Painting for the king of Spain was a dream job. But even before Velazquez became King Philip’s royal painter, he had done very well back home in Seville.
It was clear he was going places.
He had picked up his first brush at eleven. By the time he was eighteen he had obtained his licence from the Seville painters’ guild, married his master’s daughter, and set himself up as a professional painter. In the next four years he earned enough money selling his works to buy the house he and his family lived in—and another one to rent out.
What kind of pictures did he paint then, long before he ever thought he would be making portraits of the king in Madrid?
Then as now people got a kick out of seeing the articles of their daily life painted in all detail. Diego could do that better than anyone. And he liked to include people in those still-lifes—the portraits of relatives, friends, and poor people from the streets of Seville. Another typical feature of his work was the strong, dramatic, light contrast, as he had seen it in works (reproductions) by Caravaggio.
Here is one of his most famous works from those days.
Woman Frying Eggs, in the Prado Museum, Madrid (public domain photo)
Velazquez, to show off his skill, has lined everything up on the table so artificially you might think he has gone too far. But the two figures are so well painted and brought in together with the pots and jugs and plates that Velazquez almost makes you believe you have come to that dark old kitchen to sit with them.
The woman may be pouching the eggs rather than frying them. See MarkY’s comment below.
That’s a great painting! Strong, very strong diagonal composition (and I think he had COMPOSITIONAL reason to paint everything he painted on the table; there are like strong clear point in the diagonal line…) and an extraordinary degree of “finishing” (finition?) just like in the Dutch still lives no doubt he also have seen… It’s also a possible (even probable) influence… Dutch painters did extraordinary things with very ordinary things…
That’s true what you say about the compositional reasons for the string of things on the table, Danu. That is, he was able to put them all into the picture very well. They are an obvious display of virtuosity–each of them a different material or texture, each with its own shine. Behind the woman there are also some metal kitchen utensils hanging which didn’t make it into this very dark reproduction; and under the bowl with the knife are the first bronze onion skins, also perfectly rendered. Compositional reasons, yes, but what a “thing” collection–as of course kitchen counters often are.
A beautiful painting. However, the gaze of the woman and boy seem stilted like two models who had to pose separately rather than two people interacting. To me it would have been more natural (of course two people together could be looking off as these two) if the boy looked at the eggs and the woman looked either at the boy or the eggs.
You probably want to pass my comments on to the Prado. I’m sure they would be interested in my analysis.
Maybe you are right, Bill. Maybe Velazquez missed a good chance to tighten up the composition even more. I picture the lady talking, and the boy’s eyes don’t meet hers because he isn’t really interested, just obedient. “We’re going to need more oil tomorrow,” she says. But this is a picture, after all, not a story; and it might have gained by having their eyes focus on the eggs–it’s true. I wonder what Velazquez would say to that?
Isn’t her neck too smooth for a woman that age?
It looks to me like the painter intended for the woman to be looking at the boy and of course the boy is lost in thought about greater things. A boy his age is bored with the same eggs he has for breakfast every day and forgets to appreciate the labor that goes into them. I like that the eggs are painted so brilliantly. The eggs are amazing! But the boy doesn’t notice. He’d rather be outside playing or something.
I may have missed the fact that people of that era had those “secrets” like the Da Vinci Code and other stuff that have been lost –
the boy is looking off thinking, “I’m not clogging up my arteries with those fried eggs.”
the woman is thinking, “My neck is looking good I should have the rest of my face and the breasts done as well. It will cost me my two best hens, but that butcher is really good with the knife.”
Looking at this picture reminded me of the cooking methods traditonally used in Morocco. The only difference is the brazier they are cooking on is higher, at a more comfortable level than is used in Morocco. Very interesting painting.
Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine
Thanks, Madame Monet. I never saw one of those braziers used but I know they were the ancestor of the kitchen stove. Velazquez put in a few luxury articles for his still-life.The brass morter and pestle she has on the table is probably a more expensive one than she would have used. Spaniards used it to crush the garlic.
She has that veil on her head–that ought to remind you of an Arab woman, I guess.
