Jan Steen, ‘So the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young’, c.1665, oil on canvas. Mauritshuis, The Hague
The De Young Museum in San Francisco is currently featuring the exhibition Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis, which presents an incredible grouping of works by Rembrant, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, and of course, Vermeer.
One of the last paintings in the show, and indeed one of the largest, is Jan Steen’s canvas entitled “So the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young.” Steen’s moralizing and chaotic interiors have something of a reputation for scandal. In other versions of this scene, the eponymous phrase about adults singing and young one twittering (or piping) appears written somewhere in the painting. The clever meaning is that children will follow in the behaviors taught or modeled by adults.
The Mauritshuis painting is filled with cheeky details: the woman warming her feet while lifting a glass to receive more wine (in what looks like an early martini glass), the man offering a body a pipe to smoke, the aphrodisiac oysters on the table near some pealed lemons (symbols of lust), and the two boys who look out at the viewers (one playing the bagpipe and the other just looking creepy).
If you haven’t seen the painting in the Mauristhuis, and if you happen to be in San Francisco before June 2, definitely make a trip to the De Young, where you’ll have a fabulous kiki with some of the most beloved Dutch artists.