Situated within an ornately decorated interior, this painting initially presents a scene of genteel, harmonious life, a contrast to the more boisterous and bawdier atmosphere of some of Steen’s other works. Dating to the mid-1660s, the painter’s most productive period, the painting, on closer scrutiny, includes details that imbue it with a more subversive and humorous meaning. These elements subtly poke fun at the ostentation of the gathered figures and provide numerous allusions to love-making and romantic pursuits. The woman seated in the foreground, for example, is affluently dressed in a dark jacket lined with fur or swan’s down, her white apron pulled aside to reveal her lavishly embroidered blue silk skirt. She sits peeling a lemon, a symbol of her household’s wealth, but one which also can be seen to possess amorous overtones. The sourness and bitterness of the fruit was often equated in Dutch paintings with deceptive allure or attraction to earthly beauty. Lemons were also recommended as a cure for lovesickness. A romantic reading of the peeled fruit here, however, is perhaps emphasized by the tray of oysters on the table behind the woman. Oysters frequently appear as symbols of lust and worldliness, signifying erotic love as well as luxurious excess. Just visible beneath the woman’s skirt is a foot-warmer, another familiar trope used to signify sexual desire. The way in which the central man proffers the glass to this woman, too, at once emphasizes the household’s status and also acts as a commentary on the man himself. Holding the glass by the edge of the foot suggests a degree of elegance, one specifically designed to convey refinement. In fact, such actions were later codified by Gérard de Lairesse, who included in his Groot schilderboeck of 1707 an etching showing the various decorous ways in which glasses should be held, one of which is mimicked by Steen’s gentleman (M. Westermann, ‘Steen’s Comic Fictions’, Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller, exhibition catalogue, Washington D.C., 1996, p. 60). While the gesture thus references the gentility of the household, it was nevertheless an effete one, traditionally associated with women, rather than men, in Steen’s work.
Beyond the central couple, further connotations and references to love can be found. A young woman sits playing a harpsichord, while a man accompanies her on a violin, a motif regularly employed by painters throughout the Golden Age and laden with associations of genteel love. On the wall beside the luxuriously curtained and canopied bed is a large framed painting depicting a scene of love-making. The exact subject is difficult to determine, though it is possible that it represents either Venus and Adonis as recounted by Ovid or the romance of Rinaldo and Armida from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberate (1581). Either would have provided an equally effective gloss on the scene below: the doomed love of Venus and the shepherd Adonis or the devious actions of Armida who enraptured the crusader knight Rinaldo and kept him a lovesick prisoner in an enchanted garden.