Jan Havicksz Steen, Het Oestereetstertje (Girl Eating Oysters), c 1658-1660, Mauritshuis, The Hague
This is one of Steen’s most well-known oyster paintings, showing a girl about to eat an oyster onto which she is sprinkling some pepper. She is peering straight into the viewer’s eyes with a slightly mischievous but alluring smile, while two servants in the background, probably in a kitchen, are opening some more oysters as there is another dish of them. On the table, with its newly pressed blue tablecloth, there is a silver plate with a half-eaten loaf of bread, some salt and pepper and a knife, a porcelain wine jug and a full glass of white wine, also about to be consumed. The way the painter captures the pinch of pepper in the girl’s poised right hand gives an expectant feel to the scene. Pepper was the preferred condiment as it is today in some places, especially if you listen to that magisterial oyster-opener, Helio Garzon, at Bentleys‘ Oyster Bar in London! The young woman is dressed elegantly in a fine red jak, with white fur trimming, and there just in the righthand lower corner we see the shining pleqts of a blue satin skirt. Behind her back, to the right, there is a dark outline of bedcurtains, and a bedstead, so that the painting seems to be narrating some sort of foreplay or preparation for an amorous visit. It is as if the girl is libidinising the interior of the home or spicing another layer to the Dutch sense of domestic virtue. Of course, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the girl wants to eat the oysters herself, but her impish grin would seem to imply something more, that she was offering not only oysters. It was current knowledge at the time, and indeed stated quite categorically by a Dutch physician, Johan van Beverwijck (1) in his medical book, Treasure of Health, published 1636, that “oysters whet the appetite and arouse the desire to eat and make love, both of which merry and sophisticated people do”.
Another salient point that needs to be added to the context was the prominence for that time accorded to, and claimed by women in Dutch society at that time. One of van Beverwijck’s most famous books concerned the excellence of women, arguing that they were superior to men, on account of not only their beauty, but also learnedness in the arts, literature and languages as well as in their human virtues. They had been prevented from fulfilling their potential for greatness by customs in society and the “jealousy of men” (Moore, 1994). Holland during this time was governed by a rich burgher class of largely merchants and tradesmen that was educated and tolerant, where women could apparently enjoy a high degree of independence and social status, despite the religious, political and common misogyny that also reigned. As Schama writes, what is certainly apparent in Dutch pictures of women is that artists went to unusual pains to trace the female with a relaxed clarity, “relatively unclouded by cultural stereotype” (1987, p.413).
Thus it is possible that Steen and artists of his time were attempting to bring female desire and needs into the same realm as that of the male, as also shown by inclusion of themselves and their wives in their genre paintings. They were known for their wit and satire of convention, which might fit into this sort of interpretation. In this painting the girl is turning directly to the viewer and revealing her own wishes and wants, either to arouse herself with oysters or to plan seducing some unsuspecting male. In a sense, she is self-reliant and may have no need for a male consort, filling the painting with her gaze, smile and confidence at being the independent female she appears to be. The oysters are hers or her gift which stand for her appetite and her lust, as she adds zest to her desire. The sight of the oysters and the female about to consume them in a sense doubles the erotic innuendo of the situation.
Another implicit notion could be the use of domestic interiors, which in this case is the female boudoir but not only as there is a door opening into the kitchen where two servants, a male and female, are working. The home was often seen as a mirror for Dutch society in general, where domestic virtues and relations signified the ideal order and dynamic of social structure outside. The presence of a strong female in the house was considered amenable for a happy marriage, and family contentment, and it was first with the blooming of Dutch art in the 17th century that scenes of everyday domestic situations with married couples were depicted in more realistic terms. However, one of Steen’s attributes as an artist was his love of the comic and Rabelaisian, and his tendency to blur the boundaries between the home, the brothel or inn and society outside, so that this homely scene may indeed have been the interior of a brothel or in some way a parody of the state of Dutch society. The presence of the two servants in the kitchen, whilst the young woman helps herself to the plate of oyters could imply a satirical role reversal in the home, once again highlighting the equal status of female desire and self-esteem.
The details of brushwork are impressively reproduced in this small painting, especially of the girl’s fringe of hair, her complexion and fur trimming in addition to the subtle reflexions of light on the porcelain jug and wine glass, which may signify the care and attention the artist paid to the painting and its aesthetic importance. Its small size and form suggests it may have been held in the hand to be admired, so that the intimacy between the painting and the viewer would have been even more sensually close.
(1) Johan van Beverwijck (1594-1647), a trained physician, wrote books on medicine, Schat der gesontheyt (Treasure of Health) and Schat der ongesontheyt (Treasure of Disease) that were extremely popular and took the form of self-help manuals, in which he collaborated with his friend, the famous poet Jacob Cats (1577–1660), who set some of his maxims to short rhymes. He also published a book Van de wtnementheyt des wrouwelicken Geslachts (Of the Excellence of the Female Gender), published in 1639, which was quite revolutionary for its time in its praise of female superiority and her virtues.
MOORE, C. N. (1994): “Not by nature but by custom”: Johan van Beverwijck’s Van de wtnementheyt des wrouwelicken Geslachts”. The Sixteenth Century Journal, 25, 633-651.
SCHAMA, S. (1987): The Embarrassment of Riches. London: Collins.