Jan Havickszoon Steen was one of the finest artists of the Dutch Golden Age. To this day a Dutch proverb "a Jan Steen household" is used in the Netherlands to refer to a lively and untidy household - inspired by Steen's chaotic and lustful paintings.
The Drawing Lesson, which now hangs in the J. Paul Getty Museum, is not one of Jan Steen's typical humourous or lusty paintings. In fact it depicts a rather studious scene in which an artist instructs two young pupils in the art of drawing.
The self-referential subject of The Drawing Lesson actually provides an interesting glimpse for us into the life and work of a 17th century artist. It provides a rare picture not only of an artist at work but shows us his place of work. Looking into the artist's studio we get to see some of the tools, props and implements of his trade.
At the center of The Drawing Lesson are the three main subjects of the scene, a male artist instructing two pupils: a young boy and a fashionably dressed young woman. A plaster sculpture of a nude male (St. Sebastian) appears to be the object of the day's drawing exercise. On the table are some of the tools of the artist's trade, including pens, brushes and charcoal pencils. Below the statuette are a pair of dividers, which would be used to measure and ensure correct proportions in the artist's work.
Painters like Jan Steen were essentially practicing a trade and would take and train apprentices. However it is unlikely that the students depicted in The Drawing Lesson are the master's apprentices. The rich colors of the girl's clothes suggest she is no painter's apprentice. It is more likely that the boy and girl are the children of a rich family who have paid for them to have lessons in drawing from an established artist.
The artist's studio is decorated with objects and props of the artist's trade. Tools which can be used to practice drawing, or which can be used as models to paint, festoon the studio. For example, a plaster putto (a small cherub) hangs from the ceiling. Putti frequently appear in religious and mythological paintings. In Baroque art a putto might be used to represent the omnipresence of God. A putto might also be used to represent a cupid. In classical mythology, Cupid is the god of desire, erotic love, attraction and affection. In paintings a cupid is often depicted shooting an arrow (of desire).
In The Drawing Lesson however the Putto is not being used as an allegorical harbinger of love. Here he is not a cupid firing arrows of love but a plaster object which the artist has hung from the ceiling in order to use as a model for his own work.
On a shelf is an ox or a cow. The statuette may allude to the ox of St Luke, who is the patron saint of artists. In traditional paintings Saint Luke is often accompanied by an ox or bull. An ox or cow could also be symbolic of hard work. Cows were hugely popular subjects for Dutch artists in the period when Jan Steen was painting. A plaster cow or an ox would therefore be very useful study material for the artist and his students.
In the bottom right corner of the painting are a number of objects which you could imagine the painter and his students using in a still life. Vanitas still lifes were a common genre in Dutch art of the 16th and 17th centuries. A vanitas is a symbolic work of art which depicts the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. Vanitas paintings often contrast symbols of wealth (such as a fur muff, a musical instrument and a bottle of wine) with symbols of ephemerality and death (such as a skull).
In the bottom right hand corner of the painting is a silk cloak or drape, a book and a chest. The cloth we can imagine being used by the artist to dress one of his models. The chest may also be full of other clothes and material, ready for the artist's models to wear when posing for different scenes. The book is possibly a collection of prints that the artist consults when thinking about or looking for inspiration for how to compose a particular painting.
Hanging below the ox statuette are three plastercasts. Casts of two faces and a foot. These plastercasts, like the statuette of St. Sebastian, could well be used by the artist as subject matter for his students to practice drawing. They would also serve as models and inspiration for the artist's own work. The sands in the hour-glass, to the left of the three plastercasts, are beginning to fall. Perhaps the hour-glass is being used to time the drawing lesson. The hour-glass may also represent another vanitas, an object which could be used as a model for a painting, to serve as another symbol of the transience of life.
The Drawing Lesson provides us with a fascinating insight into the studio of a 17th Century artist. This may be an imagined scene and not an actual depiction of a real artist's studio. However it does provide us with an insight into the tools and props which an artist would use as part of his trade.
Here the artist is not depicted as some kind of romantic genius. Far from it. Here art is shown as a practice which can be taught and learnt. It is a trade which can be learnt like other trades. Like other trades it must be practiced and studied. Like other trades it has its own tools, which also must be mastered over time through hard work, practice and dedication.
The studio depicted in The Drawing Lesson is clearly a place of work. Like other places of work it is equipped with the essential tools of a profession. In essence The Drawing Lesson shows a professional tradesman practicing his trade. Here is an artist undertaking paid labor, being depicted in the actual process of earning money from his trade.
You can learn more about how this examination of The Drawing Lesson was made at Maps