man; costume/uniform; leisure/recreation
Jan Steen is known for his paintings of colorful, chaotic genre scenes: messy households with common folk drinking and merrymaking. A true man of the people, Steen knew his subjects intimately. He was a storyteller who often featured himself as one of the characters in his compositions.
Dutch society in the seventeenth century was governed by a deep sense of morality, and Steen would often point out the flaws and contradictions of this mindset through visual cues and puns in his paintings. His wit and deep understanding of human nature is demonstrated in this tavern scene, in which a reflective old man has retired his pipe, an object often equated with male virility. Mussel shells, a symbol of female sexuality, are scattered on the floor. The man no longer reads, but instead his younger companion reads a letter aloud to him. Steen’s message seems to be that this man’s days of being an active participant in life are over.