Houbraken Translated


Volume 3, page 20-29

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yet came home happy and in good humour. His wife, fearing this, first asked about the gold, which he said he no longer had, and began to laugh quite heartily. His wife replied to this that this was no laughing matter. Should I not laugh, said Jan, they think that they have cheated me, but I have shat on them, because the gold in each piece is at least six grains too light. They will only notice this when they try to change it tomorrow. How dumbfounded they'll be then!

In the meantime his wife came to die, and he was left a widower with a raft of children. This did not suit him, seeing as they continually whined in his ear for money to buy food or drink. To prevent this he negotiated with his baker how much he would supply him weekly for his household, concerning which they came to an agreement. When his children then asked him what are we going to eat for lunch and for supper, the answer was bread. If they asked what will we have with it? the answer, as before, was bread. And so bread was the only thing the cook served. They kept one or two dogs as well to consume the leftovers, but it was not long before the baker told him that he would prefer to be released from the deal that he had made with him, and cancel his debt, than continue to deliver bread to his household on those terms, which would mean money saved. Jan, sitting in the pub in the evening, heard a conversation about fresh herring, and how detrimental it was (if eaten a lot) for one's health and that one could even catch the plague from it. He listened and resolved quietly to put it to the test,


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at the risk of his boys, thinking that the worst that could come of it was the graveyard, and that would bring great peace to the house. The next day he bought an entire wheelbarrow full of fresh herring, and said, Boys now you can feast. A portion of it was dried out in the chimney, to serve as bread with which to consume the remaining herrings, which they cooked and fried. In a few days they had gnawed this mess of seafood to the bone, and Jan, not detecting the least negative effect on his boys, had reason to expose those talkers as frauds and to ridicule their wisdom as vanity, adding, that his boys had eaten an entire barrowful of fresh herring and that not one of them had contracted the plague.

Meanwhile, with time, this household went steadily downhill, as people say; and he found a day's work in turning his creditors away from his doorstep with sweet talk. What happens? While he was sitting with one of his friends, who occasionally let him earn some money with painting, smoking a pipe-full in his spot in a summer arbour, this friend (seeing the deterioration of this household) strongly advises him that he ought to look for a wife, to take charge of his children. Just then a woman comes through the house to the summer arbour at the back.

After she had greeted them, she began to say Neighbour Jan, I am just coming to see if it is convenient for you. You know that there is still something owing because of sheep’s heads, and sheep’s feet, and a promissory note, and you could now be of service to me by paying for it all. Jan, who was wont to dispel such spirits


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with sweet talk, said, at once with a jovial countenance, well neighbour woman Maritje Herculens, are you there, come sit and talk with us a little. At once his friend, who was sitting with him, quietly let a flask of wine be brought, and neighbour Maritje then had to drink with them. Jan, who had certainly guzzled the greater part of it, became animated and grasped neighbour Maritje, now by the hand, then by the head, which did not seem to please her. That is why she left with a promise of being the first to be paid, yes that he would bring the money to her house himself.

Our friend immediately began to resume his former discourse, and to say to him: that such a little widow would suit him, that she looked clean and attractive and seemed to be a good housekeeper. Certainly, Jan replied, I, too, think that it might work out; she will contribute the odd nickel with her commerce, and under a bit of sail (as the saying goes) the rowing is good; moreover I would not have to pay that debt about which she is pressing me, and have sheep’s heads and feet for free. His friend left him, after advising him to confer on this matter with his sister (who was a lay nun).

I would have short-changed my reader had I not welded the epilogue to this comical performance (which I came by only recently) to the preceding one. Should the rôle turn out a little on the long side, it will not disappoint the reader on that account. His sister, as stated, was a spiritual daughter (and he, too, was raised in the Catholic Faith from his infancy, but seldom stubbed his toe on the threshold of a church) to whom he presented his intention, who also


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considered it imperative because of the children, for there was only one daughter amongst them all, and one who was far too young to manage a savage household such as that.

