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Pride and Persecution: Jan Steen’s Old Testament Scenes

Pride and Persecution: Jan Steen’s Old Testament Scenes


Full of humanity and even humour, the Old Testament paintings by master storyteller Jan Steen are as compelling as his better-known scenes of everyday life. This groundbreaking examination considers the influence of Jewish history and Dutch theatre on this exciting element of his oeuvre. 


The Leiden-born artist Jan Steen (1626–1679) is widely admired as one of the most engaging and technically brilliant painters of the Dutch Golden Age. This volume accompanies an exhibition at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, that is the first in the world devoted to Steen’s Old Testament subjects. The focal point is his magnificent Wrath of Ahasuerus (c.1668–70), one of the highlights of the Barber’s collection, which is joined by a number of other paintings by Steen from private and public collections across the world.


Three essays examine the core themes of the show – the role of Jewish history in Steen’s Old Testament scenes; the influence of Dutch theatre on his work; and the critical response to his Old Testament paintings from the 17th century to date. 


Robert Wenley (Barber Institute of Fine Arts) explores the popularity of the story of Esther and other Old Testament subjects in Dutch culture – in plays as well as paintings – and the possibility of Jewish patrons for Steen’s Old Testament paintings.  


Nina Cahill (National Gallery, London) puts forward new research about how Steen adopted the gestural language of contemporary Dutch theatre, amateur and professional, in order to represent the key figures in these scenes and to convey the pivotal dramatic moments. In some instances, Steen may have been quoting from an actual production of a play based on the Biblical story. 


Rosalie van Gulick (formerly, The Maurtishuis, The Hague) considers how Steen’s Old Testament scenes have been received and understood over the years. She investigates how the apparent farcical character of these scenes has been understood over the centuries and why they have prompted adversely critical responses from some modern art historians.


This engaging publication adds a fascinating layer to this groundbreaking show, the first ever museum loan exhibition in the UK devoted to Jan Steen.

  • Robert Wenley, Nina Cahill and Rosalie Van Gulick

    October 2017 

    Paperback, 210 x 210 mm

    84 pages, 46 colour illus.
    ISBN: 978 1 911300 09 0

  • Exhibition

    The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

    27 October – 28 January 2018

  • In the press

    "Some will have known already that Steen painted hefty scenes illustrating complex moments in the Old Testament, but I wasn’t one of them. The whole show is a surprise to me. So, too, is the light it shines on the width of Steen’s ambition" —The Times


    "Rewarding" –Burlington Magazine 


    "Thoughtfully probes its subject." —Sixteenth Century Journal

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