Paintings of Kitchens in Western Art

  • Update:2011-11-07
  • Kenneth Bendiner
  • Source: zhuangshi,issue of Nov 2010

Kenneth Bendiner, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


The kitchen became an important subject in Western painting in the middle of the sixteenth century. At that same time peasant scenes rose to prominence, and around fifty years later still life became an independent subject in art. These three novelties of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries together represent a democratizing trend in Western art history. Minor people, minor places, and minor objects became worthy of portrayal. Peasants had appeared in art before 1550. But in sixteenth-century paintings by such artists as Pieter Aertsen uncouth peasants for the first time became large-scale figures of prime interest. Still-life painting too, around the year 1600, can be understood as a vulgar subject attaining new power. Still life had previously occupied a marginal, accessory role in scenes of history and portraiture, but now became the chief focus of entire paintings. Paintings of kitchens, both with figures and without, similarly elevated a subject previously peripheral and unpretentious. A lower-class space had risen in the world. This is not to say that peasants, still life and kitchens immediately became the equals of history paintings, portraits and landscape. These three new categories of imagery retained low status for centuries in the ranking of artistic subjects.(1) 

1. Pieter Aertsen, The Cook, 1559, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.

2. Lilly Martin Spencer, Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the ‘Lasses , 1856, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Kitchens in paintings long remained unappealing work rooms, below the main chambers of dignified people. Kitchens in paintings were filled with muscled lower-class workers, and gross victuals that had to be transformed into edible meals. Until the nineteenth century, kitchens, like peasants and raw food, often seem impolite, rough, and salacious. Kitchens frequently appeared as dark and squalid places with food tossed haphazardly on floors and workbenches, and with servants engaged in hard labor or sluttish behavior. One only begins to find pictures of kitchens as places of ease, harmless fun, artistry, delicacy and personal fulfillment in the eighteenth century, and such a newfound vision of culinary distinction and domestic delight only became common in the nineteenth century. Aertsen’s tough peasant cook thrusting fowl onto a skewer in the sixteenth century (fig. 1) differs markedly from Lilly Martin Spencer’s 1856 painting of a happy woman in her own kitchen, stirring molasses and flirting innocently with the viewer (fig. 2). Jehan-Georges Vibert’s gourmand/gourmet priest tasting his own exquisite sauce in a well-lit and elegantly appointed 1890s kitchen (fig. 3) also illustrates the new sense of delicacy and delight that entered kitchen representations throughout the nineteenth century. What was once a place of harsh toil and disorder and rude behavior became a haven of delicious relaxation and aesthetic appeal. The transition in kitchen imagery accompanied a new understanding of food consumption and food preparation that arose in the later eighteenth century. Restaurants began to appear in Paris in the 1760s, offering individual portions of finely prepared delicacies. Written appreciations began to appear at the same time, which noted the exquisite quality of the foods served at private banquets and aristocratic households, and saw such refined fare as enormously different from the crude foodstuffs of earlier decades; in those earlier times, big chunks of meat and piles of vegetables were offered in inns and even the most noble houses without fine sauces or careful attention. The eighteenth century looked on food with a new sensitivity, and that attitude eventually found expression in paintings of kitchens as harmonious spaces, where artistic creations were produced, and where the goods of the earth became tender morsels for knowledgeable tastes. (2)

Joachim Wtewael’s Kitchen Scene of 1605 (fig. 4) illustrates some of the fundamental characteristics of the Renaissance and Baroque kitchen. It portrays a New Testament story, the Parable of the Great Supper (Luke 14: 12-24), in which a rich lord, whose invited guests had declined to come to his banquet, instead invites all the crippled and poor folk of the vicinity to partake of his luxurious meal. The Biblical parable declares that the poor and downtrodden, rather than the wealthy and powerful, shall enter heaven. And perhaps in tune with that idea, Wtewael relegates the great banquet to the background, and devotes the foreground to the lower-class kitchen. In Wtewael’s painting, tough, muscular servants hack fish, skewer poultry, and pound food with mortar and pestle as lovers embrace, and a dog, a cat and a child sprawl amid the foodstuffs scattered about the floor. A chaos of labor and pots and pans and vessels and baskets and vegetables and dead creatures fill the dark kitchen chamber. The banqueters in the distance have no knowledge of the sweat and toil and sexuality and raw flesh and stalks that Wtewael shows up front. It is as if a news photographer charged with photographing a president’s speech, instead focused his camera on the workers building the podium on which the president will stand. To some extent, Wetwael turns the world upside down by giving center stage to the underclass space and the underclass people. But that, after all, illustrates the meaning of Christ’s parable in the Gospel of St. Luke. Even though most kitchen paintings from the sixteenth century onward do not include Biblical references, the emphasis on those who labor in the bowels of society, and on the making of food rather than the eating of food, are what Renaissance and Baroque kitchen paintings dwell upon . Even Biblical subjects that included Jesus were given second-place treatment in some kitchens. Diego Velazquez, for example painted Kitchen Scene wih Christ in the House of Mary and Martha  (fig. 5) and put the large-scale kitchen servants hard at work in the foreground, and relegated Christ and his followers to a small, distant room.

