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Sotheby's old master and British paintings evening sale includes masterpiece by Jan Steen
Jamie, a Sotheby's employee, looks at a painting by the Dutch artist Jan Havicksz Steen entitled 'An Elegant Company in an Interior with Figure Playing Cards at a Table' at Sotheby's auction house in London. The painting which is to be sold on Dec. 7, is expected to sell for some 4.5-6 million pounds (US$ 7.1-9.4 million, euro 5.2-6.9 million). AP Photo/Alastair Grant.

LONDON.- Sotheby's London Old Master and British Paintings Evening and Day Sales on 7th and 8th December 2011 will offer a selection of important works of exceptional quality and rarity, many of which have remained in private collections for decades, including the masterpiece by Jan Steen Card Players in an Interior (est. £4.5-6 million). The sales, which comprise 237 lots, are estimated to fetch a combined total in excess of £21 million.

Jan Steen's Card Players in an Interior is a superb example of Steen's art, and a masterpiece of seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting. It is generally dated circa 1660, perhaps while Steen was living at Warmond, just outside Leiden, or in Haarlem, where Steen and his family moved by the summer of that year. The figure of the standing man filling his pipe is reminiscent of the work of the Haarlem painter Adriaen van Ostade, which may point to the slightly later dating.

The title of this work is generally given as "The Cardplayers". The principal figures are all seen in an amply proportioned sumptuous room in a well-to-do Dutch townhouse, the monumental marble chimneypiece emphasizing the lavish surroundings. An unlit corridor leads to a distant room lit by an open window, through which a townhouse or houses can be seen. The perspective suggests we are on the first floor, and the seated cavalier canoodling with a young woman in the far room tells us that this is not a conventional domestic interior, and is more likely to be a professional establishment.

In the large room closer to the viewer the main action is taking place. An elegantly dressed young man is playing cards with a young woman dressed in silks seated nearest us, who turns to the viewer, looking out directly at us, while showing us the Ace of Hearts in her left hand. We can see the Ace of Clubs and other high cards in her right hand, while the Ace of Spades lies discarded on the floor. The clear implication is that the innocent young man is being cheated by this knowing young woman – cheated at cards, and perhaps in other ways too. The sword hanging from her chair is – or possibly was – his, so he has been literally disarmed. The dog asleep on the floor may be his too, its slumbering state undermining its conventional significance as an emblem of watchfulness and fidelity. Between the two cardplayers is a slate where the score is being kept and the brilliantly lit square of chalk for marking it.1 The young man is offered a glass of wine by a fellow whose leering expression suggests that he too is in on the swindle. His face is caricaturally rendered with features that are familiar to us from Steen's other paintings. Further flagons of wine are kept ready in the large gilt wine cooler in the left foreground. Completing the flattened S-shape composition of the principal figure group are three further persons. A maid shows a lobed white porcelain dish to a woman, perhaps the keeper of the house seated with her back to us, and standing in front of the fireplace, an older man fills his clay pipe while leaning to his right to see the young man's hand of cards.2 On the wall behind is a cittern. Jan Steen's paintings are full of implied sound, from the raucous to the subtle, and he often depicted figures – including himself – playing musical instruments.3 String instruments were usually stored hung against a wall as here, but its presence probably also hints at the activities of the house, since "if music be the food of love.." was a proverb as well understood in The Netherlands in the 17th Century as anywhere else.

Nearly all of Jan Steen's paintings are to some extent theatrical, and a sense of human comedy imbues many of them. Jan Steen may not himself have been a Rederijker – a member of a Rhetoricians club that performed comic songs, poems and theatrical intermezzi – but he painted them on many occasions, and his humorous and witty approach to his subject matter is the pictorial reflection of their world (see fig. 1). In this picture we are seeing a freeze-frame from an episode in a situation comedy in which all the characters play their parts, and the characters at least are depicted in a clearly caricatural manner. Furthermore, as he nearly always did, Steen has here drawn us the viewer into his comedy as silent participants. Steen has taken a subject familiar in Dutch genre painting – a soldier being disarmed by female charms – and presented it in theatrical terms as a complex and humorous exploration of human nature and the interaction between the sexes.4 The seated cavalier studies his inevitably weak hand of cards – a weak hand that is clearly no accident. His female opponent looks out at us, and by slyly showing the Ace of Hearts hidden in her right hand, involves us in the sting, and making us complicit in the swindling of the victim. Behind the overall impression of refinement and opulence Steen depicts a young lady using her feminine charms to mask her careful manipulation of the situation in which we too are now involved. Positioned far closer to the picture plane than anyone else, it is this young woman, with her eye-catching beautifully rendered shot silk clothing and her far from innocent expression that first draw us into the painting.

This painting has an unusually high degree of finish in both the details and the background. Steen's masterful use of paint is demonstrated in the exquisitely rendered still-life details such as the sword hanging from the chair and the ornate details of the fringed table cloth, as well as the materials of the young woman's dress.5

Jan Steen was strongly – and inevitably – influenced by the Leiden tradition of Fijnschilders such as Dou and Van Mieris, but here as in all his refined works, parts of the painting are swiftly painted with a much broader brush. Although we only see the far wall of the large room in which the drama takes place, and only a few devices such as the wine cooler serve to anchor the extremities of the foreground of the composition, the space he has created is fully realised and entirely convincing. This is partly because Steen uses people – the actors on his stage - rather than a three dimensional fully described set, to define the space within pictures such as this one. He does however use light in a remarkably sophisticated way to create depth. A superb example here is the double shadow cast by the sword hanging at an angle from the chair, which implies two light sources from beyond the picture plane to the left: perhaps two window openings. Jan Steen's interest in light sources and the contrast of shadow and light is put to theatrical purpose, for example by the well-lit distant room, seen along a dark unlit corridor.

The organisation of space in the present picture also reflects the influence of Pieter de Hooch's work at the end of the 1650s (thus after Jan Steen's ill-fated foray into the brewing business in Delft had ended). Specifically, the view through the corridor to the sunlit room facing the street, and the glimpse of the city beyond seen through the open window are ideas found in paintings by De Hooch such as the Girl Drinking with Two Soldiers of 1658 in the Louvre, Paris, the Woman and Child in a Pantry of circa 1658 in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the two versions of The Bedroom of circa 1658-60 in the Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe, and the National Gallery, Washington, and the Woman delousing a Child's Hair of a similar date in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.6 The present picture is also reminiscent of De Hooch's grander interiors with large marble chimneypieces painted in the 1670s after his move to Amsterdam, but this resemblance is probably coincidental.

Wouter Kloek compared the head of the present young woman with that of the Girl Offering Oysters in the Mauritshuis. 7 While their pose, i.e. the angle of the head, is very similar, and their hairstyle identical, it is not clear that this is the same model. The figure of the maid at the left is however, as Kloek observed, very similar to the maid in Jan Steen's The Weary Traveller of circa 1660-1 at Upton House. 8

The painting above the chimneypiece is a large landscape with a horseman, an army tent and distant hills, which has not been identified, and its style is not clear enough to hazard an attribution.

The present panel is formed of an unusually large single plank of oak

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