This large painting from the last years of Jan Steen’s remarkable career is one of the master’s most expansive depictions of a country fair. The merrymaking takes place beneath tall trees in front of an inn, to the right of which, at some remove, are market stalls and a castle gate. The flag hanging from the tower window of a distant church was a signal that a fair was being celebrated that very day. In the midst of the festivities are two intertwined couples dancing to the tunes of a young violinist and a hurdy-gurdy player who has climbed on top of a table. Other figures sit and relax smoking or drinking, while some revelers greet each other with smiles and the doffing of hats. Near the inn a man and a woman toast each other with unrestrained exuberance. Leaning out of a window from the building’s second floor is a man helping his vomiting female companion, an indication that the gaiety will continue, perhaps to dubious ends.
A crown of flowers, attached to a rope strung between two trees, hangs above the dancers. Such crowns were hung up for festive occasions, including weddings and the celebration of the birthday of the Prince of Orange.1 The flag attached to the inn is a frequent feature in depictions of sixteenth-century fairs honoring saints’ days by such artists as Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–69) and David Vinckboons (1576–ca. 1632). Such Catholic festivities, however, were not officially celebrated in protestant Holland and, as Steen provides no explicit clues as to the nature of the celebration, it is probable that he depicted a generic event and not a specific feast day.2
Steen has portrayed a wide array of humanity in this country setting characters familiar from his earlier works. A particularly engaging figure is the woman with a low-cut dress who holds her sleeping young child close to her bosom with one hand while grasping a white earthenware bowl with the other. The bowl will soon be filled with shrimp being sold by the fishmonger once he is paid by the woman’s husband.3 It has been suggested that the couple is Steen and his wife, although this identification is highly doubtful.4 The boy looking at her, probably their son, is eating cherries from his hat, clearly preferring fruit to shrimp.
Many of Steen’s figural groups create scenarios that relate to popular sayings and proverbs. In the center of the painting one sees an unfolding courtship scene, where an older man takes the hand of a country lass, perhaps to invite her join in the dance. The man’s attire is so outlandishly old-fashioned that even in Steen’s day it must have been considered ridiculous. Just behind this man, Steen has depicted two dogs sniffing each other, suggesting the underlying baseness for his attentions to the young woman.5 This motif harkens back to one of Steen’s first works with merrymaking peasants, Peasants Dancing before an Inn (fig 1).6 Near this group is a fisherman, recognizable as such by his blue woolen cap, who sits at a low table holding a clay pipe in his hand. He smiles approvingly at a boy drinking from a large jug. Lying on the barrel near them are smokers’ requisites and, presumably, dice. This little vignette is a visual reference to the saying “As the old sing, so twitter the young,” a theme that Steen often depicted in his paintings.7
In the right foreground an old man leaning on his cane stares lasciviously at a woman relieving herself. She squats near a bridge crossing a small body of water, beyond which lies a boy eating turnips. The fact that the boy looks at the viewer suggests that Steen intended him to introduce a note of irony to the scene, perhaps based on the well-known saying “to pull the wool over someone’s eyes,” the Dutch equivalent of which, iemand knollen voor citroenen verkopen, literally means “to sell someone turnips for lemons.” 8
In the middle distance, a horseman—to judge from his attire, an officer in the States army—gestures expansively toward the merrymakers as he addresses an elegantly dressed young woman. Between the horseman and the woman, a yelping poodle, most likely the woman’s pet, begs for attention. The woman is accompanied by her children, a sumptuously dressed girl who clings to her mother’s skirt and the girl’s older brother. The boy’s costume provides some indication of the painting’s late date, for the cravat around his neck, a lace cloth tied with a bow, was a fashionable item of apparel first introduced around 1670. The handkerchief hanging nonchalantly from his coat pocket was also a costly article of clothing.9 This youth, who is accompanied by a greyhound, haggles with a peasant boy holding up a basket, undoubtedly containing a songbird. This elegant family may well have arrived at the country fair in the carriage stopped by the castle gate. The gentleman sitting in the carriage is presumably the woman’s husband.