He was off like a flash, after his sister had decked him out nicely, goes to Maritje Herculens, pays his old debt (this was on the advice of the lay nun) and after shuffling around for a while, at last says: that he also came to propose marriage to her, that he loved her dearly. No, neighbour Jan, said Maritje, you seek to mock me a little, as is your wont. Certainly not, said Jan I am not able to court, but I am serious, I ask you to be my wife. But what would that be said Maritje, you with six children, and I with two. What does it matter, said Jan, where there are so many children, if there are one or two more; they will all have enough to eat. She responded to this, No neighbour Steen, I will not do it and therefore do not speak about it anymore; that's final. With this dismissal he despondently set out for the lay nun, to whom he said: Look, I did everything I could on your advice, but she is not going for it, the marriage is off. Come, come, and take off that collar and that cloak. Well brother Jan, said the lay nun, is the marriage off? I thought that it was only beginning to take shape. I have told her honestly, Jan answered, that I could not woo any more, and surely she should therefore not expect it of me? But Jan brother, said the lay nun, the tree does not fall with the first stroke. Things don't go that way at first. She is a stranger to you, you should first become better acquainted with her, the woman is good and level-headed, you are carefree and peculiar, and do you think, that she, like you, will begin and give up so lightly;


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no, that won't do, you will have to go back there tomorrow, show the widow some friendship and say that you could not stay away. You have to approach this with sweetness, not indelicately. He took notice of this word sweetness. Therefore, the following day when, got up neatly as before because he was going to his little widow, he stepped into a confectionery on the way and bought some of those sweet treats, which he at once pushed into the hand of his beloved, whom he found standing at her corner bench with a lighted foot warmer under her apron to warm her hands. Here I come again, said Jan, I cannot give it up, my little lay nun is also of the opinion that I should not give it up, that I should get to know you better and start things off with sweetness, and thereupon he took the package with the sugar pastry out of his pocket, and devoured it together with her. In the meantime they got to cuddling so sweetly that he laid his hand with hers on the foot warmer, which he, having become a little freer, soon stuck a little lower, and let her know without speaking what it was that he was looking for, which did not displease her. To keep things brief, they came to terms on the subject then and there. But, said Maritje, what will the lay nun say about me being ready so quickly? Well, said Jan, she will certainly be pleased, because she put me up to it. Come let us both go over there, we will be welcome. Jan thought that the lay nun would regale this new sister, and he feast along with them. But he had guessed wrong. For the lay nun immediately began to preach a sermon on the obligations of the married state, praised Maritje for undertaking to manage the household of her


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brother and to guide the children to discipline. She then gave her benediction and let them go, so that he was totally deceived in his expectations.

The next day the banns were read, and after a few weeks had passed they married one another. But, as before, he did not govern his own behaviour. If he had many eggs, he produced many shells. And what the wife gained by sitting at the market was sometimes already consumed before she came home, because, as a joke, he could cook up a kettle of sheep's heads and feet and have it devoured by his boys, yes he could sit there laughing heartily when he had set so many jaws in motion, or watch one outmanoeuvre another in eating, or pirate away a tasty titbit. Thus little remained of his wife's commerce, which she soon gave up. However, they were content with one another and pleased with how things went.

I still have one prank to relate. Our Leiden knight, Carel de Moor II (who often visited the home of Jan Steen at that time, and who was very candid and ready to help young painters with information) has told me that Maritje was constantly pestering her husband to be painted in their Sunday clothes, as one commonly sees in portraits. But nothing came of it, so that Carel offered her his service and painted her. She was pleased with it and showed it to her husband, who was also satisfied but said that it was still lacking something which he would add himself. Right away he took palette and brushes and


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painted a large basket with boiled sheep's heads and feet on her arm, which looked so droll next to her Sunday suit that (although this was not at all her intention) she had to laugh at it herself. This, said Jan, was lacking, so that people might recognize her. Certainly this was much more agreeable than the joke along the same lines that Pieter the painter played on the wife of Rut the painter, of which Jan Vos says:

Rut had painted an image of Saint Teunis after life:
But Pieter painted the wife of Rut next to it.
What reason did Piet have to be driven to this act?
Saint Teunis always has a woman by his side.

