The Tired Traveller
Jan Steen (Leyden 1626 – Leyden 1679)
Art / Oil paintings
circa 1660 - circa 1661
Oil on panel (oak)
317 x 248 mm (12 1/2 x 9 3/4 in)
Place of origin
HollandOrder this image
Upton House, Warwickshire
The title given to the picture is a typically 19th century narrative distortion of its real content, giving an innocent gloss to a painting whose symbolism suggests the very opposite. The young woman is shown offering the ‘traveller’ a glass of wine from a stoneware flagon. A woman offering a drink to a man always suggests some amorous exchange in Dutch 17th- century painting, and in this instance the overturned rose underlines the point, with its implication of lost honour.
Oil painting on oak panel, The Tired Traveller, Jan Steen (Leyden 1626 – Leyden 1679), bottom centre: J. Steen (JS in ligature), circa 1660-61. In the garden of a country inn a traveller sits on a barrel under the shade of a vine-covered trellis; on the table before him is a rose, apparently intended for the servant girl, wearing a lemon-coloured bodice and blue skirt, who offers him a glass of wine from a flagon she holds in her right hand. Pentimenti by the man's left leg and table leg.
Jan Steen’s large oeuvre of around four hundred paintings displays a very wide range of subjects and styles. Among his genre scenes, his standard repertoire features taverns, inns and brothels, and he invariably shows a penchant for attractive women. Whereas most of his compositions of this type include a dozen or more figures, this small inn scene from Upton House depicts only two, a young woman and a resting traveller, to whom she hands a glass of red wine. This wine glass, which the woman holds by the foot, is literally and figuratively the heart of the composition. The man has interrupted his walk in the countryside to sit down and rest on a half-barrel in the shady garden of an inn. This somewhat older man is obviously charmed by the young servant girl, judging from his eager look and slightly expectant pose, with one hand on the table and the other on his knee. His real intentions, however, are apparent from the freshly plucked rose, which he has laid upside down on the table. Although the deeper meaning of this motif is uncertain, the rose seems to refer directly to the woman. The figures’ facial expressions speak volumes, for the man’s hopeful and extremely avid glance seems not to be reciprocated by the young woman, who keeps a straight face. In any case, the man is more interested in her than in the wine she proffers: indeed, he pointedly refrains from touching the glass. The intimacy of the encounter is heightened by the triangular composition formed by the juxtaposition of the man and woman, who incline towards one another in this close-up scene. The vine-covered pergola above them closes off the composition at the top, which intensifies the already intimate character of the scene. Clearly, some form of love is involved here, whether or not of a fleeting nature. Men and women flirting is a motif that occurs frequently in Steen’s work. In fact, the Musée Fabre in Montpellier has an earlier version of this composition in which Steen unmistakably depicted the same figures. Steen’s oeuvre contains quite a few variants of this kind, which usually display some literal repetitions. In the Montpellier painting, too, the glances of the man and woman intersect. This first version has no rose on the table but walnuts instead, one of which is cracked. It cannot be a coincidence that Steen gave this half-walnut the form of a heart. This striking motif calls to mind an old Dutch saying: ‘If one has the nut, one must crack it’. In other words, one must seize the opportunity, and the man in Steen’s painting does not need to be told twice. The figures are given more space in the Montpellier version, and the composition is framed at the top by an arched stone gate rather than vines. On the basis of this ‘trompel’oeil’ motif, which Steen first used in paintings dating from 1659, the painting in Montpellier is generally dated to the years 1659–60. The considerably smaller version discussed here probably originated a little later, presumably around 1660–61.5 In 1660, Steen moved with his family from Warmond (near Leiden) to Haarlem, where he became a member of the local painters’ guild the following year. Earlier on, he had rented a brewery in Delft, probably as a means of earning money, since painting did not always provide him with a livelihood. In the later version, the accessories have been kept to a minimum, but in the first version the man and woman are portrayed full-length, with the striking detail that the man casually lets his walking stick rest against his foot and knee. This stick has disappeared completely from the later version. It is possible that the maidservant is based on a lost preparatory study, given that she appears in this pose not only in the paintings in Montpellier and Upton House but also in an inn interior by Steen that can be dated to the same period. In the first version in Montpellier, we see more of the figures and also more of the landscape. For example, there are three more figures on the grass in the background, and, immediately behind them, a church tower. Because Steen zoomed in less on the principal figures in the Montpellier version, we also see the entrance door and the window of the inn (the point of the open shutter appears precisely above the wine glass), and in the foreground a chicken snatching the remains of food by the table and a dog sleeping next to a tree at right. Both panels testify to Steen’s painstaking attention to the details of the clothing and the play of light on such objects as the earthenware wine-jug with a pewter lid. Comparison of the technique of these two paintings reveals that the brushwork of the first version in Montpellier is smoother and more refined than that of the later version in Upton House. Remarkably, differences between these two paintings can be discovered in the smallest details, such as the man’s hat, which lies on the table. In the Montpellier painting, his hat is decorated with a feather on a splendid chain, two details that are missing in the later version. Yet the later version has a detail, a hole in the knee of the man’s trousers, that is lacking in the earlier version. In seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting, proffering a glass of wine is a routine means of establishing contact between a man and a woman. There are plenty of examples in the work of such famous genre painters as Gerard ter Borch (see ‘The Introduction’, Polesden Lacey, NT 1246491), Pieter de Hooch (‘The Colf Players’, Polesden Lacey, NT 1246485), Gabriel Metsu (‘The Duet’ [‘Le corset bleu’], Upton House, NT 446725), Johannes Vermeer (Young Woman with a Wine Glass, Braunschweig, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum). In the work by Vermeer, there is actual physical contact: the man’s hand touches the woman’s after giving her a glass of wine – an expressive gesture that serves as a link between the figures, like the wine glass in Steen’s painting. It is striking that Steen’s paintings in Montpellier and Upton House are clearly derived from compositions by the Leiden ‘fine painter’ Frans van Mieris, a close friend of Steen who often painted similar flirting couples in the same period. Whenever wine is not the principal motif, both Steen and Van Mieris show us a man offering oysters to a woman, a variation on the age-old theme of seduction. The traditional, rather neutral title of the present painting by Steen, ‘The Tired Traveller’, is a typically Victorian characterisation of a scene that is much less innocent than it seems. This amusing picture has always been loved by collectors. After belonging to Alfred de Rothschild (1842–1918) and passing by descent to his daughter Almina, Countess of Carnarvon, the painting was sold through a London art dealer in 1924 to Walter Horace Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted MC, who bequeathed his collection of paintings as part of Upton House to the National Trust in 1948. Quentin Buvelot, 2018 Adapted from 'Prized Possessions: Dutch Paintings from National Trust Houses' (exh. cat.), pp.167–71, cat. 20.
Upton House, The Bearsted Collection (National Trust)
Marks and inscriptions
J. Steen (signed, JS in monogram)
Makers and roles
Jan Steen (Leyden 1626 – Leyden 1679), artist
New Light on Old Masters, Squash Court Gallery, 2013 The Bearsted Collection, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 1955, no.29
Prized Possessions: Dutch Paintings from National Trust Houses (exh. cat.), Holburne Museum, Bath 25 May - 16 Sep 2018; Mauritshuis, The Hague, 11 Oct 2018 - 6 Jan 2019; Petworth House, West Sussex, 26 Jan - 24 Mar 2019., pp.167-71, no. 20