Jacob Jordaens

Jacob Jordaens and Workshop

As the Old Sing, so the Young Pipe c. 1640
Oil on canvas, 144.5 × 216 cm
Purchased 1969, no. 15790

In late 1968, the Gallery held a major exhibition of the works of Jacob Jordaens, including his As the Old Sing, so the Young Pipe, borrowed from a private collection. It was described as “one of the most memorable” paintings from that show in a Gallery newsletter that announced its purchase in March 1969. Two months later, the painting was put on a five-month tour to thirteen cities across Canada. The canvas continues to have broad popular appeal, for obvious reasons.

The subject, taken from a proverb, is a light-hearted warning that we should be careful of how we behave, since children take after adults.1 Three generations of a family carouse, sing and make music. Seated at right, the eldest of the men – the paterfamilias – is clearly the worse for wear, setting a poor example for all. Standing behind the table, a younger man plays the recorder and is imitated by his son in front of him. The youngest child, a baby on his mother’s lap, blows into a golden whistle. To underline the message, a fool points to a wicker cage and the song birds within: a mother and her infants, one of which peeps, perhaps in hunger. The fool, who looks out at us, implicates us in the mockery and perhaps wants us to share in the proverbial lesson.

The recorder music and its infantile imitations accompanies the three others at the table as they sing the ballad “A New Song From Kallo.”2 This is a topical reference to the battle at Kallo on 20 June 1638, which saw the defeat of the Protestant Dutch forces which had invaded Catholic Flanders. Looking beyond the religious significance, the song would have had resonance with a local audience, as the Dutch were intent on seizing Antwerp.

Details enrich the scene, anchoring it in the stuff of everyday life and providing a sense of plenty, even surfeit. The whole picture is densely filled, and the description of surface and detail is meant to delight the eye, even to stimulate the senses. The baby’s whistle is suspended around his neck by a chain and has a polished stone set into one end; the rattle of small bells attached to it add their sound. The object would have been familiar to any parent of the day, a combination of a toy, a pacifier and a teething aid. The table, covered with a valuable Middle Eastern carpet, is laden with platters of food – shrimp and fish – and a roast fowl is kept warm atop a copper warming pan, the glow of hot coals reflected in its pewter dish. Light glints off the silver cup, the china, the pewter flagon and plates, and the golden salt cellar – the windows through which the light streams are seen reflected on metal and glass, distorted on their curved surfaces. An empty chair, on the viewer’s side of the table, was placed there by the painter to prevent the work from appearing too staged, as all the cast are crowded around one side. Yet we cannot sit down and join the feast, as the chair holds a basket piled high with figs, apples and grapes, for which there is no other space available. This proves too tempting for a dog beneath the table, who moves to steal some food.

An owl improbably perches on the old woman’s wicker chair, while a parrot – perhaps a pet – sits by the fruit. The parrot signifies mindless mimicry; the owl is a symbol of wisdom and perhaps also of death. In a niche at the top left are a vase of flowers and a candlestick sitting above a box and a book, to the side are papers and a small bottle. While other related paintings by Jordaens have a more overt vanitas message – a skull, for instance, with the motto “Reflect on Death” – the message to be drawn from this jumble of objects is less clear. While the candle has indeed been extinguished, the scene occurs during the day and the ballad they sing makes reference to it, “but when the dance was over, they had to snuff out the candles.”3 Additionally, the flowers show no sign of wilting, a symbol of the passage of time. They and the other objects piled in the niche do as much to reinforce the idea of plenty as they do to remind us of the inevitable.

Jordaens painted many versions of this subject.4 The earliest dated example is now in Antwerp, and it may well be the first (illus. 1). It dates to 1638, but unlike the Ottawa canvas, makes no explicit reference to the battle of Kallo, a reference found in only some of the versions. Many other paintings followed, and the subject was clearly popular, as examples were still being made in the second half of the forties, if not later.5 The Antwerp painting shows a family united in music: the eldest man and his wife sing while their son plays; the young mother looks on, listening. The table is set with food – fruit, bread and pastry, wine – but not to excess. Nor is there any sense of mockery in the depiction of the family, although presumably the children’s attempts at music might be discordant, and the figure types are slightly exaggerated. When Jordaens returned to the subject, the proverb came to take on a more pointed note. Paintings now in Valenciennes and Berlin (illus. 2 and 3) add a touch of comedy and caricature, as they supplement the message through symbolism – as does the Ottawa painting, arguably with more enthusiasm.

