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Jan Steen - St. Nicholas Day

by Alexanda Tuschka

But there is a lot going on in this painting. A little girl in the foreground turns her body away from her mother. She does not want to give her gift - a doll - back. The mother opens her arms invitingly; the girl's smile betrays - for her it is a game.

St. Nicholas Day, which Jan Steen has chosen as a motif in this painting, was one of the most popular holidays in the Netherlands. The painter gives us an impression of how we can imagine the customs of that time: the whole family - three generations - gathered in the living room. The inventory and the high ceilings characterize the parlor as a bourgeois one. In the front of the picture a bread basket can be seen; a shoe, toys and nut shells can also be seen on the tiled floor. On the right is an elaborately carved chair; sweets, fruits and pastries have been draped on it. In the background, all sorts of relatives are cavorting.

As is the case today, on St. Nicholas Day children were either punished or rewarded for their behavior. The little girl in the foreground was obviously particularly well-behaved - she is holding the ornamental doll and a bucket full of sweets in her arms. The crying, slightly older boy was not so lucky. His shoe, laughingly presented by the siblings, was unfortunately empty. His grandmother, however, beckons him to her in the background - perhaps she has secretly hidden something for the boy after all.

Three other children can be seen in the background - the oldest points to the fireplace and explains to the younger siblings how Santa Claus came into the house.

And Jan Steen has placed one more little refinement in the picture - the little girl's doll, with its fur cape, staff cross and halo, represents none other than John - saint veneration was, however, forbidden in Holland. Steen has nevertheless accommodated the theme with a wink.

Jan Steen - St. Nicholas Day

Oil on canvas, 1665-68, 82 x 70.5 cm, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam


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