Lot 9
  • 9

Jan Havicksz. Steen

5,000,000 - 7,000,000 GBP
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  • Jan Havicksz. Steen
  • The prayer before the meal
  • signed and dated on the placard on the back wall below the inscription: JAN STEEN 1660
    inscribed on the placard:-
    Drie dingen wensch ick en niet meer.
    Voor al te minnen Godt den heer,
    Maar wens om tgeen de wijste badt
    Een eerlyck leven op dit dal-
    In deze drie bestaet het al.
  • oil on oak panel


Johannes Enschedé, printer, Haarlem;
His deceased sale, Haarlem, Jelgersma/Van der Vinne, 30 May 1786, lot 22;
Anonymous sale, Alkmaar, Hartemink van Horstok, 17 November 1788, lot 1, for 700 Florins to Du Tour;
B. Ocke, Curate of the new church of Sint Lodewijk, Leiden;
His deceased sale, Leiden, 21 April 1817, lot 128, (described as on canvas), for 440 Florins to Ocke (presumably bought in);
Anonymous sale (Engelberts and others), Amsterdam, Van der Schley/ Roos/ De Vries, 25 August 1817, lot 91, (described as on canvas), for 275 Florins to auctioneer De Vries;
C.E.E. Baron Collot d’Escury, Leeuwarden;
His deceased sale, Leeuwarden, Proost, 17-18 October 1831, lot 33 (with dimensions 22 by 18 1/2  in.);
Mr. Chaplin, London, 1831, by whom imported from The Netherlands (according to Smith, who valued it at 250 Guineas);
James Morrison (d.1857), 57 Upper Harley Street, London, by 1848;
Probably his widow, Mary Anne Morrison (d. 1887);
Their son, Charles Morrison (d.1909), Basildon Park, Berks, (Picture no. 34, according to a label on the reverse of the frame), by 1894;
By inheritance to his brother, Walter Morrison, Basildon Park;
Who settled the inheritance on his nephew Col.  James Archibald Morrison, Basildon Park (until sold in 1929), 1910;
By inheritance to his daughter Mary Morrison, 1934, who had married in 1924 John Henry Dent-Brocklehurst, Sudeley Castle, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire;
By inheritance to Geoffrey Mark Dent-Brocklehurst, Sudeley Castle;
Thence by inheritance at Sudeley Castle.


Possibly London, British Gallery, 1819 (this exhibition is mentioned by Smith, and repeated in subsequent literature, but has yet to be corroborated);
London, British Institution, 1848, lent by James Morrison;
London, Royal Academy, Winter Exhibition, 1879, no. 54, lent by Mrs Morrison;
London, Royal Academy, Winter Exhibition, 1894, no. 58 (p. 16 in the handbook), lent by Charles Morrison;
London, Royal Academy, Winter Exhibition, 1907, no. 73 (p. 20 in the handbook), lent by Charles Morrison;
London, Grosvenor Gallery, 1914-18, no. 18;
London, Burlington Fine Arts Club, Winter 1936-7, no. 61;
London, Royal Academy (Gallery IX), Exhibition of 17th Century Art in Europe, 3 January-12 March 1938, no. 268 (lent by Simon Morrison);
London, Royal Academy of Arts, 7 September-18 November 1984, Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting, no. 102;
Washington, National Gallery of Art, 28 April - 18 August 1996, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, 21 September 1996 - 12 January 1997, Jan Steen. Painter and Storyteller, no. 13.


