Acquisition of a painting by Jan Steen at the Mauritshuis

1. Jan Steen (1626-1679)
Moses Trampling Pharaoh’s Crown, ca. 1670
Oil on canvas - 78 x 79 cm
La Haye, Royal Picture, Gallery Mauritshuis
Photo : Mauritshuis

27/5/11 – Acquisitions – The Hague, Mauritshuis – The collection of fourteen paintings by the earthy Jan Steen has now grown to fifteen at the Mauritshuis with the addition of Moses Trampling Pharaoh’s Crown (ill. 1). Owned by a private collector, the canvas had been on deposit at the museum between 2008 and 2011 before its purchase thanks to the help of the Lottery BankGiro, a loyal patron since 1998.
The Maurithuis is presenting the recent acquisition on the occasion of an exhibition entitled The Salt of Life : Jan Steen at the Maurithuis, until 13 June 2011, comparing works in its holdings with those from other museums or private collections. This historical painting is a fine complement to the ensemble of portraits and genre scenes which established the artist’s reputation for depicting with ample humor taverns and peasants, a village fair, a tooth-drawer, a doctor or even the provocative Girl Eating Oysters, while other works are directly inspired by proverbs : As the Old Sing, so Twitter the Young.

2. Jan Steen (1626-1679)
Moses Trampling Pharaoh’s Crown, ca. 1670
Pen, Indian ink, brush, red chalk, gouache - 24,4 x 27,4 cm
Oxford, Ashmolean Museum
Photo : Ashmolean Museum

The young Moses is whimpering rather than chattering and Jan Steen, who produced about seventy known historical paintings, describes, with the same spirit, an unfamiliar biblical subject, taken from Flavius Josèphe’s Antiquités judaïques and drawn from a midrash : Moses playing on the pharaoh’s lap grabs his crown and tramples it under his feet. The event is interpreted as a bad omen and the pharaoh’s adviser demands that the child be executed. However, one of the priests suggests testing him by asking him to choose between a bag of gold pieces and a basin of live coals. The child turns around (or stumbles providentially) towards the coals and burns his lips, thus explaining his handicap when speaking.
A preparatory study for this painting, held at the Ashmolean Museum (ill. 2), is all the more interesting as there are very few known drawings by the artist. It reveals a detail which does not appear on the canvas : next to the crown there is the statuette of an idol which would account for Moses’ unfortunate stumble when he saw it ; this explanation of the scene can be found in the Speculum humanae salvationis (early 14th century). At the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille, Jan Lievens l’Ancien offers us another, more polished and balanced version of this composition with a less slouching figure of the pharaoh, a less sullen Moses and a less menacing-looking set of advisers. Jan Steen treated another episode from the book of Exodus in 1660 : Moses Striking the Rock (Philadelphia, Museum of Art).

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, vendredi 27 mai 2011

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