It is difficult to date Jordaens’ work, due to his habit of repeating himself and the lack of consistent workshop standards. In terms of the order and the dating of this group, little can be said with certainty. While it may be tempting to date the Ottawa painting close to 1638 based on its reference to the battle, the song may have long retained currency. Given the available evidence, the Ottawa canvas should likely be dated to c. 1640.6

This core group of paintings share many motifs – figures, furniture, even the vessels on the table re-appear from one to another. Jordaens often repeated himself, re-combining motifs and recycling compositions. While market demand would be critical, it seems likely that the versions became more elaborate with time, the figures more caricatural, and the actions more exaggerated as Jordaens searched for novelty.7 Related paintings, such as his often riotous scenes of Twelfth Night parties, which he was making simultaneously, also fed into them, resulting in a kind of cross-fertilization.

Jordaens would have begun by sketching on paper. A drawing in St. Petersburg (illus. 4) shares much in common with the group of canvases discussed here.8 The cluttered, yet well-planned scene, drawn with no hesitation, can only be an elaboration on the Antwerp painting and others like it. The composition is familiar – the family grouped around one side of a table in a shallow, box-like space – and so too are many of the figures, undoubtedly repeated from other works. Jordaens would have supplemented such drawings with studies (from the life or from imagination) as well as quick sketches exploring details. These works may well have been made with a particular painting in mind, but they joined a stock of images that were available for re-use. Only one study convincingly made for the Ottawa painting survives; it shows the head of the man playing the recorder9 (illus. 5). Yet others have also fed into the canvas: the older man at the right depends upon a life study of a less corpulent man10 (illus. 6); the fool derives from studies – painted or drawn – of Jordaens’ father-in-law Adam van Noort, himself a painter. Many of Jordaens’ models sat for him multiple times, suggesting he could easily call upon their services. The mother in these paintings has been identified with the artist’s daughter, Elizabeth.11 And Jordaens made many studies of Van Noort over the years: a painting in the Louvre incongruously shows him playing three different roles, each differing slightly according to the study and the painter’s needs (illus 7).12

Jordaens began by transferring the design to the canvas. In the Ottawa painting, loose freehand lines, done in a liquid medium, show Jordaens searching for the contours of the figures; the result is fluid and minimal, and required further elaboration in paint. This underdrawing was supplemented, as necessary for more difficult passages such as hands, with a more precise, thin line, done in a dry medium; this was closely followed in the painting. The still life was drawn carefully, the lines fine and precise in a liquid medium, possibly with a pen, and again followed carefully for the most part. Certain of these objects were studio props – perhaps requisitioned from Jordaens’ table – and could have been drawn and then painted directly.

Working from a rough sketch supplemented by studies of figures, heads and hands led to improvisation during the course of painting, and there are numerous, slight changes, exclusively within minor details. Many are visible to the naked eye: for instance, the spectacles worn by the old woman, now seen to have slipped further down the bridge of her nose, and the dog’s ear, now perked up at the sound of the music. The niche was enlarged during the course of painting; the outline of a vase – undoubtedly the first position for the flowers – is visible to the right, and the arrangement of objects may have once been closer to the Berlin painting.

It is generally clear where Jordaens was aided by studies, their presence revealed by the telltale of careful drawing and observation. The more sharply characterized and demanding faces are well done, and show no changes; difficult details such as the old woman’s hands are far better drawn than her corpulent husband’s. Other elements, likely less well established in the drawing stage, were altered and refined during painting, for instance, the recorder player’s jacket was changed, and there are numerous adjustments to contours.

All this shows Jordaens fully in control of the way in which the composition is organized and developed. Yet the workshop will have been responsible for a good part of the painting, and the still life was likely by the hand of a specialist painter. Some passages fall below the quality we expect from Jordaens’ own hand, as seen, for instance, in The Levade. The drapery, in particular, is workman-like in places. While the master’s role in large, collaborative paintings was typically to oversee and finish them, here many of the final, enlivening touches are likely not by Jordaens. Nonetheless, his hand can be seen clearly in the painting of the flesh – the important part in this lively, characterful scene.

