Untraced since its last appearance on the art market in 1881, this is an important rediscovered work by Jan Steen, painted around the time that he moved to Delft in 1654. Scenes of village life were a constant theme of Steen's early output, inspired by the work of both Adriaen van Ostade, under whom Steen is thought to have trained in the early 1640s, and Adriaen's younger brother Isaac van Ostade. The setting for this example is the outside of a ramshackle inn, accessed through a ruined archway which forms the backdrop to the composition. By Steen's standards the pervading mood is relatively restrained. In the foreground he depicts a rich array of travellers, soldiers, servants and children going about their chores in a series of delightful vignettes. Wouter Kloek (loc. cit.) has shown how the young Steen drew inspiration for these vignettes from a highly sophisticated and diverse range of visual sources. In the right foreground a gentleman bends down to offer an elegantly dressed lady a drink in a scene reminiscent of Gerard Terborch and Gabriel Metsu. In the centre, a boy lying on the floor looks up to the viewer in a pose that derives from Abraham Bloemaert. On the far left, a seated man crosses his legs to removes his shoes and socks, a motif borrowed from the antique Spinario statue of the boy removing a thorn from this foot. Both of these motifs recur in other paintings by Steen, the Spinario figure can be seen for instance, albeit in a slightly different pose, in the Figures by a Stream (Warsaw, National Museum), also an early picture from 1650-1653. Both figures feature in a later picture from 1670-72, the Landscape with skittle players (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). In the left background, as Kloek has also pointed out, the standing figure with a rifle, is clearly indebted to Jacques de Gheyn II's engravings from the Wapenhandelinghe, first published in 1607 (see The New Hollstein - The De Gheyn family. Part II, Rotterdam, 2000, pp. 159-207). Elsewhere in Steen's composition, the mother and child on horseback, seen from behind, echo traditional depictions of the Flight into Egypt. In this picture Steen brings together these various motifs in a cohesive and highly original manner at a time when he was establishing his artistic identity and defining his unrivalled talent as a narrator of genre subjects.
Both this and the following lot once belonged to Baron de Beurnonville, whose collection in Paris was one of the most distinguished formed in France in the second half of the nineteenth century. Dispersed in sales between 1872 and 1906, it comprised more than 1,000 paintings, besides drawings and works of art. The majority were of the northern schools of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including pictures by Jan van Eyck, Hugo van der Goes, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling, Jan Gossaert, Hendrick Goltzius, Rubens and Ruisdael, as well as Rembrandt’s Landscape with an Obelisk of 1638 (Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). French painting was represented by such works as Drouais’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour (London, National Gallery) as well as examples of Chardin, Fragonard, Ingres and Delacroix, whilst works by Italian artists included Tiepolo’s Apotheosis of Aeneas (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) and Triumph of Flora (San Francisco, Fine Arts Museums, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum).
Both this painting and that by Willem van de Velde (lot 15) were acquired in the May 1881 Beurnonville sale by Léon Emile Brault (1825-1910), and have remained in the latter’s family ever since. Brault, shown here in a photograph taken by Nadar, was from a prosperous Parisian family and he cultivated a refined taste for 17th and 18th century paintings. His collection included fine works by Ruisdael, Hubert Robert, Largillière and Hutin.