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Work Kitchen Scene

Department of Paintings: Flemish painting

Kitchen Scene

© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

Paintings
Flemish painting

Author(s):
Patrick Le Chanu

The painting is an example of Beuckelaer's justifiably celebrated rustic scenes, depicted with remarkable gusto.

The kitchen of a noble residence

The scene takes place in a large room suggestive of the kitchen of a castle or fine country residence. The foreground depicts a pantry full of foodstuffs. A mallard duck lies on top of a pile of napkins, with a hen to the left. A cockerel hangs from a beam, next to a salmon steak. The table, in the foreground to the left, is laden with a large dish containing chestnuts and fruit, including a lemon – an exotic luxury in northern Europe at the time. A leg of veal lies on top of everything else, surrounded by storage jars. Above it we see a metal cooking-pot, hanging from a beam, silhouetted against an open view of a landscape in the background. The right-hand side of the picture is dominated by the figure of a serving-girl, just back from a visit to the market, carrying a basket of vegetables and fruit: a cabbage, carrots, cherries and gherkins. Behind her, we see a huge room with a large fireplace. A cook is pouring sauce over a piece of poultry cooking on a spit. A brazier is heating up under her skirts, and she is being fondled by the figure of an old man.

This painting is not a "still-life" in the strictest sense of the term: in addition to the human figures, small living creatures enliven the static depiction of produce and foodstuffs, including a snail climbing up the edge of the basket and, a little higher up, a caterpillar on a cabbage. A butterfly has alighted on an open door just above the slice of salmon, and two insects may be seen on the leg of veal. The fat fly, and perhaps even the butterfly, may be intended as a visual trick – the creatures are so perfectly depicted that inattentive viewers might mistake them for real insects on the surface of the panel.

Unbridled sensuality

The heap of foodstuffs fills almost half of this colorful composition. The still-life itself is framed by the red of the beams, and the serving-girl's dress. The composition is also punctuated by large areas of white, from the laundry hanging in the top left-hand corner, to the pile of napkins, and the serving-girl's blouse. The careful scene-setting, and the organization of the colors, contribute to the painting's "aesthetic of opulence." But as so often in large "kitchen pieces" of this type, the everyday scene expresses a moral message, too. In all of the kitchen pieces attributed to Joachim Beuckelaer (and his uncle and master Pieter Aertsen) the protagonists seem gripped by a kind of frenzied sensuality. Some contemporary commentators identified the serving classes' daily physical contact with foodstuffs, and the heat of the kitchens, as the root causes of their apparently unbridled sensuality and excess. This is clearly expressed in the scene depicted in the background of the picture, and may also be implicit in the representation of the serving-girl's hand, resting on the rounded form of the cabbage.

The serving girl

Pliny the Elder's Natural History – a work widely translated and quoted in the 16th century – mentions large cabbages as symbols of a life of excessive luxury and expense. Here, this relatively straightforward interpretation is coupled with a tribute to the serving girl's simple dignity, as seen in many earlier works by Beuckelaer's uncle and master, Pieter Aertsen. The girl's monumental figure is the dominant motif in this work, painted in 1566, the year of the great iconoclastic riots in Amsterdam, when the Protestant uprisings destroyed countless works of religious art. Paintings such as this gave rise to an important genre in the city of Antwerp. During the 17th century, paintings depicting tables laden with food became much larger, often featuring expansive landscape-format compositions, with human figures relegated to a secondary role.

Technical description

  • Joachim BEUCKELAER (Antwerp, circa 1530-1574)

    Kitchen Scene

    1566

  • Oil on panel

    H. 1.09 m; W. 1.39 m

  • Acquired from a private collection in Valenciennes, 1928

    R.F. 2659

  • Paintings

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