This small oil on board painting by Jan Steen (1626 – 1679) nicely illustrates the influence which Dutch genre paintings had on the development of humorous prints and caricature during the eighteenth-century. Steen’s work is very similar in tone and subject matter to that of later caricaturists such as Thomas Rowlandson, who were always keen to celebrate the joys of conviviality and pleasure. He is thought to have painted around 800 paintings in his lifetime, many of which were translated into engraved copies during the eighteenth-century. A copy of this picture appears in the trompe-l’oeil print Great Britain’s Post Master, published by William Knight of London in 1707. As far as we can tell, the print seems to have been an advertisement for Knight’s wares and it’s therefore possible that he was selling engraved copies of the painting in his shop. Interestingly Knight appears to altered the background of the image, replacing the fireplace with an open doorway on which an owl is perched.
The painting is titled The Joke, although admittedly it may not seem particularly funny to modern viewers. It shows a grimacing fool emptying the contents of a chamberpot over the head of a young woman who has passed out after drinking heavily. It’s been suggested that some of Steen’s humorous paintings often included a moral undertone, warning the viewer of the dangers of pursuing pleasure to excess. In this case it’s possible to discern not only the obvious threat of the upturned piss-pot but also something slightly more sinister, hinted at by the young woman’s open bodice and splayed limbs. This may explain why Knight chose to include an owl, traditionally a symbol of evil in medieval iconography, in his later engraving of the image.