A seated woman counts the money lying before her next to an open purse on a table, and carefully records the result with a pen on a piece of paper. Casting a vague shadow on the tablecloth is a long stick propped up against the table. Although at first glance this appears to be a genre scene, the woman’s face displays such compelling personal features that the painting may very well be a portrait—a hypothesis that is outlined below. Although the painting is untraceable in the previous literature on Jan Steen, the characteristic treatment of the hands, face, and still-life details, as well as the typical manner of rendering clothing, shows this painting to be a wholly characteristic work by this master.1
There are unusual aspects about this painting, however, that require some explanation. To begin with, the nature of the panel support is odd in a number of ways. The panel is unusually tall with respect to its width, in addition to which the painter used a plank with a horizontal grain for a vertical support. Moreover, it is noteworthy that the oak panel did not come from the Baltic region, as was customary, but from Western Europe.2 The possibility that it was sawn off a larger panel can be rejected on the basis of technical research. Traces of ground are visible along the left edge, as well as along the top and bottom, which means that the original edges have been preserved on these three sides.3 Technical examination indicates that part of the right edge of the small panel has been cropped, perhaps so that it would fit into the frame. The position of the signature in the light area of the wall behind the woman also indicates that the painting has not been reduced at the right: more space on that side would cause the name to appear in the middle of the painting—a highly unusual place for this painter’s signature.
Counting money is generally associated with the theme of avarice. In this case, however, there is none of the irony with which Jan Steen generally imbued the subject. For example, a painting of a man hanging over the lower part of the door of a humble dwelling and showing a coin from a money pouch bears the inscription “Dat heb je niet” (This you don’t have), which neatly expresses a simple warning against avarice.4 A painting in Copenhagen shows an old miser whose delight in his treasures allows him to be led astray by Death, who appears behind the window.5 Here, too, the message is obvious. In the Leiden Collection painting, however, such associations do not apply. Rather, it seems that the woman is seriously weighing the possible uses to which she could put her savings.
Another striking element is the woman’s clothing: her attire is simple but immaculate, as demonstrated by the lace cap she wears under her hood and the two carefully chosen shades of brown in the jacket and the hood and skirt. Comparison with depictions of seventeenth-century costumes suggests that this painting portrays a “spiritual sister,” i. e., a beguine (begijn) or lay sister (klopje). The dress of these spiritual sisters, which did not differ much from the clothing of ordinary women, is, above all, modest. Nevertheless, these women were an arresting feature of the urban landscape, as evidenced by the depiction of an Amsterdam beguine 6. Several lay sisters of Gouda, in Wouter Crabeth’s painting Bernard of Clairvaux Converting William of Aquitaine of 1641 (fig 1), wear clothing that corresponds to the attire of this woman counting coins.7 Beguines lived together in a community and their lifestyle was determined by biblical precepts. In contrast to women in monastic orders, these sisters did not take vows of allegiance. The many beguinages in Dutch cities testify to the desire for a life of piety and order without being weighed down by everlasting vows. In seventeenth-century Holland, which was predominantly Protestant, these communities generally existed in a clandestine manner.
These women, most of whom were extremely devout, were frequently the object of ridicule. The word kwezel, another name for a beguine, came to mean a sanctimonious nag. Derision also resounds in the well-known Dutch song “Zeg kwezelke wilde gij dansen” (Hey, self-righteous sister, would you like to dance).8 Because Steen often parodied these pious “quakers” in his paintings (e. g., In Luxury Beware in Vienna and Merry Family in the Rijksmuseum),9 one would expect him to have also cast beguines in a comic role, a prime example being the elderly woman singing in As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.10 Yet the mirth that characterizes that painting is entirely absent from the work discussed here.
The conjecture that Woman Counting Coins portrays a lay sister calls to mind Arnold Houbraken’s assertion that a sister of Jan Steen had a similar vocation.11 Houbraken relates that Steen, a widower out courting, had a drink with Maria van Egmond, the widow of Nicolaes Hercules. Their meeting had been arranged by a friend, who then advised Steen to discuss the matter with his sister, who was a lay sister: “een geestelycke dochter” (a spiritual daughter). It is not known which of Steen’s two unmarried sisters Houbraken had in mind: Swaentje (officially Agnes) or Catharina.12 It is usually assumed that Catharina, the younger sister, had the spiritual vocation,13 but this is not very likely. The incident supposedly took place not long before April 1673, at which time the youngest of Steen’s sisters must have been approximately 24 years old and the elder, who was born around 1636, about 37. It does not seem very likely that Steen would have asked his younger sister, who was his junior by 20 years, for advice about a courtship.14
The possible identification of the woman portrayed in this work also raises questions of the painting’s date of origin. Dendrochronological research has shown that the panel was probably painted after 1658, while a dating around 1665 is the most plausible for stylistic reasons. Dating this work requires one to examine not only Steen’s portraits but also his genre scenes. Although the small portraits of Gerrit Schouten and his wife made in 1665 do not provide a useful basis of comparison, owing to the elegant presentation and the slightly nervous manner of painting, the somewhat simpler portraits of Schouten’s parents corroborate this dating.15 If the assumption is correct that this is a portrait of Steen’s “spiritual” sister, the chance that it portrays his youngest sister—who was around 17 in 1665—is very small indeed.
The combination of a few assumptions—such as the portrait-like nature of this small painting, its personal character, and the possibility that Steen portrayed a lay sister, possibly his own sibling—provides more than the usual material for debate. When the work surfaced in 2003, it did not attract much attention, yet it is a characteristic and intimate work by this master, one that is eye-catching because of its clear idiom and fine lighting effects. There is more than enough reason to showcase this work as a fascinating piece by this remarkable painter.