It’s a great painting, no doubt, but there is no way this woman can be frying eggs as depicted by Velazquez. Here is why:
1. The cast iron brazier holding the burning charcoal sits on what seems to be a clay stand. Neither the stand, nor the brazier has openings for access of air for the coals to burn. Moreover, the pot, in which the woman cooks the eggs, covers the brazier entirely leaving virtually no space for the smoke to escape. This should tell you that this contraption can be used for cooking only for a very short time before the coals are completely choked up and the heat starts dropping rapidly.
2. A clay pot is never used for what we call now as deep frying (cooking food floating in hot oil) as it may crack with the temperature rising. In this painting, the pot is spotless, which tells us that it is brand new and untested. Knowing of a danger for a clay pot filled with oil to crack over glowing coals (splattering burning oil, inescapable fire, burn injuries), no one would have used an untested pot for this type of cooking.
3. As you heat oil, it does not give you signs of how hot it is till it is close to the smoking point. This happens when the temperature approaches approx. 400 deg F (410 deg F for olive oil) as opposed to water starting bubbling at close to 212 deg F. The contraption shown to us by Velazquez has no way for controlling the temperature. And when cooking eggs, everyone knows that the temperature is the key.
Even if this contraption worked as intended in the title, the woman could not avoid overheating the oil, and the eggs (90% water) slipped off into the very hot oil would dangerously splatter around turning into a mess and burning the woman rather than remaining nice and whole as shown.
4. As we see a sizable layer (depth) of the oil in the pot, I don’t think Velazquez shows us the woman trying to make her eggs sunny-side up – we would not see so much oil, and the whites floating on the surface rather than hardening on the bottom, and the cooking eggs having a definite look as if they are suspended rather than resting on the bottom.
5. The venerated mastery of cooking eggs is in ability to bring them to the degree of doneness where they coagulate just enough to remain creamy yet cooked through (hot), i.e. to retain sufficient moisture as they are brought to the table. In professional kitchen, it is considered unacceptable when the bottom of your cooked eggs has even a slight brownish tint- it means they are dry and taste as a cardboard. Who then would come up with an idea to deep-fry the eggs?
6. The cruet in the boy’s hand with what seems to be the oil may, in fact, contain some vinegar, which the boy just brought over to be added to the simmering water to help in holding the whites together which is normally done when you are poaching eggs.
So, the conclusion: The woman is definitely poaching the eggs in the simmering water as it takes 3 to 4 minutes and the brazier and the pot, which we see in the painting, would work perfectly for this.
I’m most interesed to know what you had to say about the wall ladle, can you forward me that posting?
So, MarkY, do we change the title to Woman Poaching Eggs? I don’t think Velazquez would mind. He didn’t give it that title–tradition did. Maybe I misunderstand your point 5 but Spaniards all deep-fry eggs like that–perhaps in not quite as much olive oil. It may be magnified here and so look deeper. The bowl doesn’t look so deep, does it?
It’s true the liquid does not look oily but watery, so you could be right. As for the control of temperature, most simple table-top heaters just heat up to a maximum and Spaniards have long made do with that–they judge by the spitting back of the oil when to drop in the eggs. But you seem to be an authority on all this and I’ve paid less attention to it than the average person so I won’t try to defend the frying. Thanks for the comment.
The following is a reply from Boston’s MFA where this painting is on exhibit:
Thank you for your email regarding the picture Old Woman Cooking Eggs by Diego Velázquez in our exhibition El Greco to Velázquez. We are pleased that you paid such close attention to Velázquez’s work and you pose a convincing argument for the depiction of poaching, rather than frying, eggs. Indeed, the action in the painting has been referred to as frying since the seventeenth century. The title of the work is given by the lending institution, the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. I believe that at some point the title was changed from Old Woman Frying Eggs to Old Woman Cooking Eggs, perhaps to address the same points that you make so astutely. In any case, am happy to forward your conclusion to the appropriate curator there. Also, I have forwarded your email to our curator in reference to the wall label discussion.
We are grateful to your keen eye and knowledge of culinary techniques through which we have a better appreciation of what is happening (in terms of cooking) in Velázquez’s otherwise ambiguous scene.
Xiomara M. Murray
Curatorial Research Associate, Paintings
Art of Europe
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Good work, MarkY. Next you could get them to stop calling her OLD lady. She may not be over fifty, after all.
Pingback: Drunks Toast to Velazquez « The Best Artists
Pingback: Velasquez’s Bacchus | The Best Artists