Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Steen, Jan - by H.R. Rookmaaker

Jan Steen’s St Nicholas morning

by H.R. Rookmaaker
We will discuss here briefly and not at all exhaustively this famous
painting from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Unmistakably, Steen conveys us into the home of a Catholic family:
the little girl has been given a doll of a saint! What is the problem or
difficulty for the painter? That he should depict so much movement and
confused activity in his painting. We must recognize that he wants to tell
us, ‘Yes, that is what it is like.’ Yet at the same time everything must be
neatly laid out and clear, for with a disorderly painting one does not
achieve this effect. Nor may anything appear to have been posed.
The painter cannot arrange all his figures in a row, for example. Neither
is the painter interested in creating a snapshot. So much would never
actually be happening at the same moment. His work of art must present
a comprehensive picture of this typically Dutch event.
How did he achieve all this? Partly by constructing his composition
along fixed lines. The centre-point at the bottom is indicated by the little
shoe. From there two slanted lines run: one runs towards the upper right
and is shown by the little stick that the pointing boy has in his hand and
comes out where the corner of the mantelpiece intersects with the upper
edge of the painting; the other one runs toward the upper left and is
shown by the handle of the bucket and comes out where the middle
window jamb intersects with the upper edge of the painting.
Now, if we take the lower left-hand corner as our point of departure,
we can see a clear line that runs past something orange in the bucket,
past the mother’s head, and along the arm of the boy who is showing his
brother that Black Peter had come through the chimney. A second line
runs from the lower left-hand corner past the head of the girl, the
grandfather and the grandmother, toward the point already mentioned
where the corner of the mantelpiece intersects with the upper edge.
From that point there is a clear vertical that comes out at the leg of
the chair below. The intersection at the lower edge of the painting is
indicated by the underside of the huge ginger biscuit in the right lower
corner of the painting. From there another line runs past the head of
the girl and the boy, who received the rod.
The many repeated V-forms give this painting its tremendous
liveliness. Next we would still want to analyse how the artist created
depth in the painting and assigned every figure its place in such a way
that everything is unambiguous and clear.
In this way we discover that Jan Steen was able to tell his story
precisely through his tight composition. With great psychological insight
he has been able to portray the grandfather for us as he follows events
with satisfaction, but also with a certain detachment, and the
grandmother, who still has something hidden away in the box bed for
the boy who got the rod and who is now being teased by his brother and
sister, and the trio by the chimney who are singing ‘Thank you, Saint
A final observation: notice how here too an introduction is provided
by the beautiful still life at the bottom left, and how the left half of the
painting is simpler and has fewer figures in it than the right side, which
is almost too small to fit everything in. The chair with the ginger cookie
functions as the conclusion.
Published in Dutch in Kunst en Amusement, Kok – Kampen, 1962.
Published in English in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker:
The Complete Works 3, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003.