Joanna Woodall on Cooking Artists in Dark Rooms

Pieter van den Bosch, The Young Cook, mid-17th century. Oil on panel. Kunstmuseum, Basel.

Many are the ways to demonstrate that a given picture represents the artist in his or her mind: resemblance, pose, apparent errors, "nonsensical" shading, tools expressed in metaphor, etc. We have shown you at least thirty different methods, most of them unknown to art historians in general.1 In 2013 Joanna Woodall, an art history professor at the Courtauld, described a technique not yet addressed here in any depth in an excellent essay on Dutch stiil-life. Unaware of EPPH, she very convincingly demonstrates that the cook in a picture by Pieter van den Bosch (above), an obscure 17th-century artist, is really an alter ego of the painter himself in his studio. 

Pieter van den Bosch, An Artist in His Studio with Still Life of Vegetables and Pots (c.1650s)  Oil on wood. University of Virginia Art Museum, Charlottesville

She does so by comparing the overall composition to another painting by van den Bosch at the University of Virginia (above). It depicts an artist in his studio in the process of painting a still-life. Though one of the compositions is inverted - possibly to suggest the mirror of the artist's mind - they are similar with a still-life to one side in the foreground and a figure at work in the background (see below). 

L: Van den Bosch, The Young Cook inverted    R: Van den Bosch, An Artist in His Studio

Thus Woodall recognizes that a painting's overall pattern can convey meaning to the insider regardless of the apparent subject matter. It is not, however, a meaning that most contemporary viewers of The Young Cook are likely to have guessed. Her larger point is that Dutch still-lifes of this period refer to the process of their own making and thus, without knowing it, to the paradigm of EPPH.2 And she further reveals some very interesting word-play in Dutch between art and food to show that "the production of a painting and the production of a meal could be conceived in the same terms."3 The word tafel, for instance, means both a table holding a display of various victuals and the wooden panel on which artists paint. Art instruction manuals of the period read like contemporary cookbooks too with a shared vocabulary. Paints were prepared according to "recipes" and painting in at least one instruction manual was described as a "delicious Art"4

Floris van Schooten, Breakfast (1620)

One typical feature of Dutch still-life is the knife in the foreground. Often it's balanced on the edge of the table, the handle towards us (above). Woodall, in following through on her findings, interprets the knife as a substitute for the knives that artists used to smooth a canvas in preparation for painting. Yet she is probably unaware that knives, daggers, swords, arrows and other implements long and thin are mainstay metaphors in art for the painter's brush. They appear "unseen" in thousands of paintings since the early Renaissance.5

Pieter Codde, Art-Lovers in a Painter's Studio (c.1630) Oil on wood. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

Indeed one even appears in an illustration to Woodall's own essay (above). The sword on the floor, although nominally one of the studio visitors', is really the age-old metaphoric brush positioned in the center of the lower edge of the panel where, theoretically, the real artist had sat and it points directly to the easel in the painting. Underneath the sword is a shield or some other flat object associated with it though, naturally, its shape also resembles a palette. This is why the knives in Dutch still-lifes, like that sword, so often seem to cross the plane of the picture into our space or sit near the lower edge of the canvas. They are both part of the studio as a brush and the painting as a knife.6 

Pieter van den Bosch, The Young Cook, detail

Not noticed, incidentally, is that van den Bosch's young cook also uses her wooden implement to stir the pot like an artist mixes paints with a brush or picks pigments with it from a palette. For similar scenes, see EPPH explanations of Pieter Aertsen's Cook in front of a Stove (1558) and Diego Velazquez's Old Woman Frying Eggs (1618). What so few still know is that references to the art of picture-making in images of apparently different subject matter are no more a feature of Dutch still-life than art in general. The reasons for this can be expressed in various ways. Woodall herself notes of van den Bosch's self-representation in the cook that it "undermines the subject/object opposition" allowing us to recognize that we are inseparable from the exterior world. This, as EPPH shows, can be seen in all significant art of any period because by merging object and subject, artist and model, painter and painting, a universal picture is presented of the potential spiritual perfection of Everyman's mind. 

