Jan Steen's Procuress is a variation on the brothel theme popularized in the Netherlands earlier in the seventeenth century by artists such as Dirck van Baburen (see Museum of Fine Arts, Boston inv. no. 50.2721) and Gerrit Honthorst. These artists had in turn drawn upon the pictorial and literary tradition of the "ill-matched couple" popular in the Netherlands since the sixteenth century. But while traditional depictions of the ill-matched couple were construed as moral warnings against foolishness and deception, the images of brothels produced by Baburen, Steen and their contemporaries were often more ambiguous.
In the present painting, a man stands at an open window in the right background looking out, while in the foreground, a smiling, seated man hands a coin to a standing woman, while another young woman looks on from the bed to the left. The presence of the man in the background heightens our own voyeuristic point of view. While he quite literally "turns his back" on the activities taking place within, Steen places that action front and center for the viewer, with the exchange of coins as the focal point of the composition. Although Steen has also alerted his contemporaries to the illicit nature of this scene through his inclusion of the fiddle, a symbol of lechery, and the clay pipe, a euphamism for visiting a brothel1, the overall focus seems to be on the commercial, rather the sexual, transaction taking place.
If The Procuress is about the financial side of the brothel, then Couple in a Bedroom (Bredius Museum, The Hague) reveals what you get for the money. Depicting a couple clambering into bed together, Couple in a Bedroom explicitly addresses the sexual aspect of the monetary exchange depicted in The Procuress. Yet here again, Steen's depiction seems almost joyous and free from moralizing undertones. This ambiguity has helped to keep Steen's genre images, in which virtue and vice seem fluid and interchangable, fresh and appealing to modern viewers.
1. A. Wheelock et. al., Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller, New Haven and London 1996, exh. cat., p.219.
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