A Masterpiece among Many

“Masterpiece” strikes me as a term that suffers from overuse. While it’s a necessary evil in the marketing of exhibitions, the sale of catalogues, and in keeping the turnstiles clicking, one wonders if all the works by well-known artists can truly be called masterpieces.
Jan Steen, The Worship of the Golden Calf, circa 1672—75, oil on canvas, 70 1/4 x 61 1/4 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina

And if so, how do significant variations in quality, scarcity, scale, and condition factor in? I think it is fair to say that even the most gifted painters had their off days. Alternatively, can a superlative effort by a so-called minor master rise to the level of a masterpiece?

Now that I have called the term into question, I want to reverse course and introduce the reader to The Worship of the Golden Calf, a true masterpiece by Jan Steen (1626—79). Considered the comic and narrative genius of 17th-century Dutch painting, Steen produced hundreds of paintings during his 30-year career. Not all of his pictures rise to the level of masterpiece, however, for many of his autograph works are coarsely painted and lack the attention he brought to his more ambitious offerings. Since the peripatetic Steen was often in need of money, it is likely these minor works were offered on the open market as a vehicle for quick cash. By contrast, commissioned pictures were far more lucrative, with the added benefit of advancing his reputation and artistic standing. Consider, for instance, The Supper at Emmaus from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, or Fantasy Interior with Jan Steen and the Family of Gerrit Schouten at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. In such examples, whether portraits, biblical or mythological narratives, fijnschilder paintings (finely executed works with precise details and often a displaying a polished quality), or iconographically complex genre scenes, the viewer is quick to sense their elevated artistic merit.

Detail from The Worship of the Golden Calf

The Worship of the Golden Calf (circa 1672—75) must have represented an important commission for Steen during the last decade of his life. It was acquired by the State of North Carolina in 1952, but the work’s history prior to the mid-18th century remains a mystery.  Its designation as one of Steen’s masterpieces is easier to explain. One of the painter’s largest and most ambitious pictures, the canvas is filled with scores of colorfully dressed, festive merrymakers who act out this episode from the book of Exodus (32:4—6). Although scale, detail, and finish do not a masterpiece make, here they clearly do. In addition, elements within its composition pay homage to a painting on the same theme by Lucas van Leyden (1494­—1533), who, like Steen. was a native of that university town. In light of the effort he gave to this work’s execution, it would not be surprising to learn that Steen himself considered the work a masterpiece.      

(To learn more about The Worship of the Golden Calf, consult the entry on the picture in the NCMA’s Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings catalogue.)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top