Jonathan Leaman

A Jan Steen Kitchen

1995–6

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1235 x 1705 mm
frame: 1286 x 1759 x 53 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with assistance from the Gytha Trust 1997
Reference
T07312

Summary

The subject of this painting is the conception of children, or as Jonathan Leaman has described it 'the cooking up of children' (recorded interview, Tate archive). The painting presents this as a feminine activity that is simultaneously mysterious and physical.

The scene, set in a kitchen, depicts the marriage of the naked pubescent girl at the back of the room to the young boy peering around the door on the left. Although both parties appear equally apprehensive about the events before them, it is the bride, positioned at the apex of the compositional triangle at the centre of the picture, who is given pictorial priority. The groom, on the other hand, is depicted simply as an alarmed spectator. The forthcoming consummation is alluded to by the marital bed, which is being carried by the four sprites. The girl's imminent loss of virginity is symbolised by the yoni, a Hindu symbol for the female genitals, which is pictorially ruptured by her head.

On the table a book of witches' spells is open at a spell 'for the conjuration of children'; the elderly woman seated at the table is receiving payment from a man, while the woman holding the knife is preparing the witches' brew. The various ingredients of the concoction are laid out on the table. The text, which in part reads 'so it is from the flesh of a child that…beget a child', suggests that the baby is part of the recipe. It continues, 'the true semen is the menses. Take the boy and let him cry […]. Take his perplexity and mix it with the fat of the child. […] Yew for the enchantment of the mind so he is not to know the body is solely matter. For the body is the domain of woman.'

Some of the objects carry distinct iconographic significance. The lily placed on the table next to the elderly woman and directly below the bride is associated in the Christian tradition with the Virgin Mary's annunciation. On the side of the canned fish box is written 'A virgin shall conceive and bring forth a son'. This quotation from the annunciation as recounted in chapter 1, verse 23 of St Matthew's Gospel continues 'and he shall be called Emmanuel, a name which means the Lord is with us'. The brand name of the tinned fish is Immanuel; along the top edge of the box the words 'The Lord is with us' are just visible. Elsewhere, the artist has suggested that the black pudding and matzos on the left may refer to the blood and flesh of Christ, although matzos are more traditionally associated with the Passover. In this biblical context, the bottle of milk and honeycomb at the centre of painting perhaps allude to an earthly paradise. The soiled nappy to their right is a reminder of a more mundane fact of child rearing. According to the artist, other objects, the cabbage, for example, were included for compositional balance and as a demonstration of painterly skill.

Pinned to the wall at the back of the room is a variation on Sandro Botticelli's (c.1444-1510) Birth of Venus (Uffizi, Florence, c.1485). In classical mythology, when Zeus scythed off his father Cronus's genitals they fell into the sea and created the foaming waves out of which Venus, the goddess of heavenly and earthly love, sprang. In Botticelli's painting she stands naked in a shell borne on waves. In Leaman's version of the painting, the bride and groom are depicted on the shell fighting over the marital bed. In the background, Zeus and Cronus, represented by Leaman and his father, are seen falling out of the sky. There are further references to Botticelli's painting elsewhere in picture. For example, the young bride and Botticelli's Venus are linked by the compositional conceit of making the girl appear to stand in the cupped palm of the old woman's hand, which itself is echoed in the upturned rack of meat below. Both devices refer formally to the scallop shape in which Botticelli's Venus stands.

The title of the painting refers to the Dutch seventeenth century painter Jan Steen (1626-1679). Steen's exuberant paintings of unruly households were intended to steer their audience towards a virtuous life by illustrating the disorder wrought by worldly vices. Even today the phrase 'a Jan Steen Kitchen' is used in Holland to connote a chaotic household. Leaman's painting refers in particular to Steen's Celebrating the Birth (Wallace Collection, London, 1664). Superficially the subject of that picture is a celebration to mark the birth of a child. In it the husband, an old man, holds the newborn baby in his arm, while the young mother remains confined to her bed. A young man, probably the real father, makes the two-fingered cuckold salute above the baby's head. The painting, which is full of references to the impotence of the old man and the real paternity of the child, mocks the husband for taking such a young wife. Although A Jan Steen Kitchen is not addressing the same issue, it does share some of the painting's themes. Both pictures present chaotic households presided over by women, and both question the power of men.

Although the figures are generally based on friends or relatives, Leaman prefers to paint from memory rather than from life. The woman on the far left cooking eggs is Leaman's projection of his mother as an old woman. The figure leading in the bride is loosely based on the artist Paula Rego, Leaman's friend. The man paying the old woman, Leaman's grandmother, is a self-portrait. The woman holding the knife is related to another friend, with whom he was not on speaking terms at the time. The baby is Leaman's goddaughter, and the girl peering over the table his niece. The rest of the children including the bride and groom are composite figures made from memory and imagination. The room is based on Leaman's memory of the kitchen in the family home at 62 Westbourne Grove, London where he was brought up. The painting took more than a year to make.

Further reading:
Jo Hedley, Jan Steen at the Wallace Collection, exhibition catalogue, Wallace Collection, London, 1996
Jonathan Leaman, exhibition catalogue, Beaux Arts, London, 1999
Jonathan Leaman, exhibition catalogue, Beaux Arts, London, 1994

Toby Treves
November 2000

Display caption

Leaman is a great admirer of detailed narrative paintings from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, and like those works his own is crammed with meaning and incident, both emotional and spiritual. The title of this painting refers to The Fat and the Lean Kitchen by the Dutch artist Jan Steen, a work which depicts a riotous and debauched domestic gathering painted to warn against the dangers of excess and immorality. Leaman uses his family and friends as models and here has placed them in a kitchen reacting to menacing events. There is also Christian imagery present on the table, from the discarded lily to the spilt red wine. The entire scene is steeped in a yellow light which reinforces its mysterious atmosphere.

Gallery label, August 2004

Technique and condition

The painting was executed on a single piece of medium weight linen canvas which is attached to a stretcher with wire staples at the back, which are hidden by frame. There is no attachment visible along sides. The staining of the canvas at the left and right edges suggests the presence of a thin size layer, probably an animal glue, which was applied before stretching. The stretched face of the canvas was then primed with a white pigmented oil ground layer, applied by brush in broad horizontal strokes. This layer is reasonably thin (the canvas weave texture is still evident) and has penetrated through to the back of canvas in many areas.

The painting was applied exclusively by brush in a very precise technique. The first layer was a uniform imprimatura layer of orange over the entire ground layer. The composition of the painting was then determined by sketching in the main outlines of the figures, food and furniture in pencil, before the subsequent application of the top paint layers. The forms of the figures and details of food on the table were painted with a fairly small brush. In many areas the pencil lines are still visible just around the paint. Although primarily opaque colours were used, some use was also made of transparent glazes over base coats to achieve a greater sense of depth. This is particularly noticeable in the deep reds of the meat on the table. For the background colour a wider brush was used to scumble the grey/green layer directly over the orange imprimatura. Although the paint layers are in general quite thin, there are some areas of reasonable and sharp impasto found mainly in the figures and food on the table. The gloss varies slightly between colours, but is always reasonably high.

The painting is not varnished. The L-section frame, which is probably the artist's choice, was made by John Jones and consists of a black stained hardwood side section attached to an MDF rear section. The painting is in excellent condition despite the slight slackness noticed in the canvas on its acquisition. However, there is no sign of any deterioration in the paint layers. A polyester sailcloth lining was recently attached behind the stretcher bars to increase the rigidity of the support and to prevent the onset of cracking in the paint layers caused by the canvas hitting the stretcher bars.

Tom Learner
October 1997

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