Steen and members of his family modeled for this scene of domestic chaos, which is still called a "Jan Steen Household" in The Netherlands. The company acts out a variety of familiar sins, such as Sloth, Gluttony, Lust (papa and the maid), and other offences—a Bible is trampled, and a beggar is repelled at the door—all heedless of the open watch, suggesting temperance, and the basket hanging like Fate over their heads (the objects in it promise poverty, disease, bad luck, and justice). The only thing refined about the picture is Steen’s technique, especially in his wife’s costume.
This canvas dates from the 1660s, when Steen lived in Haarlem. During that decade, the artist painted this subject and works with closely related themes in a steady stream of variations. Some of them bear inscriptions, which provide—in striking contrast to most Dutch genre paintings of the period—titles that were given in the artist's lifetime, often by the painter himself. Steen placed the unnecessary notice Bedurfve huishow (Disorderly Household) on a picture with a different composition (Wellington Museum, London) but the same subject as here.
The central figure in this work is a self-portrait; the mistress of the house, relaxing with abandon, strongly resembles Margriet van Goyen, Steen's first wife. The couple's sons, Thaddeus (born 1651) and Cornelis (probably born 1656), may have modeled for the unruly boys to the left and for similar youths in approximately contemporary pictures. The apparent ages of these figures would be consistent with a date of about 1663–64, which is a plausible dating of the picture on stylistic grounds.
Steen's canvas may be said to concisely catalogue many of Holland's favorite faults. The sins of Sloth (embodied by the old woman at left), Lust, and Gluttony (the latter concerns any comestible, including tobacco), are at home with seemingly lesser offenses, such as sacrilege (the trampled Bible), gambling (the backgammon board), personal vanity and, of course, poor parenting skills—one of Steen's standard subjects. These diverse violations lead to the supreme sin in Holland of a disorderly household, a form of discord (indicated here by the snapped lute strings) that in Dutch genre paintings is confirmed by litter on the floor and cats having carte blanche in the larder.
The timely warning of a pocket watch lies on the floor, with a conspicuous key on a ribbon. Like the same motif in compositions by still-life painters, these objects probably add to the usual reminder of mortality a plea for regulation, or temperance. The family's fate literally hangs overhead in the form of a basket bearing an odd assortment of attributes. The sword and switch are instruments of justice and punishment. The crutch and metal can forecast a life of beggary; sticks of straw were sold for a pittance in the street. The wooden clapper on the left, called a Lazarusklep (Lazarus clapper), was a warning device assigned to lepers and the plague-stricken. The jack of spades signifies bad luck. The flag to the upper left might suggest that the boy with the sword will wind up in the army, which was the last refuge of young men whose families had fallen on hard times. That the same youth repels a beggar from the door adds an ironic touch. Like the Lazarusklep, the encounter recalls the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), in which a beggar is turned away from the banquet of a wealthy man. The latter eventually roasts in hell while the beggar goes to heaven.
On the windows in the background are painted decorations that represent a boar (or bear?) marching with a musket, and a lion holding a staff. Many broadsheets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries show animals taking on human roles, often in concert with subservient people. Steen refers here to the popular theme of a Verkeerde Wereld (World Upside Down), and suggests that this particular Bedurfve huishow is but one corner in that topsy-turvy realm.
Several early copies are catalogued by Braun (1980). [2011; adapted from Liedtke 2007]
Inscription: Signed (lower right): I. STEEN
Jan Tak, Leiden (his estate sale, Soeterwoude, The Netherlands, September 5, 1781, no. 19, for fl. 439 to Hoogeveen); Van Helsleuter [probably Van Eyl Sluyter], Amsterdam (until 1802; his sale, Paris, January 25, 1802, no. 164, for Fr 1800 to Simon); Cardinal Joseph Fesch, Rome (until d. 1839; his estate, 1839–45; cat., 1841, no. 855; his estate sale, Palais Ricci, Rome, March 17ff., 1845, no. 226, as "La Joyeuse collation," for 1,150 écus romains [Fr 6,325] to Preston); Jules Porgès, Paris (in 1911); [N. Beets Galleries, Amsterdam]; H. E. ten Cate, Almelo, later De Lutte (near Oldenzaal), The Netherlands (by 1926–at least 1957); Mrs. Myrtil Frank, New York (until 1964; sold to Linsky through the New York Hanseatic Association); Mr. and Mrs. Jack Linsky, New York (1964–his d. 1980); The Jack and Belle Linsky Foundation, New York (1980–82)
Paris. Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume. "Grands et petits maîtres hollandais," 1911, no. 151 (as "L'Intempérance," lent by Jules Porgès).
Leiden. Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal. "Jan Steen," June 16–August 31, 1926, no. 73 (lent by H. E. ten Cate, Almelo).
Arnhem, The Netherlands. Gemeente-Museum. "Tentoonstelling van schilderijen van 17e eeuwsche Nederlandsche meesters uit particuliere Nederlandsche verzamelingen en uit de collectie van de firma D. Katz te Dieren," March 31–April 29, 1934, no. 57.
Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Commissie Waalbrug (in huize "Belvoir"). "Tentoonstelling van 16e en 17e eeuwsche Hollandsche, Vlaamsche en Italiaansche schilderijen . . . en antiquiteiten uit de collectie der Fa. D. Katz te Dieren," July 15–September 1, 1936, no. 62.
