“In weelde siet toe” (In Luxury Beware), the proverb that inspired Jan Steen’s painting, is literally set in stone on the bench in the foreground. Sitting on this bench is an enticing Bacchanalian reveler, who, with grape vines encircling her head, strums her cittern while gazing out evocatively at the viewer, as though inviting him to take part in the merrymaking. The big boozer behind her, wearing a red hat crowned with a cock’s feather, smilingly raises a glass of wine in one hand while clutching a jug close to his side with his other. The festive music provided by the woman, the bagpiper and the flute player could not have created a very harmonious sound, but one senses that the quality of the music was not their principle concern.1 Despite the woman’s come-hither look, the slashes on the large man’s blue pants and on the bagpipe player’s sleeves are consistent with sixteenth-century fashions, which reminds the viewer that the scene is not taken from contemporary life, but is an allegorical depiction of the proverb. In a similar fashion, the actions of the children—one of whom offers a morsel of cake to a barking dog while another holds up a bunch of grapes—relate thematically to the proverb “Sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus,” (Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus would freeze). The proverb means that love cannot flourish without food and drink.
The key to understanding the full thematic implications of the painting, however, is not to be found in the foreground figures but on the terrace in the right background, where Steen depicted the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:18–21). Here Steen has followed a narrative model used by artists in the circle of Pieter Aertsen (1508–75) and Joachim Beuckelaer (1533–74). In paintings by these artists, the true meaning of a scene is only revealed upon discovering the significance of seemingly subordinate passages in the backgrounds of their paintings, a compositional structure known as the paradoxical encomium, or ironic eulogy.2 The origin of this rhetorical trope lies in literature, and was extensively used by Desiderius Erasmus in his Lof der zotheid (“In Praise of Folly”), published in 1511. Jan Steen often drew inspiration from Erasmus and the works of Aertsen and Beuckelaer, but he seldom applied the principles of the paradoxical encomium as thoroughly as he did in this painting.3
In the background of Steen’s painting the rich man sits at a table in the company of a young woman and a young man, while a waiter pours him a glass of wine. Lazarus lies before the table with his right hand raised and his left hand holding a begging bowl while a greyhound licks his sores. A maidservant, pointedly crossing her arms, feeds a white poodle standing on its hind legs to beg for this gift.4 The pains taken by the girl to train a dog are in stark contrast to her unpitying attitude toward Lazarus. This motif relates to the story’s moral lesson about caring for those less fortunate than oneself, for after Lazarus died he went to heaven, whereas the rich man ended up in hell. When the rich man saw Lazarus sitting in Abraham’s lap, he asked if Lazarus could bring him a sip of water, but this request was refused. His entreaty to send Lazarus to warn members of his family about the consequences of their behavior was also refused.
In the seventeenth century, the story of Lazarus and the rich man was connected with the necessity of doing good works, as is seen in two group portraits painted in 1624 by Werner van den Valckert (1585–1627), Regents and Regentesses of the Leper House in Amsterdam. In his depiction of the male regents Van der Valckert portrayed Lazarus sitting in Abraham’s lap.5 This painting also includes a depiction of one of the acts of mercy: clothing the poor. The doctrine of doing good works held that it was possible to improve one’s chances of entering heaven by performing good deeds. This theme was generally treated with extreme caution in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic since, according to the doctrine of predestination to which the Calvinists adhered, it was impossible to bring about any change whatsoever in God’s preordained plan. This issue was clearly known to the regents of the Leper House, hence it is surprising that Van den Valckert referred so overtly to the Lazarus story in this work. Nevertheless Lazarus and lepers were at that time almost synonymous. For Catholics like Jan Steen, however, the doctrine of good works remained important, and it is probable that Steen painted Lazarus and the Rich Man for a Catholic patron.
Lazarus and the Rich Man has a number of connections to other works by Steen. For example, in a painting of a dissolute household, dated 1663, Steen inscribed the proverb “In weelde siet toe” on a piece of slate at the lower right (fig 1). Instead of illustrating this proverb with a biblical subject, as he did in the Leiden Collection painting, Steen here introduced a number of pictorial motifs that allude to other proverbs warning about insatiable desires stemming from excessive luxury, among them worldliness, avarice, gluttony, and lasciviousness.6 In 1667 Steen portrayed the story of Lazarus and the rich man in a lavish but not overcrowded scene.7 The motif of the rich man in the background of the painting appears in reverse in The Banquet of Anthony and Cleopatra of 1667 in Göttingen.8 The motif of the poodle standing on its hind legs appears a number of times in Steen’s paintings, in, among others, a work in Nivaa and a painting in Cape Town.9 The one quite distinctive figure in this painting is the lady playing the cittern, which does not otherwise appear in Steen’s works. As Mary Ann Scott has rightly observed, Steen derived this figure from Cornelis Bega’s (1631–64) Young Woman Playing the Lute of 1662 in Berlin (fig 2).10 Steen must have remembered that painting when he moved from Haarlem to Leiden.
The Leiden Collection painting is stylistically similar to other works from the last years of Steen’s career, including Merry Company on a Terrace (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), Family of Jan Steen (The Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest), and Garden Party of the Paets Family, dated 1677, and must date from the same period.11