter Eva (b. 1653) is frying pancakes, while the little Catharina is sitting in the kakstoel (closestool) munching on a freshly baked one. His oldest son Thadeus (b. 1651) is holding the cat and pulling its ears, so that Cornelis can force pancake batter on him, or is this perhaps the porridge of the little one? The floor is covered in egg yolk and shells, and the dog is barking at the cat. The true comical meaning of the painting lies in what we do not see depicted: the children lack a good role model. This makes Jan Steen himself the protagonist of this painting; as an absent father of his disobedient kin and failed master of a disorderly household.

Doodverf – the great significance of the underpainting

Steen has painted his lively children on an oak panel with a light coloured ground layer. In infrared imaging we can see that he first indicated the figures with a thin black carbon-stick.

Next, he filled in the main shadow areas and folds in his clothes in broad fluid brushstrokes. After this the local colours are laid on top covering most of the dead-colouring. However, as the top paint layer is somewhat translucent the dead-colour acts as shadows. In the detail of the boy we see along his sleeve thin sketchy lines of underdrawing and the broad dark brushstrokes modelling the folds of the sleeve.

This painting stage is in the seventeenth century called the ‘doodverf’ or ‘dead-colouring’. Originally this term refers to a monochrome underpainting of a painting, often in dark earth colours, by which the light and dark parts of the scene are sketched. The intensity of the colours, shadows and areas of light in a finished painting are largely determined by the underlying layers of paint and thus by the underpainting.

A highlight appreciated in 1771 and today

In the eighteenth century, The Children’s Meal was owned by the Amsterdam wine merchant Gerrit Braamcamp (1699-1771). At the time Braamcamp had the largest and most valuable collection of Dutch and Flemish old master paintings in the world. This celebrated collection received visits from aristocrats from all over Europe, including King Christian VII of Denmark. After Braamcamp’s death in 1771, his belongings were sold by public auction. The auction attracted some of the most renowned collectors of the time, including King Louis XV of France and Catharina the Great, tsarina of Russia. We know that The Children’s Meal attracted the attention of the Dutch drawing-collector Cornelis Ploos van Amstel (1726-1798), who commissioned the local draughtsman Aert Schouman (1710-1792) to copy the work in an aquarelle for his collection[1]:

Schouman inscribed the drawing with the text:

“A. Schouman f[ecit] 1771, drawn after the original by J Steen, no. 212 in the sale of G. Braamkamp, sold for 850 guilders.”

That it reached the high price of 850 guilders indicates that there were several interested parties, and we can only imagine how art collectors at the auction were frantically placing bids on Steen’s work. The winning bid was offered by the broker Paulus Schuckinck (c. 1740-1783), who purchased the painting for a client in England. The painting would remain in England until Johannes Hage bought it for his collection in 1904.

[1] Sale Amsterdam (Sotheby’s) 9-11-1999, no. 179

By Angela Jager and Jørgen Wadum, 5 July 2022

The text is an expression of the discoveries made at the time of publication. We reserve the right to make changes as new information from the still ongoing research project may occur.

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