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

The Feast of St. Nicholas

Oil on canvas, 82 x 71 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Steen painted at least six pictures of the Feast of St Nicholas, the festival traditionally dedicated to Dutch children. On the eve of 5 December, St Nicholas comes to the Netherlands from Spain to leave appropriate gifts in the shoes of children. The good ones receive cakes, sweets, and toys; the naughty ones get canes and coals. The finest version of this theme is in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

A complicated play of diagonals helps bind the family of ten together - from the heap of special pastries to the man pointing to the chimney on the right, where St Nicholas made his entry, and from the carved table covered with sweets up to the girl holding the shoe with the distressing birch-rod. Figures which lean in one direction are balanced by those leaning in the other; foreground and background, right and left are held together by gestures, glances, and expressions which give the painting familial as well as pictorial tautness. The smiling boy who points to the shoe makes the onlooker part of this family scene by smiling directly out at him or her. The colouristic effect is brilliant, and does not lack unification or become too diffuse, as is sometimes the case in Steen's work.