Wednesday, July 27, 2011

An Old Woman Cooking Eggs

This is a reproduction of Diego Velázquez's painting An Old Woman Cooking Eggs which is in the National Gallery Of Scotland.

In his collection of short prose pieces themed around 'bequests' - from political commitment and atheism, to how to tell a good restaurant and the lost joys of outdoor sex - Where There's A Will  (50p last week from my local charity shop) John 'Rumpole Of The Bailey' Mortimer writes so beautifully about it in two pages I found so right that I've had a strong compulsion all week to quote from it at length here, and have now given into it.


"To the proud stones of Greece and poet's imaginings other bequests must be added to make up the superhuman, mirror-resembling dream. I have a gallery of pictures in my head so that, if I went blind, I could still enjoy them. I would direct you to the National Gallery of Scotland, one of the least exhausting, most rewarding collections in the world that, in a few comfortably intimate rooms, contains more masterpieces to the square foot than you have the right to expect. Among the saints and great ladies, the naked beauties and the suffering martyrs, taking her rightful and honourable place is an old woman cooking eggs.

Velázquez went to Madrid in his twenties and very soon became a court painter, truthfully observing pale-lipped kings, overdressed infantas and the sad faces of the palace dwarfs. Before that he served five years apprenticeship to a Sevillian painter whose daughter he married and, taking time off from his religious paintings, looked hard and clearly into the kitchen.

The everyday scene in the Edinburgh gallery is lit in the sort of way the painter learned from Caravaggio, so that the objects in the kitchen achieve an extraordinary significance. The old woman has an aquiline, Sevillian nose, sharp eyes, a firm mouth and grey hair. The white cloth on her head and shoulders falls into soft folds on the coarse material of her dress. She has the suntanned, loose-skinned hands of her age but one of them holds an egg carefully and the other delicately points a small wooden spoon, ready to drip a little oil in which we can see eggs setting, their yolks and whites clear in the pan. An unsmiling peasant boy is carefully dripping in more oil and the old woman watches him anxiously. The miracle of the painting is in the exact and loving re-creation of oil, eggs and earthenware, the shine on the brass pots, the shadow of a knife on a china dish, the feeling of flesh and cloth. Forget all concerns about blessings or terrifying events occurring beyond the grave, this picture celebrates the significant moment when the eggs start cooking and another spoonful of oil has to be dribbled in.

The old woman, or someone very like her, turns up again in another of  Velázquez's kitchen scenes, this time in London's National Gallery. Her head is again covered with a white cloth and she is instructing a sulky and unwilling Martha on how to pound garlic and cook some fresh fish and more eggs. In a mirror we can see that Jesus has arrived at the door and is about to engage the no-doubt eager Mary in a conversation about life, death and the miracle of salvation. Far more interesting to the old woman is seeing that the fish is cooked properly, dinner is on the table in time and the garlic is well-pounded.

Velázquez went on to paint grander scenes. Venus, the goddess of Love, lies naked, admiring herself in a mirror held up by Cupid, presenting to us her splendid bottom. He painted kings on prancing horses and military triumphs such as the surrender of Breda and royal persons hunting wild boar. He became famous in Italy for his portait of Pope Innocent X, a merciless military commander. His final act was to decorate the Spanish Pavilion on the Isle of Pheasants for the marriage of the Infanta Maria Theresa.

Through all these great events, wars and festivals, the lives of kings and Popes, the old woman remained busy in the kitchen, dealing with the important things in life, such as the exact amount of olive oil needed to fry eggs." 


  1. Another brill post, Davy. And educational. It has never occurred to me to fry eggs in olive oil, which is rather pricey. I use just a small amount of just plain butter.

    My favourite painting of all time hangs in your very own London. It's “The Bar at the Folies Bergere” by Edouard Manet. To me, the bar and the girl in that painting are more enigmatic tha Mona Lisa. I prefer bars and girls not to mention music halls over eggs in my fine art, I should mention.

  2. It's a fair point DD. I like that one too. In The Courtauld, which is a lovely place.

    PS: In 17th century Seville, I imagine olive oil would have been cheaper than butter.

  3. Always fry eggs in olive oil but not the extra virgin stuff, far to delicate for that.

    My fav painting is Dali's Christ of St John Of The Cross, though not religious the first time I saw this hanging in Kelvingrove it took my breath away the first time I saw it about thirty years ago and it still does. I could stand and look at it for hours.

    It is said that the Spanisg govt offered the Glasgow Corporation 80 million for it but were rightly told to bugger off.

    Oh and I have looked at "An Old Woman Cooking Eggs" and it is a rather splendid.

    Come north some time and I will take you to see both.

  4. oh and a couple of really crap ones i ranted about here

  5. Ha! Now you've made me go off and play 'Kelvingrove Baby' by The Bathers.

  6. Breaks in to sign language ..

    'I'm sorry, but we can't return any of your paintings'.

    For 10 points, who used to say that ?

  7. What's wrong with lard?

    And, breaks into sign language ..

    'I'm sorry, but we can't return any of your paintings'.

    For 10 points, who used to say that ?

  8. Wasn't it the late Tony Hart who said that? Please direct your cheque to my home address if so.

    Too much lard in your food causes you to repeat yourself.

    That Christ as viewed from above painting is 'fn scary. The corporation was daft to turn down 80 million for it.

    The Courtauld Institute and Simpson's in the Strand are the only places in London I hope to visit again someday. Missed both on my most recent binge.

  9. DVD - was it Paladin (parochial Scottish Joke)or Tony Hart?

  10. 'But we dogive a prize for each one we show' - Pat Keysell

  11. Davy sneaks up the back passage and takes the points.

    Worryingly perhaps, Pat looks quite trim in that pic. I saw her as an authoritative BBC figure 30-odd years ago, and as a pioneer for equality and diversity.

    Regular readers will know that I have a special affinity with the late great Tony Hart. (Am just reading his daughter's book about him).

    Am struggling to see the Jesus in the picture thing though.

  12. That's another picture Dickie.

  13. Oh, yer joking.

    Wot - no Jesus.
    Hours I've been staring at that picture tring to work out Jesus's face.

    Gets to the point where - if you look long enough - you can see him in the reflection of the pan thing near the bottom left. Bah.

    I'm off to the pub.

  14. You'll be seeing him in your burnt toast next. Here - cheers!


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