The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection, A Family Collection, A National Museum, An International Treasure House
Celebrating the Birth
  • Jan Steen (1626 - 1679)
  • Celebrating the Birth
  • Netherlands
  • 1664
  • Painting
  • Oil on canvas
  • Image size: 87.7 x 107 cm
  • Signature: 'JSteen.1664.', the 'JS' in monogram
  • P111
  • East Galleries II
Commentary
History
Further Reading
  • In this painting, Jan Steen departs radically from the established tradition of depicting childbirth celebrations by focusing not on the mother, but on the father, and by suggesting the child’s illegitimacy. His subversive treatment of the subject was not apparent until the painting was cleaned in 1983, and the removal of 19th-century paint revealed a hand making the sign of the cuckold above the baby’s head. The husband stands at the centre and is showing off the new child, unaware of the duplicity surrounding him. The cheeky long-haired young man behind the baby is probably a self-portrait of the artist. To emphasize the husband’s impotence, Steen litters the scene with sexual imagery and visual puns. The warming pan, prominent in the foreground, recalls the saying ‘the only warmth in the marriage bed is the warming pan’, and other innuendoes are provided by the hanging sausage and the broken eggshells: ‘cracking eggs’ was a euphemism for sexual intercourse at the time. Underlying such ribaldry is the moral as to the importance of the institutions of marriage and the family in a harmonious and civilized society.