One of the most popular masterpieces included in the Sin exhibition at The Arc, Winchester, is a humorous and scandalous painting, which pokes, prods, judges and muses. It’s The Effects of Intemperance by Jan Steen and is a key historical artwork in the National Gallery’s impressive collection. In this article, we share visitor and staff reactions to its medley of chaos and skill.
Vicious humour, shimmering silks and fluffy fur trims make Steen's work a cornucopia of cutting commentary and painterly proficiency. But what’s going on in the scene and why is the painting so mesmeric?
Steen was a master satirist, humorously confronting society with its sins. ‘A Jan Steen household’ is a common Dutch expression for a chaotic and unruly household, of which this painting is a wonderful example. The mother has fallen into an intoxicated slumber, leaving her children to commit ever-greater transgressions. In the background, a young woman has turned to prostitution – female characters were often portrayed as gateways to sin. In Steen’s secularised depiction of sin, the church still looms in the background.
We delve further into the symbols and signals given in this painting – and all works contained in the exhibition – in our artist information packs, to be found in the gallery.
Liv sees their family personified in Steen’s painting:
"Aren't families just a joy? In Steen's work, I see a mirror to my own family during the COVID lockdowns - indulged vices numbing the delirium of being trapped at home.
What strikes me is the brilliantly naughty, red-cheeked mischief written on the face of everyone here - the child top and centre absolutely knows he's a little delinquent and he looks right at us, mocking us, daring us to tattle. This painting reminds the viewer of the ridiculous fun of being a child, the raw imagination and creativity that goes into getting up to no good. Am I a sinner for feeling nostalgic? Oh, and poor mum on the left; critics are harsh to her overindulgence in tobacco and wine. Give her some compassion! If your kids were willful imps like these, you would be exactly the same!"
Oliver reads deeply into the details of the work:
“Throughout Jan Steen’s chaotic piece, the blatant flaunting of wealth is undermined by the inevitable threat of poverty. Reinforced through the looming presence of the beggar’s crutch above their heads, Steen warns the family of their impending fate. Moreover, the disregard and absence of societal expectations and conformity is a critique of the increasing morally wayward elites and their overindulgence in excess. Ultimately, to surpass the effects of intemperance, Steen implies that hard, purposeful and diligent work is required for a chance at redemption, reflecting the pillars of Calvinism implicit within the watchful gaze of the Church.”
John Reed, Exhibitions Assistant for Winchester, empathises with the intoxicated subjects of the work:
“For me, the subject matter of this work is humorous but tinged with cruelty. The ladies are hard done by, as nobody enjoys the anxiety of being presented with proof of their intoxication, let alone having their exploits painted masterfully for posterity! The two ladies appear drained and confused like students post freshers week, likely nursing heavy heads. I imagine them as being snatched from a freeing altered state, similar to those once found in the parades of Bacchus, back into the harsh world of responsibility and reality. Perhaps Steen grinned as wickedly as the children in his works, while his paintbrush dragged innocents out of the joys of revelry and into the hell of sobriety. However, Steen can be slightly forgiven for his nerve because of the craftsmanship on display. If he captured my own accoutrements in such fine fashion, I'd forgive him for any transgression!”
These reactions are telling; Steen’s clever, skillful painting is engaging and reflective, busily constructed, beautiful and brilliant. Whether you want to snicker at smirking kids, fawn over fabrics or geek out over renaissance era Dutch morality, The Effects of Intemperance has a lot to offer. Be sure not to miss this opportunity to see the painting outside of the National Gallery walls... and avoid falling prey to Sloth!
Find out more about the exhibition and book your exhibition tickets and limited-edition accompanying book by clicking here.