Jan Steen was born in a town called Leiden, in Southern Holland, circa 1626. His family ran a tavern called The Red Halbert for about two generations. Like his contemporary painter, Rembrandt van Rijn, Steen studied at the Latin School in Leiden, under Nicolaes Knupfer. It is possible to note his teacher's influences on his early works, as well as inspiration from Isaac van Ostade and Adriaen van Ostade.
In 1648, Steen, along with Gabriel Metsu, created the painters guild of Saint Luke. He became an assistant to Jan van Goyen, a renowned landscape painter, and moved to his house in The Hague. In 1649, Jan Steen married Margriet, van Goyen's daughter. They had eight children, and he would work with his father-in-law until 1654. The artist later moved to Delft, where he tried to run a brewery without much success.
Jan Steen moved a few times, living in Warmond and Haarlem during a very prolific timespan. He moved back to Leiden after his wife and father's death, settling down there for the rest of his life. The art market had a collapse in 1672, after what is called the Year of Disaster, when the Dutch Republic was attacked on various fronts and was heavily depleted economically. Due to a weak art market, Jan Steen opened a tavern and also became president of the painter's guild of Saint Luke. The painter Frans van Mieris became his friend and drinking companion. Jan van Steen died in 1679 and was buried at a family grave in the city of Pieterskerk.
One of the main characteristics of Steen's work is the daily life theme, often representing scenes of poignant chaos and lustfulness, much so, that there is a Dutch proverb that says: "A Jan Steen household" meaning a messy ambiance. Supposedly, these pictures were not celebratory to this messiness, but served as a warning to the viewer, portraying a more moralizing undertone. Daily life was not the only theme Steen explored, as he also painted mythological, historical, and religious scenes. The painter also studied still-lifes, natural scenes and portraits, which are very famous, especially his children portraits.
Steen was a very prolific artist, painting about eight hundred paintings throughout his life, although only about 350 survived. He was respected and a critically acclaimed artist, as well as a source of inspiration for many contemporary and future artists alike. He didn't have many pupils and the only one on in record is Richard Brakenburgh.