Physical History and Technical Notes

The primary support is composed of two pieces of canvas: a medium-weight plain weave with an uneven thread thickness and a great many irregularities. The seam is vertical, with a close overhand stitch, and is 121.5 cm in from the left edge. This dimension is likely close to the original bolt width of the fabric – among the wider widths available to painters. The canvas, while slightly trimmed in places, is close to its original dimension. While the canvas is no longer on its original auxiliary support, some information about its preparation can be deduced from the X-radiograph: it was primed on a loom to which it was attached without a turnover, but laced or tacked to its face. The loom members measure between 7 to 8 cm across and with a bead at the outer edge measuring 2 cm in width. The grey coloured ground was applied with a trowel-like tool, and may have been quite stiff in consistency, judging from the evident struggle in getting an even film and the choppy, uneven application. At the edges, where the edge of the loom members or the points of attachment interfered with the application, a brush was used to ensure better coverage.

There is no record of any treatment other than a note indicating the work was cleaned and re-varnished for the 1957 exhibition in Edinburgh. The painting is lined with a wax-resin adhesive, likely done at this time. It has received only superficial attention at the Gallery. At some point the baby’s genitalia, originally on display, were overpainted with a piece of drapery, likely an early intervention.


Francis Charteris, later 7th Earl of Wemyss (1723–1808) by 1771, when recorded as no. 137 in an inventory of his collection at Amisfield House (Archives, Gosford House, Earls of Wemyss & March); by descent; sold Sotheby’s, London, 26 March 1969, lot no. 89; bought £79,000 by the Gallery through Agnew, London.

Exhibition History

  • 1889 London, Royal Academy, Winter Exhibition, no. 78
  • 1957 Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland, Pictures from Gosford House, no. 30, likely dating to the early 1640s; establishes the provenance
  • 1968–69 Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, Jacob Jordaens, no. 67, “unlikely to date from much later than 1640”
  • 1969 Canadian tour (Edmonton, Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Stratford, Hamilton, St. John’s, Charlottetown, Halifax, Quebec City) [no catalogue published]
  • 1980 London (Ontario), London Regional Art Gallery, The Seven Ages of Man, pp. 102–103, c. 1640
  • 1983 Vancouver, Vancouver Art Gallery, Masterworks from the Collection of the National Gallery of Canada, p. 28, c. 1640
  • 1993–94 Boston, Museum of Fine Arts & Toledo, Museum of Art, The Age of Rubens, no. 46

Selected References

  • Waagen 1857, p. 441, “Size and richness of composition, solid execution, and power of colour, render this one of the best examples of a subject so often treated by him”
  • Rooses 1908, pp. 76, 78, similar to the version in the Louvre painted one to two years before the 1638 version now in Antwerp
  • d’Hulst 1982, pp. 179, 184, autograph, early 1640s
  • McNairn in Laskin and Pantazzi 1987, pp. 151–152 as autograph, dated to the early 1640s; with bibliography
  • Antwerp 1993 under nos. A55 and A56
  • Vandenven in Bauman and Liedtke 1992, pp. 222–223, as autograph, c. 1640–42

1See Sutton in Boston – Toledo 1993–94 on the iconography. The proverb appeared in Jacob Cat’s popular book, Spiegel van den Ouden ende Nieuwen Tijdt (1632). Jordaens included the text of the proverb in certain versions, choosing Latin or Dutch according to his market. D’Hulst 1982, p. 179 argued that Jordaens deliberately altered the meaning of the proverb, commonly expressed as “… so the young twitter,” changing this to “ … so the young pipe”, substituting “pepen” (to pipe) for “piepen” (to twitter).

2 The sheet the woman is holding reads Een Nieu Leideken van Calloo Die Geusen – “A New Song from Caloo, the Beggars.” “Geusen,” literally translates as “beggars,” here implies “rebels” and was the term used in Flanders to refer to the Protestant forces.

