Aertsen’s Cook in front of the Stove (1559)

A genre scene, if art, is not photojournalism before its time. By appearing to depict everyday life, the artist suggests that close attention to nature helps reveal a truer reality behind appearances, specifically the interior life of the human mind which when seen clearly - and rid of individual ego-illusions - is an exact copy of God's mind. In modern-day, secular terms, the mind contains the creative power of nature and the universe. It is the quintessence of everything.

Pieter Aertsen, a Dutch artist, painted kitchen scenes for the growing mercantile class of his day. However few of his patrons would have guessed his underlying intentions. Linked to art's traditions, his views, though superficially external, are imaginal and, thus, internal. Here, the cook as a painter stands in profile, her arm extended towards her unseen canvas on the left. She seems to be turning her head to check herself in the mirror (both the image we see and what she paints).

Note how her distinctively impossible eye is painted as though it was flat on the canvas facing us.1 Just as Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) famously preached that "the eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye”2, so here Aertsen's maid sees him through the same eye that he sees her. His eye and her eye are one eye.

A few observations follow but, as always, bear in mind that they are highly selective. They are only a fraction of the content.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Pieter Aertsen, A Cook in front of the Stove (1559) Oil on wood. Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.

Click image to enlarge.

The cook's other hand (forget the handle she does not hold3reaches for food in a basket, a roundish item often used to represent palettes.4 In it, though is a severed hand. See how the chicken mimics in reflection the shape of her own. This, then, is no ordinary palette but the imagination seen as a palette, a basket from which to select forms or ideas instead of colors. (Plato's word for form was idea.5) The chicken-hand represents craft while the cabbage above it is an eye and represents vision. The chopped stem in its center is not a pupil but the optic nerve because this is a view from behind his eye, ie. in his mind. The diagram below shows how an actual nerve extends like the stem of the cabbage from the back of the eyeball.6

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Aertsen's A Cook in front of the Stove (1559)
Bottom: Anatomical diagram of the eye and optic nerve

Click image to enlarge.

Beneath her palette-hand is another cabbage (above). It is highly suggestive and pre-dates Georgia O'Keefe's paintings of the vagina-like vegetable (below) by nearly 400 years. And just as vision and craft are side-by-side so, just below the feminine cabbage, are phallic radishes. Together they represent the male and female parts crucial to (pro)creation and conception as well as the androgyny of the artistic mind. Aertsen's own conception (the pun is always intentional) is therefore not the 16th-century equivalent of a photograph.  


















 

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Aertsen's A Cook in front of the Stove (1559)
Bottom: Georgia O'Keefe, Skunk Cabbage (1927) 

Click image to enlarge.

Notes:

1. Other entries on EPPH in which a frontal eye is placed on a profiled face or a face in part-profile include, among others, Mantegna’s Madonna with Sleeping Child (c.1465-70), Holbein’s Portrait of Henry VIII (c.1537) and Picasso's An Artist (1968).

2. Meister Eckhart’s Sermons, trans Claud Field (1909), Sermon IV: True Hearing on Ecclesiasticus 24:30

3. Only last week, in an entry on Rembrandt's Woman with the Arrow (1661), I noted how her hand was too relaxed and clearly not grasping the arrow she appears to hold.

4. Examples of baskets representing palettes include Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1625) and Boucher’s Pastoral landscape with a shepherd and shepherdess (c.1730). Though not explained yet on EPPH Caravaggio painted a basket as a palette in Boy with a Basket of Fruit (1599).

5. Plato’s definition of ideas as forms was based on their eternal, unchanging nature. Seneca described Plato’s definition of Idea as ‘that from which all things visible are made and according to which all things are shaped’ and as ‘the eternal model of the things which are made by nature’ (pp.24-5) He further asserted that ‘God has within himself these models of all things...He is full of these figures, which Plato calls ‘ideas’ (p.125); Aristotle also stated that ‘the form of a work of art is present in the soul of the artist long before being translated into matter’ (p.27). All citations are from Erwin Panofsky, Idea: A Concept in Art Theory [orig. publ. 1924] (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press) 1968.

6. Other entries on EPPH in which the artist has depicted the optic nerve as something else include Heironymous Bosch in St. John in the Wilderness (1504-5), Michelangelo behind the figure of Jonah on the Sistine ceiling (1512), Van Gogh in The Zouave (1888), Picasso in his Portrait of Jaime Sabartes and Anish Kapoor in Memory (2008).

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