The Kitchen Maid in the Household
Scullery maid. A country house maid-of-all-work whose routine revolved around supporting the kitchen maids with fetching and carrying, scrubbing, washing and scouring pots, pans and the kitchen generally! Her duties consisted of whatever the other staff (mainly the kitchen maids) thought fit within that department. (Wage: 18th century – £2 10s; 19th century £6; 20th century – £12)
Painting the Kitchen Maid – Themes
- Scenes with religious backgrounds
- The kitchen scene
- The beautiful maid
- The solitary figure
Finally, in the fourth section I present the maid painted as a solitary figure.
Scenes with religious backgrounds
“God is to be found amid pots.”
St. Teresa of Avila
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Most common scenes from the New Testament is Jesus’ visit to the house of Martha and Mary, and the Supper at Emmaus.
Martha and Mary were the sisters of Lazarus, who was resurrected by Jesus. One day Jesus visits the house of the two sisters. Martha gets on with the preparation of a meal for the visitor, while Mary listens to Jesus talking and does nothing. At some point Martha complains to Jesus that she has no help, and asks him to tell Mary to give her a hand. Jesus vindicates Mary in his response.
Martha is seen as the representative of “vita activa”, whereas Mary represents “vita contemplativa”.
Jesus’ visit highlights the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics believe that salvation is the result of good works, whereas Protestants view it as a matter of faith.
In any case, Martha is the “kitchen maid”, and the kitchen maid is “Martha”.
Joachim Bueckelaer 1569
Joachim Bueckelaer – Kitchen Piece, with Jesus in the House of Martha and Mary in the background
oil on canvas, 110 × 140.5 cm (43.3 × 55.3 in)
Jacob Matham, 1603
Jacob Matham (Netherlandish, Haarlem 1571–1631 Haarlem)
Kitchen Scene with Kitchen Maid Preparing Fish, Christ at Emmaus in the Background, from Kitchen and Market Scenes with Biblical Scenes in the Background, 1603.
Engraving, sheet: 9 1/2 x 12 5/8 in. (24.2 x 32 cm)
Metropolitan Museum of New York.
Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
oil on canvas, 60 × 103.5 cm (23.6 × 40.7 in)
National Gallery of Art, London, England
The young maid in the foreground is obviously upset, almost crying, while she toils to prepare aioli to serve with the fish. The older woman next to her seems to be pointing to the picture in the background, where Jesus is preaching to both sisters.
Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus by Diego Velázquez
Oil on canvas, 55 x 118 cm
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
“This painting is widely considered to be Velázquez’s earliest known work. The artist painted Christ appearing to his disciples at Emmaus in the left background. In the foreground he depicted a Moorish servant working in the kitchen. The inversion of the religious and the worldly subjects was inspired by Flemish painters, including Pieter Aertsen.”
There is an additional element in this picture compared to the previous one. The maid may be a slave. Some analysts claim that by including a Moorish maid whi apprently is a slave in this picture, Velazquez wanted to make a statement against slavery.
La Cucinera, La mulata, The Kitchen Maid
Oil on canvas, 21 7/8 x 41 1/8 in. (55.9 x 104.2 cm)
Art Institute of Chicago
Unlike its sister painting in Dublin, this one does not have the Emmaus Supper scene in the background. Velazquez erased the biblical scene in a move to “disengage” the topic from the biblical story and emphasize its contemporariness.
The kitchen scene
“Young men from the farm flirting with maids in kitchens or in the marketplace is a theme that descends from Pieter Aertsen (1507/8-1575) and his Antwerp pupil Joachim Beuckelaer to a fair number of Dutch and Flemish painters. The earlier works in this tradition convey religious and ethical ideas while entertaining the viewer with scenes of human comedy and abundant displays of naturalistic representation. Dutch authors such as Erasmus (1466?–1536) and Dirck Volkertsz Coornhert (1522–1590) compared food and sex as sensual pleasures and also condemned professions such as cookery, butchery, and fishmongering as serving the baser appetites.” (Kitchen Scene)
Peter Wtewael, 1620s
Peter Wtewael, Kitchen Scene, oil on canvas, 44 3/4 x 63 in. (113.7 x 160 cm)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, USA
Peter was the son of Joachim Wtewael. The painting was originally attributed to Jan Steen, and then to Joachim Wtewael.
