Aertsen’s Peasants by the Hearth (1556)

Sometimes objects are so large and so obvious few see them. That's the case with this painting by Pieter Aertsen. As I showed in his Market Scene from a decade later, Aertsen had the habit of placing his intials, PA, boldly in the foreground.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Aertsen, Peasants by the Hearth (1556) Oil on panel. Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp

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Here at the lower edge the basket, twigs and logs of wood form a P and A.1 See diagram below. And it may not be coincidence that the wooden letters fuel the fire because....

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Detail of Aertsen's Peasants by the Hearth with diagram below

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.....on the poetic level the cook is the principal figure, the "artist" creating the image. (The cook in Aertsen's Cook in front of a Stove is also an "artist".) This one like the other looks out over his shoulder, a common pose in art to indicate, esoterically, an artist at work.2 And his arm is extended like a painter's. He wears, furthermore, a paper crown which the Antwerp museum calls a symbol of foolhardiness. On the esoteric level, though, it means quite the opposite: a symbol of royalty, mastery and purity.3 Besides, being the youngest, the boy is allegorically closest to God because he is closest to infancy. As infants, we do not confuse subject and object. All is one. That is why the infant Christ plays a greater role in art than the Bible. He symbolizes the state-of-mind artists aspire to.




 

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Aertsen's Peasants by the Hearth

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On the floor underneath the boy is an arrangement of empty mussell shells (far left). They look discarded. Yet artists of the time would know that a handful of empty shells like that refer on the poetic level to how mussell and other shells were used in studios - as paint-pots. The two images of studios at right illustrate such a scene. 
 

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Aertsen's Peasants by the Hearth
R top: Thamyris (detail) from Boccaccio, Des cleres et nobles femmes. Paris, BnF, ms. fr. 12420, fol.86
R bottom: Marcia (detail) from Boccaccio, Des cleres et nobles femmes. Paris, BnF, ms. fr. 12420, fol. 101v;
 

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Lastly, the scene is lit by the fire so the table behind three figures should theoretically be more shaded. There are, I believe, at least two reasons. One is that the table represents Aertsen's eye. Since we are, as always, inside Aertsen's mind, the light must come through his translucent "eye" from outside.4 The second reason is that the word tafel in Dutch means both a table with food displayed on it and the wooden panel on which artists painted like the very panel of this painting.5 This visual pun with its self-reference will thus help interpret Aertsen's more famous paintings, of tables laden with food.

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Aertsen's Peasants by the Hearth

Click image to enlarge.

Note: End-notes are at the bottom of the page

Notes:

1. For many examples by other artists from all periods, see entries under the theme "Letters in Art"

2. See "Over the Shoulder Poses" and "Pointing at the Edge" as well as some visual examples from self-portraits.

3. See the theme "The Artist as King"

4. Goya's frequent use of bright, circular and oval shapes in the 18th century seems to have been for the same purpose: to convey light coming from outside through the eye-form inside.

5. Joanna Woodall, “Laying the Table: The Procedures of Still Life” in The Erotics of Looking: Early Modern Netherlandish Art, eds. Angela Vanhaelen and Bronwen Wilson (London: Wiley-Blackwell) 2013, p. 114

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 02 Sep 2015. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.