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Jan Steen (attrib) : ‘The Fat Kitchen : c1650        Jan Steen (attrib) : The Lean Kitchen : c1650

This pair of paintings, attributed to the seventeenth century Dutch artist Jan Steen, are part of the important collection of paintings at Cheltenham Art Gallery. They have intrigued me for years – from the first day I stepped into the Art Gallery as a member of staff many years ago. They would have been commissioned as a pair – possibly to hang both sides of a fireplace – and are good examples of the ‘moralising’ works produced during the seventeenth century by Dutch painters. By the seventeenth century the northern provinces of the Netherlands, the most important being Holland, had thrown off the yoke of the Spanish Kings rule and had become a separate dominion.  In so doing they had declared themselves a Protestant Republic which had a fundamental effect upon art and artists and at the same time it was developing its strong mercantile and trading activities. The result was a rapid development of an urban society and of an urban middle-class – leading to the familiar rows of tall houses along the canals.  These paintings reflect this new society. The market for paintings changed from patrons being the Roman Catholic Church and wealthy Corporations and individuals to this less wealthy, but comfortable and ever expanding, Middle-Class living in buildings of more modest proportions. The other great change was in subject matter – Protestantism banned what they saw as the heretical excesses of Catholic religious paintings, including the considerable market in altar-pieces and other traditional ‘Catholic’ subject matter. The requirement and demand now was for smaller works such as still-life, portraits, and ‘moralising’ paintings. These two works fall into this latter category – the evils of gluttony and excess with its companion, poverty and starvation. Steen has also introduced a personal element – in the lean kitchen can be seen hanging on the left hand side an artist’s palette suggesting that the artist’s lot is not always a happy one.

David Addison. May 25th 2015.

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