Wtewael’s kitchen scene also brings out the medical underpinnings of food imagery in Western art. For centuries the health benefits of a balanced diet as promulgated by Galen in ancient Roman times were followed by physicians throughout the West---right into the nineteenth century. According to this medical prescription, each individual person had a particular temperament, composed of four elements: air (which was warm and moist), earth (which was cold and dry), fire (which was hot and dry) and water (which was cold and wet). Every foodstuff also possessed a particular character of warmth and coldness, dryness and wetness (usually tied to its watery, fiery, earthy or airy habitat). In this medical perspective, the goal of a good diet was to prevent an individual’s temperament from becoming unbalanced. Dry foods should be served with wet foods; warm foods should be combined with cold foods. The mashing and chopping of foods was recommended to assure a thorough mixture of opposites. The various means of cooking foods: roasting, boiling, frying, etc. also affected the degrees of dryness, warmth, etc. etc. And the need for balance also extended to qualities of taste. For example, sweetness had to be balanced by bitterness (or sourness). At banquets, boiled foods were served with fried or roasted foods, and bittersweet, or sweet and sour sauces accompanied many dishes. In Wtewael’s painting, note the hare and the fowl hanging together at the upper left. These two animals, one a dry and cold meat, the other a moist and warm meat, complement each other, and no doubt this healthy combination of meats will be served together at the banquet in the distant chamber. The cold wet fish, which the man at the left prepares, adds a further dietary complement.  The kitchen worker in the right distance in Wtewael’s painting mashes food with mortar and pestle---to achieve a proper mixture of temperamental properties for the diners. In a sense, kitchens were medical clinics as much as they were places to satisfy mere hunger. (3)

Wtewael’s love-making couple at the right side of the kitchen floor also tells us something about Renaissance and Baroque ideas about kitchens and food. As in many other kitchen scenes of the period, indecent sexuality appears here: the man seems to offer the girl payment for her compliance. Food making and whoring go together---to characterize the vulgar, low-class status of the kitchen, and to couple food with sex in general. In numerous languages, the words for chickens and birds sound like words for sex or genitalia; food/sex puns abound in paintings and writings of all eras. In Dutch and German, flying and fowl possess just such sexual references, and you can be sure that the Dutch-speaking Pieter Aertsen expected his viewers to see his huge cook with skewered poultry as an amusing sexual portrayal. The satisfying of physical lust makes eating and fucking partners, and similarity of appearance as well as linguistic likeness connected many foods to sexual activity in art. Long before Sigmund Freud, people saw sexual innuendo in images of food. The sixteenth-century artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari described a mythological fresco by Giovanni da Udine in explicitly sexual terms: “Above the figure of Mercury in flight he made a Priapus of a zucchini with two big eggplants for testicles, passing through a morning-glory, and near some flowers, he made a cluster of big bursting figs, and inside an open and ripe one, enters the point of the flowering zucchini.”(4)  In the Christian West, moreover, almost any painting of an apple---in the kitchen, on a plate, on a tree, or in a mouth possibly alludes to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, where these first humans’ consumption of forbidden fruit was metaphorically interpreted as a sexual act. Not every apple in Western art signifies something sexual, but many do, and the entire panoply of sexually –implicit foods make kitchens hotbeds of lascivious possibilities. The kitchen could evidently be a brothel as well as a hospital.