Dieren, The Netherlands. D. Katz. "Tentoonstelling van belangrijke 16e en 17e eeuwsche Hollandsche schilderijen. . .," July 3–September 15, 1937, no. 88.
Dieren, The Netherlands. D. Katz. "Exhibition of 17th Century Dutch Masterpieces," ?–September 15, 1939, no. ? [see advertisement for the exhibition in Burlington Magazine 75 (August 1939), p. vii, where this painting is illustrated].
Rotterdam. Museum Boymans. "Kunstschatten uit Nederlandse Verzamelingen," June 19–September 25, 1955, no. 119 (lent by H. E. ten Cate, De Lutte [bij Oldenzaal]).
Dordrechts Museum. "Mens en muziek," July 13–September 1, 1957, no. 76 (lent by H. E. ten Cate).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Miró: The Dutch Interiors," October 5, 2010–January 17, 2011, not in catalogue.
THIS WORK MAY NOT BE LENT, BY TERMS OF ITS ACQUISITION BY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.
John Smith. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish, and French Painters. Vol. 4, London, 1833, pp. 12–13, no. 39, as "The Dessert".
Catalogue des tableaux composant la galerie de feu son éminence le cardinal Fesch. Rome, 1841, p. 42, no. 855, as "Une Bambochade, petites figures dans le gout flamand," 3 pieds 8 pouces high by 2 pieds 9 pouces wide [no artist's name given].
"Vente de la galerie Fesch, à Rome." Le Cabinet de l'amateur et de l'antiquaire 4 (1845–46), p. 282, no. 226, records that it was sold to M. Preston for 1,150 écus romains at the Fesch sale.
T[obias]. van Westrheene. Jan Steen: étude sur l'art en Hollande. The Hague, 1856, p. 153, no. 291, p. 168, no. 471, records that it was bought by M. Hoogeveen for fl. 439 at the Tak sale of 1781 and mentions another version included in the Danser Nyman [Nijman] sale of 1797 [Hofstede de Groot no. 113]; also records the Fesch sale of 1845.
C[ornelis]. Hofstede de Groot. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. Ed. Edward G. Hawke. Vol. 1, London, 1907, p. 41, no. 112, as "The Dessert".
Franzsepp Würtenberger. Das holländische Gesellschaftsbild. Schramberg, Germany, 1937, pp. 93–94, pl. XXIII, as in the collection of H. E. ten Cate, Almelo.
E[duard]. Trautscholdt inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 31, Leipzig, 1937, p. 511, as "Der Nachtisch," in the collection of D. Katz, Dieren.
Alfred M. Frankfurter. "One Hundred Lowland Masterworks." Art News 35 (August 14, 1937), p. 26, identifies the central figure as the artist himself.
C[aroline]. H[enriette]. de Jonge. Jan Steen. Amsterdam, , pp. 28–30, ill. p. 27, as in the collection of H. E. ten Cate, Almelo; dates it 1660.
D. Hannema. Catalogue of the H. E. ten Cate Collection. Rotterdam, 1955, text vol., p. 17, no. 13; reproductions vol., pl. 4.
Karel Braun. Alle tot nu toe bekende schilderijen van Jan Steen. Rotterdam, 1980, pp. 120–21, no. 251, ill., as in a private collection, New York; lists other versions of the composition.
Walter Liedtke inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1983–1984. New York, 1984, pp. 54–55, ill. (color).
Walter Liedtke inThe Jack and Belle Linsky Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ed. John Pope-Hennessy and Olga Raggio. New York, 1984, pp. 89–92, no. 31, ill. (color), dates it about 1665.
Peter C. Sutton. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1986, p. 186, fig. 264 (identified incorrectly in text).
Nanette Salomon. "Jan Steen's Formulation of the Dissolute Household, Sources and Meanings." Holländische Genremalerei im 17. Jahrhundert. Ed. Henning Bock and Thomas W. Gaehtgens. Berlin, 1987, pp. 317, 340 n. 27 [reprinted in "Shifting Priorities: Gender and Genre in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting," Stanford, 2004, pp. 44, 127 n. 27].
Peter C. Sutton in Ben Broos. "Recent Patterns of Public and Private Collecting of Dutch Art." Great Dutch Paintings from America. Exh. cat., Mauritshuis. The Hague, 1990, p. 105.
H. Perry Chapman. "Persona and Myth in Houbraken's Life of Jan Steen." Art Bulletin 75 (March 1993), pp. 135, 143, fig. 6.
Walter A. Liedtke inThe Taft Museum: Its History and Collections. Vol. 1, European and American Paintings. New York, 1995, p. 171 n. 8.
H. Perry Chapman et al. inJan Steen: Painter and Storyteller. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1996, p. 168, fig. 1 on p. 166.
Wouter Th. Kloek inJan Steen: Painter and Storyteller. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1996, p. 106.
Esmée Quodbach. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 65 (Summer 2007), pp. 62, fig. 74 (color).
Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, pp. 38, 254, 470; vol. 2, pp. 841–44, no. 196, colorpl. 196, dates it about 1663–64.
Walter Liedtke. "The Milkmaid" by Johannes Vermeer. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2009, p. 23 n. 38.
H. Perry Chapman inVermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence. Exh. cat., Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. New Haven, 2011, p. 67, colorpl. 43.
Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 291, no. 245, ill. pp. 239, 291 (color).