J. Smith, A Catalogue Raisonné…, vol. IV, London 1833, pp. 62-3, no. 185;
G.F. Waagen, Galleries and Cabinets of Art in Great Britain, London 1857, p. 108;
T. van Westrheene, Jan Steen, Étude sur l’art en Hollande, The Hague 1856, p. 162, no. 380;
C. Hofstede de Groot, A Catalogue Raisonné…, vol. I, London 1907, pp. 99-100, 104, nos. 375, 397b;
A. Graves, A Century of Loan Exhibitions, vol. III, London 1914, pp. 1256, 1258-9;
A. Bredius, Jan Steen, Amsterdam 1927, pp. 61-2;
W. Martin, De Hollandische schilderkunst in de zeventiende eeuw.  Rembrandt en zijn tijd, vol. 2, Amsterdam 1935-6, vol. II, p. 264;
The Burlington Magazine, January 1937, p. 45, reproduced;
E.K. Waterhouse (ed.), Catalogue of the Exhibition of 17th Century Art in Europe, exhibition catalogue, London 1938, p. 110, no. 268;
An Illustrated Souvenir of The Exhibition of 17th Century Art in Europe...., London 1938, reproduced p. 63, no. 268;
C.W. de Groot, Jan Steen. Beeld en woord, Utrecht 1952, pp. 61-2;
N. MacLaren, National Gallery Catalogues. The Dutch School 1600-1900, London 1960, p. 400, under no. 2558;
L. de Vries, Jan Steen. De schilderende Uilenspiegel, Amsterdam 1976, pp. 10-11, 57, reproduced 25;
L. de Vries, Jan Steen "de kluckschilder", doctoral dissertation, Groningen 1977, pp. 46, 48, 49-50, 129, n161, no. 90x;
K. Braun, Alle tot nu bekende schilderijen van Jan Steen, Glarus & Rotterdam  1980, p. 100, no. 115 (wrongly as on panel transferred to canvas; he was probably confusing it with the copy of that medium in the Alfred Wallach sale, Paris, 3 April 1962, lot 17);
P.C. Sutton, "The Life and Art of Jan Steen", in Jan Steen: Comedy and Admonition.  Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, Winter/Spring 1982-3, p. 29, reproduced fig. 27;
C. Brown, Scenes of Everyday Life. Dutch Genre Painting of the Seventeenth Century, London & Boston 1984, pp. 150-1, reproduced p. 150;
P.C. Sutton, in P.C. Sutton, Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia 1984, pp. XLVIII, 307-8, no. 102, reproduced plate 78;
S. Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches, London 1987, p. 47, reproduced;
N. MacLaren, revised by C. Brown, National Gallery Catalogues. The Dutch School 1600-1900, London 1991, vol. 1, p. 427, under no. 2558;
A.K. Wheelock Jr, in H. Perry Chapman, W. Th. Kloek, A.K. Wheelock Jr, Jan Steen. Painter and Storyteller, exhibition catalogue, New Haven & London 1996, pp. 139-141, no. 13, reproduced, also p. 190, under no. 28;
P. Biesboer, in P. van den Brink & B.W. Lindemann, Cornelis Bega. Eleganz und raue Sitten, exhibition catalogue, Aachen 2012, p. 215.


The following condition report is provided by Hamish Dewar, who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's. UNCONDITIONAL AND WITHOUT PREJUDICE Structural Condition The panel has not been cradled and the two original panel joins are visible on the reverse. They are secure and stable with no evidence of any structural intervention in the past. There is a very small chip out of the reverse of the panel on the upper right vertical edge. This is not visible on the paint surface. Paint surface The paint surface has very discoloured varnish layers and would undoubtedly be transformed by cleaning. Inspection under ultra-violet light shows small scattered retouchings, predominately on the wall behind the seated family, the most concentrated of the retouchings being in the vertical area running up from the child's right arm to the hanging decoration and bell. These retouchings are clearly excessive and larger than is really necessary and could be reduced if removed and more carefully retouched. There may be other retouchings beneath the opaque discoloured retouchings which are not visible under ultra-violet but the fine detail of the painting would certainly appear to be in very good and original condition and I would be very confident that cleaning and revarnishing would transform the overall appearance of the painting. Summary The painting would therefore appear to be in excellent and stable condition.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

In a domestic interior with a view out through an open window to a house and trees, a couple with an infant are about to have a simple meal of bread, cheese and ham.  While the mother holds her child still and closes her eyes, her husband removes his hat and holds it before his face to say grace.  The inscription on a placard hanging from a nail on the wall behind them is loosely adapted from Proverbs, XXX, 7-9, and serves as the family’s creed: "Three things I desire and no more/ Above all to love God the Father/ Not to covet an abundance of riches/ But to desire what the wisest prayed for/ An honest life in this vale/ In these three all is based" (fig. 2).  The interior is a plain one, and reflects the modest simplicity of the life the family leads.  Reminders of the transitory nature of human life on earth are found in the skull and extinguished candle placed on the shelf near a large book (probably a Bible), and the message is reinforced by the inscription on a piece of paper hanging over the shelf which reads: Gedenckt te sterven (“Think on Death”).  The wreath of wheat surmounting the skull is an emblem of resurrection, since the plant must die and be buried in the earth to yield a new plant.  Originally Steen painted a large cross above the father’s head (still visible as a shadow of a pentimento), but he painted it out and replaced it with the shelf and the objects on it that provide richer and more subtle allusions to death and resurrection.  The key hanging behind the father is an emblem of his trustworthiness.  Above the family hangs a belkroon - a chandelier with a bell hanging in the middle, an emblem of watchfulness, on which are inscribed words from the Lord’s Prayer: u wille moet geschieden ("Thy will be done").  Few Dutch 17th Century paintings, even those by Jan Steen, are so laden with pious texts, which appear as part of the natural interior of the room rather than as superimposed messages. 

That he was a catholic, and presumably had catholic patrons, may explain the crucifix that Steen first painted affixed to the wall.  Its replacement with vanitas emblems on the shelf is not only a compositional improvement but also deepens the meaning of the painting and reinforces its mood of modest pious humility. 

