The art of heavy drinking

We are inside a tavern, in the boisterous company of 11 men and women engaging in lively relaxation. To the left, by the fireplace, a group gossips and guffaws, while behind them an inebriated man performs an impromptu jig. To the right, two men play cards with a woman, perhaps a prostitute, who looks out slyly at the viewer while revealing that she holds an ace. Meanwhile, in the foreground, a lovesick musician scratches a tune on a violin while he flirts with a young woman, who can't help smiling back.

This rambunctious scene is one of 400 or so paintings created by the prolific 17th Century Dutch artist Jan Steen. A brewer's son, Steen is a household name in the Netherlands, where he is considered the great joker among the pack of celebrated artists of the Dutch Golden Age.

As this particular tavern interior demonstrates, Steen specialised in boozed-up scenes of hurly-burly mayhem, teeming with carousers and festive merry-makers. Indeed, if the larger-than-life Shakespearean character Falstaff had been an artist, then he would have painted just like Steen.

Several of his works, including this painting, are currently on display in Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer, an exhibition at the Queen's Gallery in Buckingham Palace in London. The show contains other riotous tavern scenes by Steen, as well as A Village Revel (1673), his complex, cacophonous composition of drunken chaos outside a tumbledown rural inn. Eating, drinking, dancing, laughing, shouting: the characters in Steen's pictures always enjoy life to excess.

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