My featured painting today is another by Velazquez. It is entitled An Old Woman Cooking Eggs and Velazquez completed it in 1618. It is an example of his kitchen scene creations which he made popular in the early seventeenth century and became known as a bodegón, which showed peasants eating or preparing meals and the utensils they used to prepare and serve them. It should not be forgotten that when Velazquez completed this work he was barely nineteen years of age. It, without doubt, demonstrates his talent for painting people and everyday objects directly from life. In some ways this painting was demonstrating his masterly painting technique for all to see and as we will see later, it was his to be his calling card for use in his search for lucrative patronage.
The background of this painting, like Velazquez’s Waterseller of Seville, in my last blog, is dark and indistinct, and is in marked contrast to the often over-crowded colourful backgrounds of Dutch and Flemish kitchen scene paintings of the time, which were full of animated happenings. This is a more sombre scene. Like many of Velazquez’s early works, it demonstrates the influence of chiaroscuro, the artistic technique developed during the Renaissance, referring to the use of exaggerated light contrasts in order to create the illusion of volume. In this painting we have a strong light source coming in from the left, illuminating the woman, her utensils and the poaching eggs but at the same time casting the background and the boy into deep shadow. It is a wonderful display of the contrast of light and shadow, and as was the case with the Waterseller of Seville, Velazquez has utilised subtle hues and a palette dominated by ochres and browns.
Before us we have two characters, an elderly woman and a young boy. I can find no evidence of a relationship between the artist and the old woman but what we do know is that he used her as a model in another of his works, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, which he painted that same year and thus one assumes he knew the woman well because he has portrayed her so beautifully. She is sitting in front of a small clay vessel in which she is cooking eggs over a charcoal fire. From her facial features, such as her high cheekbone, we know that in her early days she would have been a true beauty but now these facial qualities are somewhat worn and we are aware that she has lived a hard life, which has taken its toll on her. Velazquez has imbued her with a solemn and contemplative quality. She seems transfixed by some unknown apprehension and appears to be lost in a world of her own and looks to have lost concentration with the cooking of her eggs. The woman holds a spoon poised over the pan in one hand and an unbroken egg in the other, as the whites of the eggs in the boiling liquid below thicken. It is almost as if she is just going through the motions of the food preparation and her mind is somewhere else.
The boy on the left of the painting, which looks to be the same model Velazquez used in his Waterseller of Seville painting, strangely makes no eye contact with the old lady. He looks out at us and his demeanour is somewhat grave. Although not looking at the woman he is helping her as we see him proffering a glass cruet full of a liquid. It could be vinegar or oil but whatever it is, it has obviously been called for by the cook. His right hand cradles a large trussed honeydew melon. The contrast in the ages of the cook and her helper, as well as the egg the old lady holds in her hand, maybe symbolic of the passing of time and the transience of life as in a Vanitas painting, but maybe that is reading too much into the painting.
However the beauty of this painting is not the depiction of the old woman or the boy but Velazquez’s mastery of his portrayal of the inanimate objects seen in the painting. In this kitchen scene, the common utensils used in preparing food, such as a mortar and pestle, pots, ladles, bowl and jugs have at least as important a place as the two characters themselves. Look how all these utensils are lit up against a much darker background. Look how Velazquez has incorporated into this work items made from various materials such as clay, wood, glass, brass, copper and pewter and how he has illustrated how the light affects them differently. Note the curved shadow of the knife which balances on the chipped rim of the bowl on the table. See how Velazquez has depicted the moist surface of the inside of the pan as it glistens above the egg whites. Observe how Velazquez has skilfully depicted the various textures of the items on display such as the eggshell, the straw of the basket which hangs on the wall in the background, the skin of the melon the boy is holding, the onion which lies on the table to the left of the woman, as well as the textures of the linen clothing and the string wrapped around the melon. It appears that Velazquez was fascinated with the different materials and textures and how the light and shadow danced upon both the opaque and reflective surfaces. All of these brilliant touches showcase the artist’s virtuoso performance. This is indeed a case of an artist showcasing his masterly painting techniques and offering proof of his artistic ability to the viewer of this work, who maybe a prospective patron.
Velázquez was born in 1599 in Seville. At the age of eleven, Velázquez was apprenticed to Francisco Pacheco, who at the time was Seville’s most famous artist and art theorist. Pacheco taught Velazquez the technical skills of drawing and painting, still-life and portraiture and soon the young artist outshone his tutor. In 1617, Velázquez completed his apprenticeship and was allowed to set up his own studio. Pacheco said of his young pupil and future son-in-law:
“…After five years of education and training, I married him to my daughter, moved by his virtue, integrity, and good parts and by the expectations of his disposition and great talent…”
The following year, 1618, Velazquez married Pacheco’s daughter Juana and by 1621, the couple had two daughters. In 1623, due to his father-in-law’s connections, Velázquez was asked to paint a portrait of the young King Philip IV, the ruler of Spain. The portrait was viewed as such a success by the sitter that he immediately appointed Velázquez as one of his court painters, and from then on would allow no one else to paint him.
This was the second of my Velazquez paintings which I wanted to give you before I headed for the sunnier days of Madrid. In my next blog, which I hope to send from the pool side of our parador, I will offer you a work by another famous Spanish artist, Francisco Goya and tell you about the connection it has with myself, as a naughty schoolboy, and my first sighting of erotica !!!!