In its quiet mood of unadorned dignified piety this is an unusual work by Jan Steen, and a highly remarkable one.  As Arthur Wheelock wrote in his entry for the painting in the Jan Steen exhibition catalogue, "Much of the forcefulness of Steen’s image results from the surety of his painting technique.  Rarely did he convey weight and texture so intently.  He carefully modelled his figures with light and shade, endowing them with classical grandeur.  He meticulously rendered the woven pattern of the frayed cloth over the barrel, and the crisp folds in the clean white table cloth under the bread and cheese.  Finally he convincingly suggested the worn appearance of the father’s chair and the rough wood of the window frame."1  In few other works did Steen attain the same level of attention to detail and understanding of light and texture. 

The subject itself is not unknown in Dutch art.  Both protestant and catholic families commissioned portraits of themselves in prayer, often with biblical texts displayed, as here.  As Peter Sutton observed and Arthur Wheelock reiterated, Steen was probably influenced by Adriaen van Ostade’s etching of the same subject, which dates from 1653 (see fig. 1).  Though unusual in Steen’s oeuvre, the subject was evidently in demand from him, since this picture was the earliest of at least four treatments of it by him, all compositionally different.  One of these, a work on canvas from circa 1663-65 in the collection of the Duke of Rutland, Belvoir Castle, includes three more figures, but has the same text on a placard above the fireplace.2  In both the Sudeley and Belvoir pictures, and in a version in the John G. Johnson collection in Philadelphia, also from circa 1662-66, passages from the Lord’s Prayer are inscribed on the belkroon.3   

In 1660 Steen was living in Warmond, just outside Leiden, but he had spent part of the previous decade in Delft.  The understanding of space in the Sudeley picture, and in particular the diagonal view through the open window to a house and beyond it trees, may well have been inspired by works that he had seen by artists working there, including Pieter de Hooch, although the most analogous works by De Hooch probably date from after Steen moved back to Leiden.  The interest in the internal space and the fall of light on the plaster wall and on the different woods of the window frame and shutters may also reflect Steen’s understanding of developments made by painters in Delft, including Vermeer as well as De Hooch.  As Wheelock and others have noted, the open window serves a multiple purpose.  It admits light into the room and controls the lighting within it, but it also admits a free flow of fresh air, emphasizing the physical as well as spiritual healthiness of the family, who live within the community represented by the house and trees beyond to which they are linked by the open window, as well as within the internal bonds of the family. 

The title given here is an English translation of the traditional Dutch title given to pictures of this subject: Gebed voor de Maaltijd.  In England the traditional title is "Grace before Meat,"  but in not all pictures of this subject is meat on the table.  A painting by Jan Steen of this title, painted in the mid-1660s is in the National Gallery, London.4 

This picture has always been catalogued as in the collection of Edmund Phipps, London, where noticed by Gustav Waagen, the second of two works there by Jan Steen, and described as  'A man, a woman, and child.  Also animated, clear and delicate'.5  This must however have been a different picture, either another composition entirely, or another version or copy of this one, because the present picture had been lent by James Morrison to the British Institution in 1848, and Waagen did not begin his visits to British collections until the spring of 1850.

Gustav Waagen did however see this picture a few years later,  when he admired it in the collection of James Morrison in Harley Street.  Waagen, who had clearly not set eyes on it before was struck by the painting’s unusually tranquil and reflective mood as well as its outstanding quality: "A remarkable specimen of the fact that this uproarious master could also occasionally represent the touching scenes of humble but happy domestic life.  In other respects also, excellence of drawing, decision of forms, equal carefulness of execution in a solid impasto and great transparency, this picture belongs to the finest works of the master."6 

Although Mary Dent-Brocklehurst inherited the present picture from her father James Archibald Morrison in 1934, by which time her husband John Henry Dent-Brocklehurst had inherited Sudeley Castle, it was lent by her elder brother Simon Archibald Morrison to the Royal Academy exhibition in 1938, perhaps because the latter lived in London.

A copy after the Sudeley picture was in the Alfred Wallach sale in Paris, 3 April 1962, lot 17, reproduced in the catalogue.   Wybrand Hendriks made a drawn copy of it in the late 18th century, probably while it was in the collection of Johannes Enschedé in Haarlem, where Hendriks lived (now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

1.  See Wheelock, under Literature, 1996, p. 139.
2.  Wheelock, op. cit., pp. 190-192, no. 28, reproduced.
3.  For a full listing of Steen’s treatments of this subject, see Sutton, under Literature, 1982-3, pp. 29-31, especially n7 & n10.
4.  See MacLaren & Brown, under Literature, 1991, vol. 1, pp. 427-8, no. 2558, reproduced vol. 2, plate 353.
5.  G.F. Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain, London 1854, vol. II, p. 227.
6.  See Waagen, under Literature, 1854, p. 108.