Artworks
Wine is a Mocker

Contributor

Wine might be a mocker but Jan Steen says your bad decisions happened when you got dressed.

Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise - Proverbs 20:1

We’ve all been there. Flopped out in public somewhere reeking of alcohol and unknowingly acting the fool. Having said that, the proverb painted on the tavern door and quoted above isn’t quite right. This painting makes it very clear that it was in fact the passed out woman who did the raging and her friends who are doing the mocking. How dare Proverbs’ blame my good friends Wine and Strong Drink for this! My girl should have remembered to drink a glass of water for every glass of wine and to make sure to have a full meal before downing Jenever shots. Alas, it would be great to blame our lack of wisdom purely on the drink but as is usually the case, it begins earlier in the evening. 

What makes me so sure that our friend makes poor decisions while sober? It’s her stockings. The bold color red was often worn by prostitutes to attract and signal potential customers. Many have remarked upon the woman’s red stockings, near state of undress, and obvious intoxication as definitive signs of a sex worker but it may not be so simple. Other scholars have pointed out that you would have been hard pressed to find a prostitute who wore a fur lined top and a satin skirt during the 17th C and that she may be an upper-middle class woman slumming it for the night. Here is where I come upon her poor decision making skills. Either she is a prostitute who chose to wear her best clothes to a seedy tavern where they would very likely be soiled, or she is a classy lady who chose to wear tart-tights out in public. Both situations make me question her judgment, though that definitely does not justify the creepy looks the dude by her feet is giving her, the yapping doggy, or the questionable antics of those children.. We can only hope that they are putting her in that cart to wheel her home where they will put the 17th C equivalent of a bottle of coconut water and some aspirin on her nightstand.  

The painting’s subjects aren’t the only ones with questionable decision making skills. Edward Solly, a well-known British art collector of the 19th C and one of many people to have owned this painting found himself selling it in 1837. In fact, Solly would hold eight major art sales between 1825 and 1837 of his large Dutch Golden Age and High Renaissance Italian pieces due to financial difficulties. This is not surprising considering much of his money was tied up in his family’s timber business that went bankrupt during the 1837 banking crisis.

More a sign of bad luck than bad decision making, other owners of this painting, Jewish brothers Benjamin and Nathan Katz were forced to sell (“sell” being an optimistic term for the transaction) the piece to Hitler’s Linz Collection during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The respected Dutch art dealers were only able to stave off being taken to concentration camps by trading their collection with the Germans. In 1942, Nathan escaped to Switzerland and managed to trade a Rembrandt for 25 visas, allowing his brother and many of his family members to escape safely to Spain. This Steen piece was given back to them in 1947 and sold 5 years later, eventually making it into the Norton. According to the family descendants there are over 200 works of art in Dutch museums that rightly belong to the family. A restitution claim was rejected in 2013, but the family still hopes to reclaim the heirlooms.