From this second marriage (to draw this history to an end) Jan Steen won another son, named Dirk, who became a sculptor and later ended up at one of German courts. I don’t know what became of the others.

He died in the year 1678 and was buried by his fellow artists. And thus this great painter, having played out his role, went hidden behind the curtain of his grave, which displays this elegy.

This stone covers Jan Steen,
None of the artists
So witty in painting:
famous art of his brush,
Shows how people who relinquish
Discipline, become ever wilder.

Now it is necessary (in connection with what I said


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at the beginning of my book) to inform the reader once and for all that I have no intention with my way of writing to stab anyone with my pen, but that I have instead committed to paper the acts of my colleagues in art as I have been told about them by unbiased mouths, without adding or taking away from things through ambition or hate, and have thus rejected the advice of some nosy meddlers, who wanted me to overlook all the faults and failings of the painters that I had encountered in their way of life and make no record thereof (even as if they had all been impeccable).

I write about the biographies of people who, though blessed with the same nature as their first father, have not always checked their desires and affections with a bridle, but sometimes let go of the reins and as a consequence became as good or as bad as I encounter them. I have been preceded in this by Karel van Mander I, whose footsteps I follow, who likewise recorded that which was to be praised and to be censured in his colleagues in art.

Whoever wants to paint someone's portrait must follow its uniquely recognizable features.

The artist in this regard is sometimes inclined to improve on the subject. But the more he does so and deviates from the true image, the less his representation will resemble a true likeness and the more he cheats art. Even so it could be said of my way of writing that had I left all weaknesses and faults unobserved to please the meddlers, there would be no likeness in its representation of the


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persons whose names are mentioned above, especially when recollections of the their way of life are still vivid in the memory of people who have lived and associated with them. But seeing clearly that I used a premeditated reserve in my writing, they will find reason to despise my work, or mock it; which is why we have rejected this advice and put it aside.

In addition, our pen-work must be seen as an historical account, wherein no tendency to defamation or apology regarding any person is tolerated, but only an honest narrative. For a history writer can no more be silent about the virtues of his enemies (as has often been said) than about the deficiencies of his best friends. Flavius Josephus (though a Jew and defeated enemy of the Romans) has recorded the stubbornness and unruly nature of the Jews at the time that Vespasian besieged them, as well as the praiseworthy nature of the Romans, without this being reckoned as a mistake of his. On the contrary, he is praised by all for this.

Curtius had described the life of Alexander, Cornelius Nepos the Greek generals and others the Roman emperors, but all have recorded their mistakes as well as their pious deeds and brave acts.

It is reasonable (says Polybius) that a solid man is a friend of his friends and of his fatherland, and that he hates his enemies. But the instant he takes on the role of history writer, he has to forget all this. A history writer often has to speak well of his


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enemies and
praise them when their deeds deserve it, and to punish or despise his ancestors when they have made mistakes. Timeus is censured by mentioned Polybius because, carried away by his slanderous nature, he tells with bitterness and exaggeration of the evil acts of Agothocles, Tyrant of Syracuse, and mentions his commendable deeds with only few words. Something of the kind will never be shown in my case. On the contrary, I would be grieved if it were shown (other than out of incompetence, which is excusable) that I had not extended the deserved laurels to some who were born outside the limits of my fatherland.

Cheeky fault finders, are all these examples not enough to convince you to the contrary, should leaf through the Holy Bible. There you will find mention of Loth, who alone of all the Sodomites was sheltered from the flaming wrath of God because of his piety, but his incest is also described. Indeed, in his historical account Moses has not excused the sinful acts of his own tribesmen. And did not the Evangelists who have described the biographies of the Saviour and his apostles, book the effort of Peter for the construction of the church, but also his denial of the Saviour?

Experience (to end our plea) shows us that the inclinations of men differ as widely as East and West. Some admire only tragedy, others wholly farce. The theatre therefore usually serves up both.


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