(b. 1626, Leiden, d. 1679, Leiden)

The Morning Toilet

Oil on wood, 64,7 x 53 cm
Royal Collection, London

The girl is shown in a state of undress, provocatively pulling on her stocking and looking directly - and invitingly - at the spectator. The erotic character of this delicately painted and boldly coloured panel cannot be doubted. It has been argued that she is probably a prostitute - above the arch is Cupid and beside her bed a jewel-case - and yet the scene, framed in an archway, gives few real clues as to her status. We may, in fact, simply be glimpsing a desirable young woman at her toilet. The lute and the music book in the archway (as well as Cupid) associate the scene with the pleasures of love, while the skull wreathed in vine leaves reminds us that such pleasures are fleeting. The chamber pot is a characteristically realistic and down-to-earth element, while the archway with its Corinthian columns and swags of flowers frames this all-too-human scene in a mock grandiose manner.

Today we may admire not just the illusionism, the amusing conceit of the subject but also the remarkable skill with which Steen described the rush-carpet, the canopied bed, the tiled floor and all the other details which go to make up this rich and intricate composition.