(b. 1626, Leiden, d. 1679, Leiden)
Skittle Players Outside an Innc. 1660
Oil on wood, 33,5 x 27 cm
National Gallery, London
This idyllic landscape, with skittle players and figures seated on the grass outside The White Swan inn, is an unusual subject for Jan Steen, who is best known as a painter of rowdy domestic and tavern interiors. Steen's work was unusual in its wide range of subject-matter in an age which encouraged specialization. Steen moved from town to town, and this apparent restlessness of temperament is reflected in the unevenness of his output. Often in financial difficulties, Steen was not above hack-work. At his best, however, as in this painting which probably dates from around 1660, Steen can rise to a level of technical skill and lyrical mood rarely achieved by even the greatest of Dutch painters.
The early seventeenth century saw the rapid urbanization of the north Netherlands: Amsterdam, Leiden, Haarlem and The Hague were among the cities which underwent a huge expansion. It was a popular recreation for the citizens of Holland's overcrowded towns to visit inns in the countryside. In Les Delices de la Hollande, published in Leiden in 1678, the French author Parival commented on the popularity of such outings: ' 'Whenever one goes here [into the countryside], one finds as many people as would be seen elsewhere in a public procession. All these excursions end up at one of the inns which are to be found everywhere .... These inns are always packed with visitors, and the confused murmur of many voices is like the sound in a city square. These are inexpensive pleasures which all, even the humblest labourer, can share.' As can be seen from Steen's painting, some enterprising landlords provided entertainment for their customers, in this case skittles, which was a popular game in the Netherlands.