3 Our thanks to Michel Ceuterick for his translation of the song.

4 The best introductions are d’Hulst 1982, pp. 176 ff., Sutton in Boston – Toledo 1993–94, no. 46, and the entries in Antwerp 1993, vol. 1, nos. A55 and A56. Our thanks to Michel Ceuterick for his generous help with this material.

5 Boston – Toledo 1993–94, p. 355.

6 Jaffé in Ottawa 1968–69, no. 67 dated the Ottawa version to “not much later than 1640,” and evocatively termed it the “ripest” of those discussed here, claiming it followed the Berlin painting (itself undated). Vandenven in Bauman & Liedtke 1992, pp. 222–223 dated the Ottawa canvas to c. 1640–42. Few others have directly addressed its dating, but d’Hulst, in 1974, implies some time after c. 1645; see below. However, D’Hulst argues that Jordaens stops “crowding the foreground of his compositions with half length figures … [and] strives for a more normal relationship between space and movement” during the first half of the 1640s. The Ottawa painting shows little of this, and is closer to the relatively simply composed groups discussed above.

7 This is only a broad claim: note that Jordaens returned to the simple type of composition seen in the 1638 Antwerp painting when designing a tapestry on this theme in 1644–45; Nelson 1998, pp. 33, 103–104.

8 D’Hulst 1974, no. A161, c. 1640, noting no painting is known after it. Jaffé in Ottawa 1968–69, no. 214, as late ’30s through early ’40s, noting that it seems to anticipate the Ottawa painting.

9 D’Hulst 1974, no. A249, as c. 1645. As indicated in note 6, D’Hulst implies a later date for the Ottawa painting than do we.

10 D’Hulst 1974, no. A185, noting the study was used in Jordaens’ Diogenes in Search of an Honest Man (Dresden Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister), c. 1642. It is very close to the face of the man in the Ottawa canvas, down to the slightly misshapen mouth and chin; whether Jordaens improvised in painting, or relied upon a secondary study, suitably modified, is unclear. The question remains open as to whether the study was made in preparation for the Ottawa painting, or re-used there. The close focus and attentiveness to detail might suggest it was made for a figure like the man in the Ottawa canvas, intended to be seen up close, rather than for the man in the Dresden Diogenes, where the figure is set back, a detail in a large crowd.

11 D’Hulst 1990, no. A218 verso where the model is tentatively identified as Elizabeth, his eldest daugther, born 1617. The drawing he discusses is identified as a study likely made for the painting in Berlin, which he dates to c. 1645 on the grounds of her apparent age. This may not be a suitable criterion for dating.

12 Sometimes identified as a companion piece to the Valenciennes painting (Antwerp 1993 vol. 1, under no. A56), but they form an unlikely pair; see Foucart 2009 under Jordaens, who rejects this and corrects the provenance.

illus. 1

Jacob Jordaens, As the Old Sing, So the Young Pipe, 1638, oil on canvas, 128 × 192 cm. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp (inv. 677). Photo: Lukas-Art in Flanders vzw, photo: Hugo Maertens

illus. 2

Jacob Jordaens, As the Old Sing, So the Young Pipe, oil on canvas, 155 × 180 cm. Musée des beaux-arts, Valenciennes, on loan from the Louvre, Paris, 1957. Photo: RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

illus. 3

Jacob Jordaens, As the Old Sing, So the Young Pipe, oil on canvas, 120.8 × 186.5 cm. Staatliche Schlösser und Gärten, Jagdschloss Grunewald (inv. no. GK I 3849). Photo: Jörg P. Anders, Stiftung Preussische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg

illus. 4

Jacob Jordaens, As the Old Sing, So the Young Pipe, black chalk, 15.7 × 20.3 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (inv. 4213)

illus. 5

Jacob Jordaens, Head of a Man Playing a Recorder, black and red chalk with white chalk highlights on paper, 14.3 × 13.9 cm. Musée des beaux-arts et d’archéologie, Besançon. Photo: Besançon, Musée des beaux-arts et d’Archéologie – photo: Pierre Guenat

illus. 6

Jacob Jordaens, Head of a Man Wearing a Cap, red and black chalk, 21.0 × 19.0 cm. Location unknown

illus. 7

Jacob Jordaens, The Bean King (also known as The King Drinks), oil on canvas, 204 × 252 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo: RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY