Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
A Woman at her Toilet
The painting is an outstanding example of Jan Steen’s art in all respects. The elaborate treatment of subject-matter reveals a profusion of references that would have been readily recognisable to his contemporaries, attesting to the painter’s intelligent use of symbolism.
A young woman is shown partially undressed, with an unlaced jacket, putting on a stocking. A lapdog lies on her unmade bed, by which there is a chamber pot, and her shoes are scattered on the floor. The figure is alluring and looks straight out at the viewer with an inviting expression. Seduction is her intent. The viewer, however, is kept out of the room itself, which lies beyond an imposing arched doorway imbued with classical features. Two columns with Corinthian capitals rest on bases decorated with cartouches, whilst the arch itself is adorned with swags and a weeping cherub. There is a marked and deliberate contrast between the interior and the exterior, to the extent that this is clearly to be read as an allegorical painting.
The arched doorway is a threshold that no sensible person should cross, however strong the temptation. The arch represents moral probity emphasised by the symbolism of the sunflower (constancy), the grapevines (domestic virtue) and the weeping cherub (chastised profane love). Once in the room, the viewer is confronted by a host of vanitas objects: a lute with a broken string, a skull intertwined with a vine, a candle with the flame extinguished, and a jewellery box with its lid wide open. These all signify the transient effects of misdirected sensual pleasure. Even the act of pulling on a stocking had a clear message which is found in the emblem book by Roemer Visscher, Sinnepoppen (1614): namely that impetuous behaviour such as pulling on a stocking too quickly could result in its being holed, just as yielding to sensuality could lead to ruin. Steen implies that to pass through the arch would be to risk the loss of virtue. There is, therefore, a sense in which the interior amounts to pagan love and the exterior to spiritual love.
The artist’s ingenuity does not end with the images, but extends to word play: the Dutch word for stocking (kous) used as slang meant fornication and the Dutch word for chamber pot (piespot) used in conjunction with kous (i.e. pieskous) was in slang a pejorative word for women. Similarly, to appreciate the significance of the artist’s signature on the column it is necessary to realise that 'steen' in Dutch means 'stone'.
On a technical basis, the quality of the painting is remarkable for the treatment of the light, particularly in the room itself, and in the meticulous depiction of the still-life objects (the bed, the floor, the ceiling, the chandelier) and the foreshortening of the door.
Signed on left-hand column: JSteen (JS in monogram) and dated on right-hand column: 1663
Catalogue entry adapted from Enchanting the Eye: Dutch paintings of the Golden Age, London, 2004