Two ever-popular themes for still life paintings are flowers and food. In all but the most basic of houses, food has been prepared in a more-or-less dedicated room, the kitchen, which has been curiously far less popular as a motif for domestic scenes. Today I look at a selection of some of the most intriguing, and most representative paintings of kitchens.
The studio of Marten van Cleve demonstrated at the outset why views of the Kitchen Interior (here from about 1565) are relatively uncommon. This kitchen for a large mansion isn’t the sort of place that would welcome an artist, complete with their easel, paints and brushes. They’d get in the way of the many household servants busy preparing the next meal, and those engaged in other activities, such as the nurse at the lower right who’s feeding a baby. There’s even a man brandishing a knife in the middle of it all.
This is a curious reversal of the more popular view of a family eating, with a glimpse through a doorway into the kitchen: the dining room is here shown at the left.
The most common reason for painting a kitchen prior to the nineteenth century was the Gospel story of Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.
In 1570, Joachim Beuckelaer incorporated that with an early form of still life in A Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary in the Background, the painting representing fire in his Four Elements series. Once again, the dining room is shown through a doorway, and the whole painting has the exaggerated perspective which you might have expected from an image in a camera obscura.
This kitchen is shown even more candidly, with one of the household staff drinking beside two of the cooks who are trying to cook on its open fire.
Another reason for depicting a kitchen came in the vogue for allegories of the five senses, in taste.
Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Taste (or Allegory of Taste) (1618), with figures painted by Rubens, is an almost exhaustive catalogue of what was then considered to be edible. In the left distance is a kitchen in which food is being prepared. In keeping with the theme, paintings on display show the marriage feast at Cana, The Fat Kitchen, and a festoon of fruit.
For the young and aspiring Diego Velázquez, kitchens were part of the fashionable offshoot from still life paintings, the bodegone. At their height, these showed roadside fast food stalls which cooked and served snacks and meals.
By far the most impressive of Velázquez early paintings is Old Woman Frying Eggs which is dated 1618. For such a youthful work its composition is excellent, and the face of the old woman is superb. He includes a wide range of reflective and transparent objects, to impress the viewer with his technique and skill.
In the same year, Velázquez tried to mix religious narrative in a bodegone, in Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. In the foreground, the two women are busy preparing the food in their kitchen, in true bodegone style. Common to his earlier paintings are the mortar and pestle and eggs. Seen either in a framed mirror, or perhaps through an internal window such as a serving hatch, is the religious narrative of Christ with Martha and Mary.
Kitchen Scene, variously known as The Kitchen Maid or The Mulatto Woman, from about 1620, is another bodegone, with impressive surface effects.
Frans Wouters’ Allegory of Taste was painted in 1635–59, and was clearly inspired by Brueghel’s earlier painting. Instead of the lavish jam-packed collation in the earlier painting, Wouters seems to have had a smaller budget, or perhaps wished to avoid the sin of gluttony. Its emphasis, though, remains on unprepared foods, including a range of game animals and birds, fish, and fruit. There is still the famous Swan Pie on the table, and another kitchen shown in cameo.
Murillo’s marvellous panorama of The Angels’ Kitchen (1646), also known as The Levitation of Saint Giles, is an unusual fusion of the miraculously spiritual with the everyday environment of the working kitchen. At the left, two visitors are brought in to see the extraordinary events taking place in the kitchen: one monk, traditionally thought to be Saint Giles, is levitating by the power of ‘the spirit’.
Four full-size winged angels and three smaller angels are engaged in various kitchen tasks, including the preparation of food.
As that must be the most unusual painting of a kitchen, the next must be the most famous.
In Vermeer’s Milkmaid from about 1660, a woman servant, kitchen or house maid, is preparing a light meal under the window to one side of the kitchen. She’s pouring milk from a jug, beside a tabletop with bread. In the left foreground the bread and pots rest on a folded Dutch octagonal table, covered with a mid-blue cloth. A wicker basket of bread is nearest the viewer, broken and smaller pieces of different types of bread behind and towards the woman, in the centre. Behind the bread is a dark blue studded mug with pewter lid, and just in front of the woman (to the right of the mug) a brown earthenware ‘Dutch oven’ pot into which the milk is being poured. An ultramarine blue cloth (matching the woman’s apron) rests at the edge of the table.
The woman, seen in three-quarter view, wears working dress: a stiff, white linen cap, a yellow jacket laced at the front, a brilliant ultramarine blue apron, and a dull red skirt underneath. Her right hand holds the handle of a brown earthenware pitcher, which she supports from below with her left hand. Her work sleeves are pushed up to lay both her weathered forearms bare to the elbow. Her strong-featured face and eyes are cast down, watching the milk as it runs into the pot.
In Goethe’s play Faust a “witch’s kitchen” is the scene for Faust’s Rejuvenation (The Witch’s Kitchen) in this undated and anonymous painting. Mephistopheles watches at the right as the sceptical Faust stands inside the witch’s magic circle.
The kitchen managed to dodge most nineteenth century social realism, perhaps because its existence was a middle and upper class phenomenon.
Jules Breton’s Grandfather’s Birthday (1864) shows three generations of a Courrières family living in modest comfort, although their floors are made of bare and worn tiles, and furniture is sparse but includes a spinning wheel. One of the grandchildren is just about to present their grandpa with a simple birthday cake, no icing, as another of the women works preparing a celebratory meal in the kitchen.
Jehan Georges Vibert’s meticulously realist and academic painting of The Marvelous Sauce from about 1890 is an oddity. One of a series of lightly anti-clerical paintings featuring a cardinal, it shows its rotund hero wearing an apron and tasting a sauce with his chef in a palatial kitchen. Behind them is an abundance of fresh food, and an extensive set of fine pots and pans.
It took the Naturalist Henri Jules Jean Geoffroy to paint The Night Hostel or The Soup Kitchen in 1891, showing homeless women and children being fed in what appears to be almost a prison.
Continuing this run of oddities, my last painting was made by the Nabi Félix Vallotton when he too was still a Naturalist in 1892.
Félix Vallotton’s La Cuisinière au fourneau, or The Cook at the Stove is a domestic genre scene drawn from Naturalism, and features the artist’s partner Hélène Chatenay as its model. She stands at the solid-top range in a kitchen strangely almost devoid of the one thing that kitchens are for: food. The only edible item visible is a bunch of onions suspended in mid-air. Everything – the chairs, pots and pans, and the range itself – is spotless as if they have never been used, and appear unnatural.
This has been an odd collection of paintings.