In numerous Dutch paintings and prints, town-dwellers are shown observing merrymaking peasants. “Aensiet dit boersche volk” (Look at these peasant folk) are the first words of the caption to an engraving by Willem van Swanenburgh after David Vinckboons. This motif also appears elsewhere in Steen’s work, as in Village Fair of the early 1650s and Winter Landscape in Skokloster.10 Here, it seems likely that Steen simply wanted to present an array of people from different walks of life rather than highlighting the differences between townspeople and country folk.
In the eighteenth century the Leiden Collection painting was identified as Fair at Warmond, as is evident from a drawn copy by Leiden draughtsman Pieter Leonard Delfos made in 1789.11 Warmond is a village near Leiden where Steen lived in the late 1650s, but none of the buildings in this painting resemble those from that village. The church in Warmond, for example, had a quite different appearance. In 1573 a fire had destroyed the structure, and seventeenth-century worshippers gathered in the restored choir, which was connected to the still-existing tower by a completely dilapidated nave. The situation is recorded in a drawing of around 1660 by an artist in the circle of Jan Beerstraaten (fig 2).12 Another argument against Warmond is that neither of the two castles in the area—Lokhorst, also known as Oud-Teilingen, or Warmond Castle—had this kind of gate.
A more likely source of inspiration for Steen than Warmond was Wassenaar, which had a church tower similar in shape to that in the painting. The nave of the Wassenaar church was flanked by a south aisle, which probably could not be distinguished from the nave when seen from a distance. Moreover, Ter Weer Castle, located near Wassenaar, had a gate that resembles that in Steen’s painting.13 The similarities in its appearance were initially even greater, but Steen raised the height of the gate’s roof during the painting’s execution, as can be seen in changes in paint color in this area. Such topographical freedom is found in other late paintings by Jan Steen, as in Garden Party of the Paets Family of 1677, where Steen has depicted the family’s home on the Rapenburg canal in Leiden as though it were in a spacious park landscape.14
Jan Steen painted over 30 scenes of merrymaking peasants at an inn, not including peasant weddings, skittle players, and brawling rustics. He was particularly interested in this subject in his younger years. Although this painting is not refined in every respect, it is among the most important works of Steen’s last period and testifies to his great talent for composition. The artist has here distributed the various figures and vignettes over the canvas with great efficiency. The crowd seems immense, but the individual figures are clearly distinguishable. Similarly, Steen needed only a few tree trunks and some foliage to create the impression of a leafy place by an inn.15 In his later years he was sometimes unable to resist the temptation of painting a crowded scene of merrymaking peasants, as in A Village Revel (Herberg ’t Mis Verstant) of 1673, in the British Royal Collection, but here he showed great restraint.16
A not too surprising change was made to the painting in the past, probably at the end of the eighteenth century or early in the nineteenth century. The defecating woman was repainted so that her right hand was no longer wiping her bottom but placing a milk pail in the ditch (fig 3).17 The overpainting was removed only in 1970. For this motif Steen drew inspiration from Rembrandt’s etching Woman Urinating (fig 4).18 He had used this motif earlier in his career (though evidently in a concealed way), in his Peasant Fair in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem.19 Here, however, quite to the contrary, he quoted Rembrandt’s model with alacrity.
The elegant young woman and two children at the right may be members of the patron’s family. It should be noted, however, that the extravagant clothing of the two children seems more exaggerated than realistic (the girl’s ermine collar is particularly over the top), so one must be careful about coming to that conclusion.20 The first known owner of the painting is Willem van Heemskerck (1613–92), but whether he actually commissioned it is difficult to say. The four works by Steen from his collection differ greatly from each other and do not suggest that he had a systematic approach to his acquisitions of paintings. It is remarkable, however, that two important late works by Jan Steen (Peasants Merrymaking and JS-112) belonging to Van Heemskerck are once again united in the same collection.21