‘In The Met’s picture, the kitchen maid’s skewering of a chicken, the young man’s offer of a bird (a duck, in this case), and his handling of an open jug with an extended middle finger are clear allusions to sexual intercourse. “Hunting the hare” was a euphemism for lovemaking, but here the dead hares probably stand for fertility, as does the basket of eggs (which were also considered an aphrodisiac). The various meats (vlees, or flesh) refer to carnal desire, and draw a parallel between gluttony and lust. The hanging cock and almost any form that appears phallic (especially the pestle in a mortar) amplify the humor, and also demonstrate the artist’s powers of invention and description.’ (Kitchen Scene)
The beautiful maid
The kitchen maid has been presented in a multitude of sexual contexts. Given the conditions of her employment, a kitchen maid did not have a solid ground on which to protect herself from unwanted gestures of the male members of the family and the guests. In a miraculous way, the sweaty, smelly young woman was transfromed into a sex object as if she had come out of her luxurious toilet. Totally hypocritical, totally unacceptable, but these were the times.
Sir Nathaniel Bacon,c. 1620 – 1625
Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit c.1620-5 Sir Nathaniel Bacon 1585-1627
1510 x 2475 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund 1995 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T0699
Tate Gallery, London, England
“Bacon, according to a letter dated 19 June , was growing melons at his estate in East Anglia, and he was known to have a keen interest in horticulture. The subject would most likely have had erotic connotations. The abundance of ripe melons surrounding the cookmaid echo her voluptuous cleavage.”
François Boucher (1703-1770)
La Belle cuisinière (The Beautiful Kitchen Maid)
Oil on wood / H. 55,5 cm L. 43,2 cm
Musee Cognacq-Jay, Paris, France.
The solitary figure
The artiifciality of the maid as a sex object is relinquished in the paintings where the maid is painted as a solitayr figure.
Anonymous, between 1631 and 1677
Anonymous, The Kitchen Maid, 31cm by 24 cm
This maid is a real person, there is no cleavage, no flirting with anyone, she just carries on with her job.
Vermeer, c. 1660
Johannes Vermeer, The Milk Maid (or The Kitchen Maid) oil on canvas, h 45.5 cm × w 41 cm
“…his “milkmaid” exudes a very earthy appeal, with her pushed-up sleeves (revealing pale skin normally covered), her ample form (similar to that of women in slightly earlier works by Rubens), and her faint smile. The box on the floor is a foot warmer with a pot of coals inside; foot warmers frequently suggest feminine desire in Dutch genre paintings (because they would heat not only feet but everything under a woman’s long skirt). “
(Source: Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) and The Milkmaid, Walter Liedtke Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Jean Siméon Chardin (French, 1699 – 1779 ), The Kitchen Maid, 1738,
oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection 1952.5.38,
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA
Chardin in this picture is the king of understatement. The picture is stripped to the bare minimum of elements needed to illustrate the subject. Not even a line is superfluous. The maid is staring at empty space. Time has stopped.
Chardin, The Scullery Maid, oil on canvas, 47 × 38.1 cm (18 1/2 × 15 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA
The shiny pots tell us how well the mid is doing her job. She is looking away from the barrel, at something we cannot see. She is in the picture with her body, but outside the picture with her mind.
CHARDIN, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon, Servant Returning from Market, 1739
Louvre, Paris, France
There is nothing like the abundance of the Dutch kitchen scenes in Chardin. Only the bread is clearly visible.
The maid has an enigmatic smile and looks away. As noticed in previous pictures, she is at the smae time inside the picture and out of it.
after Gerrit Dou, 1754
The Flemish kitchenmaid; a young girl seated in a kitchen and peeling carrots, surrounded by tubs and kitchen utensils, carrots and fish in foreground; after Gerrit Dou
Etching and engraving
British Museum, London
Henry Walton, 1776
Plucking the Turkey
Plucking the Turkey exhibited 1776 Henry Walton 1746-1813 Purchased 1912 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02870
Tate Gallery, London, England