Wednesday, December 3, 2014

An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, by Diego Velázquez (1618)

We continue to work our way through the fabulous exhibition at The Frick Collection, showcasing 10 masterworks from the Scottish National Gallery, with a fascinating picture by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660).

Though certainly not my favorite picture in this exhibition, An Old Woman Cooking Eggs has perhaps caught the greatest public scrutiny, including an in-depth (and largely worthless) analysis from the Wall Street Journal.  It was the source of much lively discussion when we visited the exhibition, and such animation is well-warranted. 

Velázquez was about 18 or 19 years old when he painted it.  He was living in his native Seville, where he was born in 1599.  His family, Portuguese Jews, moved to Spain from their native Porto, Portugal.  Velázquez was raised devoutly Christian, and received a good education.  A facility for drawing got him a year-long apprenticeship under Francisco de Herrera when he was 12; the young artist then moved on to apprentice under Francisco Pacheco.  Though not a great master, Pacheco seemed to understand the stark chiaroscuro of painters like Caravaggio, and taught young Velázquez for five years.

Young Velázquez also learned more than painting under Pacheco – he would marry the master’s daughter, Juana Pacheco (1602-1660), who would bear him two daughters.  (Oddly enough, the oldest daughter, Francisca de Silva Velázquez y Pacheco [1619–1658], married a painter herself.) 

Velázquez painted many notable works during this period, including An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, along with several religious pictures of considerable emotional depth.  Significant was his dramatic sense of light – as if every subject was a tableau with each key player under an individual spotlight. 

Velázquez moved to Madrid, where he became court painter to Philip IV.  The gig was extremely high-paying, and offered considerable benefits (including room and board and medical coverage – which seems to be a consistent wish in any age).  He would remain there – aside from significant trips to Italy, for the rest of his life.

The picture currently on view at the Frick is a remarkable example of his early work.  At first glance, it would seem the most fascinating thing about the picture is that neither the old woman nor the young boy are looking directly at one-another.  The shared distracted gaze is what gives the picture something of its unique tension, and certainly much of its other-worldliness.

Like much of his work, both figures seem to emerge into (or out of) a well-placed spotlight, which leaves the surroundings in a dramatic shadowland.  The boy, in particular, almost looks as if he were visiting from another painting (if not another world).  It is a curiously old face for a boy so young – and he carries a glass beaker, which is an interesting implement for the cooking of some eggs.  In a picture of virtuosic grace-notes, this beaker is probably the most notable. Depicting glass in oil paint is a particularly difficult (and perilous!) undertaking, and Velázquez effortlessly paints a transparent beaker with both weight and depth.

Note, too, the hands of both figures, which are rendered with extreme sensitivity.  These are hands that are capable of actual work, and their versatility and dexterity is evident.  Wonderful, too, are the components that make up the design – the red peppers, the onion, ceramic pitchers and the knife draped wonderfully over a bowl to cast a shadow.  For an artist so young (or at any age) this is a splendid show of control over the medium and of his art.

His sense of composition is flawless; note how your gaze goes from the boy’s head, to his hand, to her hand holding the spoon, to her hand holding the egg, up to her face, and then back to the boy.  The strategic use of white – from collar to egg to egg to shawl – underscores the flow.  The eye is in constant motion, and the picture has no ‘dead’ space.

For your correspondent, though, it still remains a curiously … cold work.  It is certainly striking, but hardly beautiful.  It is a picture that is all intellect and no heart; the work of a young artist who has not yet learned that the most important thing to give is one’s self.

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