'Pride and Persecution': Jan Steen's Old Testament Scenes at the Barber

 Jan Steen (1626-1679),  The Wrath of Ahasuerus,  about 1668-70. Oil on canvas, 129.6 x 166.3 cm. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham (No. 39.22). Photo: Ruth Bubb.

Jan Steen (1626-1679), The Wrath of Ahasuerus, about 1668-70. Oil on canvas, 129.6 x 166.3 cm. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham (No. 39.22). Photo: Ruth Bubb.

Jan Steen (1626-1679) was both a storyteller and a technically highly accomplished painter. Preceding an exhibition on the accomplished Dutch painter’s history paintings at the Mauritsuis (Jan Steen’s Histories, 15 February – 13 May 2018) the Barber Institute of Fine Arts is currently exploring Steen’s narratives from the Old Testament in the first museum loan exhibition devoted to the artist in the UK.

The show continues the Barber’s tradition of painting-in-focus exhibitions centred on a single masterpiece, in this case Steen’s magnificent The Wrath of Ahasuerus (about 1668-70). New research explores the strong influence of contemporary Dutch theatre and acting styles on Steen’s compositions and figures, as well as the recurring intersections with Jewish history and culture.

The idea for the show was first conceived in 2010, with research beginning in earnest in 2014/15. The catalogue includes essays by the Barber’s Deputy Director and Head of Collections Robert Wenley, Rosalie van Gulick (Mauritshuis, The Hague), and Nina Cahill (Curatorial Fellow for Paintings 1600-1800 at the National Gallery).

The intriguing title of the show, which sums up both the Barber’s masterpiece and hints at the key themes, was the result of a brainstorming session during which 20 to 30 alternatives were discussed. The exhibition is complemented by an innovative and varied programme of events, including a collaboration with the on-campus music department to feature live performances of baroque music, a study afternoon on Steen’s history paintings, a lecture on Xerxes (the historical figure behind the biblical Ahasuserus), special writing and drama workshops, an associated display of Dutch 17th century works on paper, and an annex to the show with objects and oral testimony from the local Jewish community about the significance of the story of Esther and the Feast of Purim today.

Pride and Persecution: Jan Steen’s Old Testament Scenes  is showing at the Barber Institue of Fine Arts until 21 January 2018.