Originally created 08/20/04

Masterpiece goes on display

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- A 17th century masterpiece by Jan Steen that depicted the gulf between wealth and poverty in the Dutch Golden Age went on exhibit Thursday in the Dutch national museum, the most expensive acquisition in the museum's 200-year history.

The Rijksmuseum bought "The Burgher of Delft and his Daughter," painted in 1655, for $14.6 million from the estate of Lady Janet Douglas Pennant, whose family owned it for 150 years and hung it in Penhryn Castle in north Wales.

Although the museum's Rembrandts and Vermeers are worth more, they have been in its collection for many years and were acquired for lower figures.

"It's a unique picture, not at all a typical Steen," museum Director Ronald de Leeuw said.

De Leeuw said the "The Burgher" was a key link in the development of Steen and those who followed him in Delft, including Johannes Vermeer.

It was one of the few portraits painted by Steen, known for his genre painting of life in the 17th century when Dutch merchants built fabulous fortunes from trading empires but had to reconcile their wealth with their austere Calvinist ethos.

British historian Simon Schama described the classic Dutch dilemma as "The Embarrassment of Riches," the title of his 1987 book on the culture of the Golden Age, for which he chose the Steen painting as the cover illustration.

Steen was the satirist of his day, portraying farcical and sometimes comic scenes with overtly moralistic themes of decadence or domestic virtues. Many are set in kitchens or taverns, full of symbolism and visual quips on adages of that time.

"The Burgher" shows a wealthy man in formal black attire sitting on the stoop of a home with the tower of the Old Church of Delft in the background. A poorly clad woman, with a small child at her side clutching a tattered hat, appears as a supplicant with her hand outstretched. An elaborately dressed girl stands aloof and removed from the interplay between her father and the beggars as she stares toward the viewer.

De Leeuw said the merchant, sometimes also called the "burghermeester" or mayor, probably wanted to have his portrait painted in a scene that depicted his charity toward the poor.

The house in the painting has been identified as one that stood opposite Steen's home on the Old Church canal at that time - and still stands today. The subject's identity is not known, but the museum is conducting research to find out who he was.

The Rijksmuseum owns 22 other works by Steen, who lived from 1626-1679 mostly in Leiden. But de Leeuw said "The Burgher" would reinforce its new accent on becoming a historical as well as an art museum.

The museum's main baroque building was closed earlier this year for a four-year, $335 million renovation. About 400 of its finest masterworks have been moved to an annex, with the new acquisition taking a central place in a room with other scenes of Dutch life, including three Vermeers.


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