One of the most famous paintings in the Dutch genre category is from Jan Steen (ca. 1626 - 1679) who, like many artists of his era, was unable to support himself solely as an artist. He supplanted his income by operating an inn which, it turns out, provided much subject matter for his artwork - and provided great insight into the lives of the seventeenth century Dutch middle-class.
During the Golden Age of Dutch painting - generally the 17th century - the birth of a baby was celebrated with a party which, although intended to be a solemn occasion, often became raucous instead.
Jan Steen, The Christening Feast. Oil on canvas, 1664. 35" x 42 3/4". Wallace Collection, London.
The Christening Feast or Celebrating the Birth portrays one such celebration captured in this genre painting - and raucous it was!
The new mother lies in bed - nearly lost in the left hand side of this work - as friends and relations crowd into the comfortable room. They surround the alleged father who holds the newborn swaddled in a red blanket. Three women on the right prepare the feast, initially conveying a merry and joyous celebration.
Yet all is neither as festive nor as simple as it seems. Behind the father, a man - who is in fact Jan Steen - flashes the sign of the cuckold's horns over the newborn's head. The image of the father as cuckold is further reinforced by his performance of chores usually reserved for the mistress of the house; these jobs are suggested by his apron, purse strings at the waist, and keys. Additional sexual references include the hanging sausage and broken eggs in the foreground. The euphemism "cracking eggs in the pan" was known at the time as an allusion to sexual intercourse.
Who would have casually seen the art history and meaning of this famous artwork? And how long gone are such subtle sexual references... and the notion that household chores are solely a woman's job!