Adults and children gaze in amazement at the contents of a cabinet containing wax figurines that a young man holds up for them to see. He is undoubtedly one of the Savoyards—natives of Savoy—who were well known as itinerant musicians (often seen with a hurdy-gurdy and a monkey) or, as in this case, showmen who demonstrated their tricks for a small fee. Although Savoyards generally had a bad reputation, no one in this crowd seems the least bit wary of his presence. This showman has attracted a range of onlookers, including an adolescent girl holding a toddler in her arms and two or three boys at her right, one of whom has placed his left arm on the shoulder of a smaller lad wearing a hat. A milkman and his wife are so engrossed in the performance that they do not notice that a dog is lapping up milk from the milkman’s pail. An inquisitive young girl, hoping to enjoy the performance, enters the courtyard through the gate at the left. A young woman watches the goings-on from the door of the building as an older man stares at her, transfixed by her beauty. To the right of the children, an elderly woman observes the scene through a pince-nez, unaware that the showman’s young accomplice is reaching into her purse to steal from her. The boy simultaneously points at her and looks at the viewer, his mocking expression signifying both her stupidity and her gullibility.
The theme of this painting is “appearances are deceiving and people are inclined to be deceived.” This aphorism, popularized by Sebastian Brandt, well known as the author of Narrenschip (Ship of Fools) of 1494, is based on a saying attributed to Petronius (ca. 27–66 A.D.) “Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur” (the world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived).1 Brandt was also the compiler of Paradoxa, a collection of proverbs that appeared in 1542 and was responsible for the wide dissemination of many proverbs. Jan Steen, who often based his pictorial themes on such proverbs, used his illusionistic manner of painting to reinforce the idea of human deception and the absurdity of the world.
The façade of the building providing the backdrop to the assembled company is similar to that in Jan Steen’s painting Little Alms Collector, ca. 1665, a depiction of the children’s parade held at Whitsuntide (fig 1).2 Despite the similarity of the building and the gate in these two paintings, however, numerous small differences indicate that the scene is not an accurate rendering of an existing location.3 One difference, for example, is the flaking plaster on the building in Little Alms Collector, which is absent in Demonstration of Wax Figures.
Despite the compositional connections to Little Alms Collector, there are reasons to doubt the attribution of Demonstration of Wax Figures to Steen. First of all, the execution is quite smooth and too uninspired to be the work of this master. One searches in vain for the expressive rendering of clothing that Steen so depicted with painterly brilliance, often executed wet-into-wet.4 The meticulous execution of the heads of the secondary figures—such as the woman standing in the doorway and the girl holding a hoop, approaching from the left—is not typical of the cursory character in which the master depicted his supporting actors. Moreover, the facial features of the cutpurse cannot be reconciled with figure types from Steen’s own hand.5
One possibility is that the painting is based on a lost original by the master. This theory is premised, in part, by the existence of another slightly different version of the painting, also executed by a follower of Steen.6 Both versions may derive from a lost original by the master or, given the differences between them, from two lost originals.7 In the Leiden Collection painting, for example, the girl approaching from the left has in her hands a hoop and a stick; in the other version she holds a little windmill on a stick.8 The two figures in the doorway are also different: instead of a young woman and an older man leering at her, one sees a boy in a red cap and a young woman in a white cap who leans towards her companion. The clothing of the Savoyard’s apprentice is also completely different in these two works.
With the regard to the dating, it is significant that a milkman occupies a central position in another of Steen’s compositions, Milkman, which the artist executed in the late 1650s. The composition of this work is also similar, for the scene takes place in a courtyard with an archway opening to a distant vista.9 These similarities suggest that Steen’s original composition, on which the Leiden Collection painting is based, probably also dated from the second half of the 1650s.
Perhaps Richard Brakenburgh, a follower of Jan Steen, who often created heads such as those of the background figures in this work, was the maker of the present painting. Although there is insufficient evidence to definitely attribute the work to him, it may be assumed that the painting was executed in the late seventeenth century, at a time when Brakenburgh was making his many free imitations of Steen, including, for example, Feast of Saint Nicholas and Little Alms Collector, a work for which he unmistakably drew inspiration from Steen’s painting in the Petit Palais in Paris.10 An X-radiograph has revealed that the present work is painted over a male portrait, the style of which is not in keeping with that of Steen’s few known portraits.11
The theme of Demonstration of Wax Figures was the focus of a painting by Willem van Mieris (1662–1747), Peepshow (fig 2), which the Leiden artist made in 1718 for the prosperous Leiden collector Allard de la Court, who purchased it for the huge sum of 1,000 guiders.12 In those days Van Mieris’s painting was also called ’t Fraaij curieus, a title that imitates the cry (“vrai curieux”) that the Savoyards sang in praise of their marvelous peepshows. The painting’s Dutch title, Rarekiek, is derived from kijken (to look) and raar (strange, rare, or curious), the latter not so much in the sense of “strange” (the usual meaning of the Dutch word), but rather in the English sense of “curious” or “exceptional.” As opposed to Demonstration of Wax Figures, Van Mieris’s emphasis lies on the onlookers’ surprise and the detailed depiction of the peasant interior, not on the deceit of simple folk who let themselves be fooled.