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Relationships • Romanticism

What True Love Looks Like

Jan Steen was what is termed a ‘realistic’ painter. He didn’t do airbrushed details or prettified scenes. Wherever in his native 17th century Holland he saw ugliness, deceit, stupidity or coarseness, he let us know it – and left us to stare back at ourselves with one or two fewer illusions. He painted the rich in the act of backstabbing, thieving, boasting and grandstanding. And he painted the poor being drunk, lecherous, vulgar and vain. A few of his children have an air of sweetness to them, but they’re almost always squabbling, breaking things and trying to hit each other with chairs and hammers. 

Jan Steen, The Sleeping Couple, 1659

Here, Steen’s gaze has landed on a couple. They’re not exactly young and they’re not entirely pretty either. What’s more – as is so often the case with Steen’s figures – they’ve been eating and drinking too much and have fallen into a stupor. On the table between them are symbols of excess: oysters (symbols of sensuality), playing cards, wine and tobacco. We can almost hear the snoring and smell the odd unashamed fart.

Nevertheless, this is a painting of love, first and foremost the painter’s love of a humanity he both despises and can’t help forgiving. Of course we are all – from certain angles – repulsive. But despair is ultimately cheap and unhelpful. The real achievement isn’t to condemn. It’s to look at matters without sentimentality and then still to keep an open heart.

True love doesn’t idealise. It involves the courage to take in another’s full complexity and to remember the reasons why, despite some unadmirable dimensions, people continue to deserve our forgiveness and understanding (rather as a parent might love their own teenage child with a full awareness of their ghastliness and at the same time, a profound sympathy for the reasons behind it). 

We need so much help in acknowledging what we are really like – and staying patient with what we see. We need all the loving realism can we can find.

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