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

The Rhetoricians - "In liefde vrij"

Oil on canvas, 86 x 100 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Various of Jan Steen's works contain direct and indirect references to chambers of rhetoric, the lively societies where artisans, traders, academics and artists met to organise various literary and theatrical activities. Between the late 15th century and the end of the 17th century they were to provide the bridge between medieval passion plays and the professional, elite theatre and opera which developed from then on. Even so Jan Steen, unlike many of his painter contemporaries, never belonged to a chamber and we cannot assess unambiguously from his work how he judged this socio-cultural phenomenon. Nor does this painting, produced around 1665/68, and very important for its documentary value alone, offer any definitive answer. It is true that the artist portrays himself here as a highly amused spectator among the audience that is paying its respects in the door of an inn where a "declamator", the speaker of the society, is reading a text. In so doing he appears to declare himself a sympathiser. In the meantime the goings-on inside the same inn would tend to confirm the rhetoricians' reputation as liking their liquor. Given that, in the mid-17th century, it was "bon ton" amongst a certain social class to dismiss rhetoricians as literary dimwits, bickerers and incorrigible revellers, we are again all of a sudden uncertain on whose side the artist in fact was.

Almost all the figures and physical signs identifying a rhetorical chamber as such can be found in the painting: apart from the declamator, announcing his performance with the large drum, we can suppose the serious-looking man behind him to be the "factor" or poet. The "emperor" or "prince", the flagbearer and the fool are recognisable by the respective attributes: a crown, a flag and a dunce's cap with a cock's feather. A crock and a drinking beaker hang outside the open door, which is partly shaded off by a carpet, an essential item of décor during performances. A quatrain, attached to a wreath of flowers, announces the philosophy of life of the happy band. Until now it has not been possible to establish which society carried the motto "In liefde vrij " (Free in love) in its blazon, the traditional diamond-shaped shield hanging on the wall.