Day 20 – Diego Velázquez, An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1618, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.
Originally posted on 7 April 2020
Too early for Easter eggs, you might say, and were the examples in this painting made of chocolate I wouldn’t for a moment dream of talking about them before Sunday – but I suspect that by then I will have other things to talk about. And this painting has been waiting in the wings ever since someone suggested that, having talked about Great Cabbages, eggs would also be something to seek out. This one instantly sprang to mind, because the eggs in question are frankly miraculous… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I don’t know how the home schooling was going up until the end of term, but now there is another challenge. No longer do the parents of co-habiting children and teenagers have to help them focus on their study, but now, instead, they must keep them entertained – and inside – while the weather is good. Of course, right now would be the best time to encourage their creative sides and take out the paint pots that may well have been abandoned as soon as they left primary school. If any of them end up producing anything like today’s picture, please let me know. After all, Velázquez was only 18 or 19 when he painted it. Unfortunately, if the paint pots were put away when your children were 10, I fear it might just be too late, as that was the age at which young Diego became an apprentice. He studied with a man called Francisco Pacheco, who was rather important in Seville, where Diego grew up. Not only would he later write a treatise on art, ‘Arte de la Pintura’, which has become an invaluable source for the understanding of Spanish painting in the 17th Century, but he was also involved with the Spanish Inquisition. I bet you weren’t expecting that. His job was to make sure that the religious images were not heretical. It’s hard to know what he taught Velázquez, beyond the technical aspects of painting, because, as an artist, he wasn’t especially original. One thing is for sure – as an author, and the man responsible for religious orthodoxy among artists, his greatest contribution was as a scholar, and this would prove invaluable to Velázquez when he reached the court of King Philip IV not long after today’s image was painted.
At this stage, however, it seems that we do not see the mind of the artist who would paint one of the most beautiful expositions on the nature of art, ‘Las Meninas’, but the hand and eye of a young man who is determined to show you absolutely everything he can do.
He can, quite simply, paint every material imaginable, catch form, colour and texture in what we would now see as an intense and precise photographic manner. And he does this with subject matter that earlier generations might have considered pointless. It is what, in the wider scheme of things, would be called a genre painting – normal people doing normal things – depicting, as the title tells us, ‘An Old Woman cooking Eggs’. In Spanish art genre scenes like this are called ‘bodegones’, from ‘bodegón’, meaning ‘tavern’ – although it could also mean ‘pantry’ or ‘wine-cellar’. Sometimes bodegones are set in taverns, but also in kitchens, and the term is also used to describe still life paintings, a genre which was on the rise at the time. It could also be described as a ‘low-life painting’, a genre we would usual associate with the Netherlands, although one of the most remarkable early examples is ‘The Bean Eater’, by the Italian Annibale Carracci, painted in the 1580s. Around the same time Carracci also painted ‘A Boy Drinking’, which has, sadly, recently been stolen from the Christ Church Gallery in Oxford. These paintings, produced when Carracci was in Bologna, predate Caravaggio’s early works, also low-life and genre scenes. However, it is the latter artist who influenced Velázquez. It’s worthwhile remembering that from the 15th Century Naples was under Spanish rule, and that in his short life Caravaggio lived their twice – when running away from Rome and on his ill-fated journey back – and he left paintings there both times. He influenced Spanish artists in Naples, and they took his style back to Spain. Prints would also have circulated, and it is possible that Velázquez saw these. They might have inspired the wonderful contrast between light and dark – the ‘chiaroscuro’ – and the intricate detail, but the colour must have been entirely his Velázquez’ own.
In addition to the Old Woman there is a somewhat sulky boy – it is a hallmark of Velázquez’ bodegones that the young should sulk, while the old show determination and a sense of duty. He has brought a melon and a flask of wine. The former is tied with some rough string to create a convenient handle, although, however convenient, he does not use it, preferring to tuck the melon under his arm as he holds the flask towards the Old Womn. The flask itself looks like a cross between a decanter and the sort of conical flask used for chemistry. It is mainly empty, allowing the young master to depict the brilliant light reflecting off the front of the flask and the slightly bubbly meniscus of the wine on both sides – all of these elements going towards a definition of the flask’s form. It also allows us to see the rich red wine, contrasting with the transparent glass, through which we see the boy’s white sleeve. We can also compare the sleeve when seen through glass, and compare it with the whiteness when it is seen directly: it is turned back around the cuff of the jacket, and unbuttoned. The button appears to be a pearl – this is no ordinary kitchen boy, but a servant in a wealthy household.
Lined up in front of the Old Woman are: an empty dish with a knife resting on it; some chilli; a brass pestle and mortar; a red onion; and two ceramic jugs with different coloured glazes and patterns. All have a place in the kitchen, but they are really there to show the artist’s skill at depicting the different shapes, colours, and textures – all of them difficult in their own way, and all of which he seems to have achieved effortlessly – even if they look like they are posing for the picture, rather than being used. Unusually I have done a huge amount of cooking and baking over the last couple of weeks, and, trust me, things in the kitchen never line themselves up like this. Had he just painted the table, and the objects on it, it would have been seen as one of the great early Spanish Still Life paintings. As it is though, this is just one element of a painting that transcends the humility of its genre.
It is probably not a coincidence that the boy appears to have arrived just as the eggs are cooking. Almost as if this is an instruction manual, Velázquez shows an uncooked, unbroken egg in the Old Woman’s left hand, perfectly defining the shape and texture of eggshell. He also shows what happens next. She has been stirring two eggs in the pan, but has lifted the wooden spoon with a delicate gesture, allowing Velázquez to show the perfect articulation of all five fingers, not to mention the tendons in her wrist. All of this contrasts with the boy’s smoother, firmer hands. She looks at him patiently, maybe waiting for him to pour some of the liquid into the cazuela, or casserole. I assume that’s what it is. It’s made of a glazed ceramic that has been chipped on the side closest to us, and underneath it you can just see the glow of hot coals.
And here is the miracle: Velázquez has caught the eggs just at the moment they cook – static as the image is, you can see them turning white.
A couple of Velázquez’ bodegones contain religious images in the background – Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, for example – and this has led people to question whether there is any religious significance to his other early paintings. In this case, what would be the significance of cooking eggs? Eggs generally are seen as symbols of new life, which is hardly surprising, as they are the source of new life for birds – although there is a sense that an egg is like a stone, dead and lifeless, only to have new life break forth – so, the Resurrection. As a symbol it does seem to have entered the Christian tradition early on, although you see it rarely in Christian art. However, in terms of cooking eggs? This is the moment at which the transparent white becomes visible, so maybe it is a symbol of the incarnation, when spirit became flesh. At the Nativity, God himself became visible to human eyes for the first time in the person of Jesus. You could interpret in that way if you wanted to. You really could.
But you really don’t need to. Another miracle is happening here. After all, there are no eggs here, no melon, no rough string, no Old Woman even: this is just paint. Velázquez has mixed dirt, ground up stones and vegetable dyes with oil and turned them into everything we see. It is alchemy: the transformation of base substances into – well, if not gold, then at least brass. That is the miracle of art, and even as a teenager some four decades before he painted ‘Las Meninas’, Diego Velázquez already knew that.