Jan Steen, Het leven van de mens (The Life of Man), c. 1665, Mauritshuis, The Hague
Jan Steen’s noisy, crowded painting, entitled The Life of Man, is more of a theatrical stage with a kind of canopy or curtain raised above the scene and balcony, overtly an interior from an inn, where all sorts of convivial activities are being indulged, but may also be a mirror of the outer world in the Shakespearean sense that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”1 . Its title has been attached to it after it was painted but it has also been described as “a merry company of old and young, very elaborate, alluding to the Life of Man” (van Suchelten, 2016, p. 254). Another title that used to be found is The So-called Brewery. So it is basically about human merriment and how ordinary people enjoy life together, but one harbouring a caveat.
The centre stage is held by a youngish woman, caught in the daylight, diagonally from above, and being “wooed” or solicited by an older man trying to get her to eat the oyster he is holding in his left hand as a kind of offering or bait, obviously asking her for some sexual favour, without much apparent success, it would seem, although her smile would on the other hand suggest she feels flattered or amused. The oyster here has a rather explicit, if not hackneyed, meaning, as have their respective body gestures. It would have been quite clear to any contemporary beholder what the old man wanted and it cannot be any accident that Steen has painted their entanglement as the focal point of this scene. Behind the pair, is a hunchback tuning or strumming a fiddle as if serenading them, in a mocking or drunken sort of way; perhaps he is goading the old man on or maybe both the men are in some sort of cahoots! Roundabout there are people enjoying themselves, eating, drinking, playing music, singing, smoking and laughing whilst animals and children are playing and watching. At the table on the right there is also a woman offering a man behind her an oyster from the plate of oysters on the table in front of her, almost as if she wants to attract his attention or reciprocate his interest. Perhaps she is singing, accompanied by him on the lute, according to one account (ibid., p. 250). The table itself looks like a still-life in reality, arranged with the same delicacies as many such paintings display, on a white cloth spread over a thick, Turkish or Persian rug: besides the plate of oysters, we see a peeled lemon and cut orange, some grapes, a glass of white wine and a white ceramic jug as well as a silver salt cellar.
With both couples, the oyster is expressing sexual intent, an erotic gesture, that could be offered by either sex. Steen was exploiting a metaphor to suggest a narrative about the amorous nature of relations between man and woman, that any ordinary person would have appreciated and even, no doubt, found amusing. At the same time, the general scene is one of enjoyment and everyone is pretty well-dressed, even the servant girl, kneeling on the left in front of a fire. In this corner oysters are being opened by a man sitting on a bench in front of a bed chamber whose curtains are slightly and invitingly ajar, whilst the girl is pouring some liquid, an oil maybe, from a bottle onto oysters that seem ready to be barbecued on the coals. The painting is loaded with references to oysters, on various levels, which is quite unique in genre paintings.
Many interpretations have zoomed in on existential aspects of the paintings, especially on the little boy, almost hiding in the rafters of the room by the bird cage with a skull on his right, blowing bubbles2. This particular trope would indicate, as in any vanitas still-life, the vulnerability and incertitude of life, which can go pop at any time, so why not enjoy yourself in the mean-time, in a carpe diem sense, or on the other hand, just be careful if you want to have a good time, because it may be very short-lived like the broken egg-shells on the floor. The explicit nature of some of the symbols used by Steen has an almost ridiculing quality, for example in the old man’s attempt to seduce a younger woman, who probably is also the mother of the children playing around on the floor. The blatancy and absurdity of the gesture says also something of the over-exploitation of the oyster as an erotic symbol, at the same time adding a comment on certain mores in contemporary society. That the painting looks like a theatre stage may add a satirical element to the painting, so that however “realistic” this everyday scene looks like, it is still only for entertainment or pleasure, albeit with some moral reminders about life.
One can hardly fail to inhale the jocular mood of the room and the innocence of adult pleasure (if one weighs in the presence of children playing with some pets) that Steen presents in a natural, and non-condescending sense. There seems to be no manifest intent to moralise or preach, and the presence of oysters being opened and prepared for the fire makes the point that they are quite simply food, thus in a sense neutering their explicitly sexual meaning; perhaps also approving of such flirtatious behavior as something harmless but also life-giving. Why not? This is after all Jan Steen painting! It has been proposed that sometimes in these genre paintings the moral points that could be made were often hidden for tactical or aesthetic reasons or embedded in small details in the background of the painting; for instance, the parrot sitting on the perch by the wall on the left or the cat trying to dance on its hind legs or the gallows in the painting on the back wall could all have an allegorical meaning about life and its vagaries, as some sort of warning or reminder.
Even though the usual tack of interpretation follows a more iconological course, equating, for example, oysters with carnal lust, it would be wise to see the painting narrative as a whole, and perhaps more than the sum of its parts, which can point to other lines of direction towards its underlying sentiments. In the sort of still-life setting on the table on the right there is an indication that there on offer is a selection of the harvest that nature can provide, that oysters are just one of nature’s many bountiful gifts, a treasure from the sea. On the left, by the fire, inferred from its glow on the servant’s arm, oysters are being prepared to be roasted on the coals, which itself could be a metaphor for the domestication of nature, or taming of the raw, as a form of sublimation of sexual lust. So oysters in this setting could symbolize more the potential moderation and control of instinctual impulses. Its portrayed use and enjoyment as food helps to reinforce this idea as well as legitimising the primed consumption of lust as a literally nutritious rule of life. The whole aura of the painting, as it is viewed, is of humans, young and old, enjoying the company of each other and it is also here that the oyster can also signify the immediate and ephemeral pleasure of encounters between man and woman, even though they are sensually charged.
1 The equally prolific 17th century Dutch playwright, as celebrated in Holland as Shakespeare has been in Britain, Joost van den Vondel, used the same metaphor as Shakespeare to grace the entrance of the Amsterdam Theatre (ibid, p.252).
2 There are a few paintings on this theme of children blowing bubbles which have been interpreted as indicating the frailty and brevity of life. In almost all these paintings the bubbles are blown from the soapy liquid which is kept in a shell, often an oyster shell – another possible cue for reflections about the symbolic meaning of oysters!
Van Suchelten, A.: In Genre paintings in the Mauritshuis, ed A van Suchtelen and Q. Buvelot. Zwolle: Waanders, 2016.