Clara Peeters, Still-Life with Flowers and Goblets (1612) Oil on wood. Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe

Woodall herself does not in the end recognize that the setting of Dutch still-life is the mind though she comes close. She notes instead that vision so often seems to be a principal subject and likens the many spherical items in such works (example above) to the retina of an eye. That leads her to compare the room itself to the inside of a camera obscura which artists sometimes used to help them outline a motif. She sees the implement's implied use in still-lifes as though it was a comment on visual perception or the making of the picture, both of which are true. However, the analogy works not just as a reference to sight and pictorial technique but to the mind as well. Art requires craft, vision and intellect.7 A camera obscura is a large, windowless room with a peep-hole or lens in one wall. It allows someone in the darkened interior to see an image of the scene outside projected upside down on the opposite wall. It is thus easily likened to the inside of our own skulls. In other words, though Woodall does not note it, the hidden setting of these still-lifes, as we show on EPPH, is the mind itself.  

Henri Matisse, Harmony in Red (1908) Oil on canvas. Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Woodall's essay, "Laying the Table: The Procedures of Still Life" notes, by the way, that just as we lay tables so artists of the time "laid-in" a painting. It's another pun with a long life as you can see in the entry on Matisse's Harmony in Red (1908), above.  "Laying the Table" is an excellent contribution in a book full of them. There is a paper by Celeste Brusati on perspective and time in Dutch art and another by Christopher P. Heuer on the little-known but clearly mystical artist, Hercules Seegers. Anyone interested in veiled meaning, as I imagine readers of EPPH are, should take a look at The Erotics of Looking: Early Modern Netherlandish Art, edited by Angela Vanhaelen and Bronwen Wilson (Wiley-Blackwell) 2013.


1. See entries under the various themes on EPPH's theme page.

2. Here is a brief excerpt from the introduction to the EPPH theme: "Great art is not, and has never been, a depiction of the exterior world. True artists never intended that, even if their patrons expected it. It would have been mere copying of nature. Regardless of initial appearances, all poetic art is an allegory of the artist’s own mind in the process of creation, and thus an allegory in miniature of God’s own creation. That is why ‘know yourself’ in a broader context is the motto of all mystics. Not everyone can see this, though, because as in difficult poetry, the true meaning of great art is hidden. The French painter Eugene Delacroix wrote “the eyes of many people are dull or false; they see objects literally, of the exquisite they see nothing.” Other artists have made similar remarks. If you change your perception, though, and stop imagining falsely that art is an early form of photography, the scene itself will change from a depiction of the exterior world to that of the artist’s own mind. The process is similar to how a Shakespearean play is mere entertainment for groundlings on one level while also providing, on a higher plane, an allegorical illustration of the poet’s own mind in the process of creation. Literary critics George Steiner and Elizabeth Sacks have each separately shown how. The same has been written of Dante’s Commedia." For the full text, click here.

3. Woodall, "Laying the Table: The Procedures of Still Life" in The Erotics of Looking: Early Modern Netherlandish Art, edited by Angela Vanhaelen and Bronwen Wilson (New York: Wiley-Blackwell) 2013, p.127; Although there is as yet no theme for wordplay and puns in art, there are many examples already published. For a brief overview, see "Manet's Little Cavaliers" (2012).

4. Woodall, op. cit., p. 128

5. There are many examples of metaphorical paintbrushes under the theme Brush and Palette.

6. For a few varied examples in which the scene in the studio and the painting itself have been merged, see Piero della Francesca's Resurrection (c.1458), Carpaccio's Young Knight in a Landscape (1510), Rembrandt's The Hog (1643), Manet's Music Lesson (1868) and Salvador Dali's The Smoker (1973) as well as the blog post "The Brush-Sword of Mattia Preti" (published online 2013).

7. The concept is commonly expressed in art. You can see examples under the theme Hand and Eye.

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