The kitchen still-life paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin best display the eighteenth century’s new sensibility toward food. In The Brioche of 1763 (fig. 6), Chardin presents a modest stone counter upon which rest some of the provisions for a wedding. The sprig of orange blossoms atop the pastry called a brioche tells us of the coming marriage feast---orange blossoms were the standard decoration for such rites of passage. Chardin does not illustrate the banquet itself. He shows us the event obliquely, subtly. The kitchen setting alludes to the marriage without pomp, yet actually describes the fundamentals of the union with wry sensitivity. The brioche itself is an expensive item, a baked good that symbolizes admirably a well-endowed union of man and wife—its shape is irregular, but nevertheless stands proudly in the center of the painting, topped by the “flag” of marriage, the orange blossom. The rest of the items also play their parts. The porcelain pot at the left, decorated with young blossoms represents the bride, a vessel to be filled. On the other side of the brioche stands the phallic bottle of oil or cooking wine, an erect vision of the groom in all his sexual vigor. And in between the couple to be united, lie the delicate sweeteners of the affair: two ripe peaches, two cookies, a tasty little biscuit, and three cherries. Chardin arranged the objects in indolent, seemingly haphazard groups that form a visual cushion for the brioche and connect the bottle and the porcelain pot almost together---but not quite. The marriage knot has yet to be fully tied. For all the offhandedness of the arrangement, some sense of order remains. A handsome pyramid of objects can be perceived with the grand brioche and its marital crown of decoration at the apex. Furthermore, Chardin charms the viewer and the subject with subtle plays of texture, color, shape and size. The hard, opaque ceramic pot, round in shape, stands next to the round peaches—a little symphony of circular forms. But the peaches, in contrast to the pot, are soft. The peaches also link themselves to the brioche by color and their splotchy diagonal markings. The cherries at the right are harder and smaller than the peaches, but also round, and bear a resemblance to the cap of the bottle of oil, and the reddish color of its liquid. The glass bottle at the right, in contrast to the pot at the left, is transparent, yet like the porcelain pot, is a hard material. And the little train of cherries and cookies links the male vessel to the brioche in the center. Chardin also brings the viewer into the scene by having the biscuit ever so slightly jut beyond the edge of the kitchen counter. The biscuit pushes into our space, and makes us a participant in the preparation for marriage. And the ultimate stability of these small objects in an unadorned kitchen tells us much about the underlying belief in the order of eighteenth-century society and the dignity of wedded union in this orderly world.

Food and its preparation provide opportunities to mark out social distinctions. What one eats, where one eats, the dinnerware on which one’s food is placed, what utensils one eats with, how one handles those utensils, and how one’s food is prepared in the kitchen describe one’s status in the world. And with class consciousness in mind, we can see a very different sort social milieu from Chardin’s in a painting of around 1864 by Claude Monet (fig. 7). Nineteenth-century realist painters such as Monet often reveled in describing the unrefined life of the poor, of ordinary folks. Rude and common subjects removed glamour and prestige from artistic representation and gave an accent of truthfulness, of realism. Monet’s kitchen still life presents a close-up of a fresh but not-very-expensive cut of raw beef, a clove of garlic and a humble ceramic mug. As in Chardin’s still life painting of 1763, Monet’s kitchen setting is minimally described—a dark environment to give emphasis to the victuals. The food in Monet’s painting describes a modest household. The piece of meat, with gristle and bone evident, is of the sort used to make Swiss steak, not tournedos Rossini. And the only spice for the beef visible in this picture is garlic, powerful, non-exotic, inexpensive, and the stuff of humble kitchens. The garlic would presumably be rubbed into the beef to heighten the flavor of the meat, and the squat mug behind the beef likely holds beer or some other modest liquid to take on the role of cooking medium or basting sauce. Before the nineteenth century almost any kind of meat would be a rare treat for any working-class family. The masses of Europe for centuries most of the time ate porridge flavored with butter, onion or cheese, and on special occasions, small bits of ham or bacon. Salted fish in some regions would also serve as an occasional alternative to this starch-based diet. But in the nineteenth century, meat became common food for even the poor, although the sorts of meat tended to be tough, overly fatty, gristly, and hard, and often took the form of sausages and chopped meat cakes. Monet’s beef describes lower-class life. The kitchen subject defines the social system of the time, and the sort of community implied by these simple foods gives the ring of tough, unrefined honesty to his art. Monet here deliberately avoided the attributes of money and high station. Later, Monet and his fellow Impressionists, although still realist in outlook, would concentrate on a higher class of society—the bourgeois. They would paint urbane picnics, and rich luncheons served by maids, and kitchen still life subjects with fancy galettes and expensive melons. But even in his early career Monet painted some kitchen images that depict a social scale far above the ordinary, including an 1862 picture of a pile of dead game birds on a counter with rifle and hound (Trophies of the Hunt, 1862, Musee d’Orsay, Paris ). The theme of the hunt automatically gives this Monet still-life an aristocratic identity. Throughout Europe, hunting was a privilege reserved for the upper classes—with harsh penalties for those of lower status who intruded into this sport for the cream of society.

Realism allied itself with kitchen subjects in more ways than just social class associations. When an artist such as Wtewael focused his attention on the kitchen, rather than on the main banquet hall in his Biblical narrative, he approached his story obliquely. He gave the viewer a glimpse behind the scenes, off-stage, instead of directing our gaze to the “important” part of the parable.  This kind of approach displays Baroque realist aesthetics. Seventeenth-century painters, from Caravaggio onward, gave a gripping impression of a real encounter by going beyond the expected presentation of the subject at hand. Rembrandt sometimes placed insignificant, shadowed figures in the foreground of his historical narratives, while the chief figures are small but lighted in the distance.  (5) Velazquez presented the Spanish King and Queen as background characters, seen only in a small mirror reflection, in Las Meninas (1656, Prado, Madrid). And even the maids of honor who are the focus of this group portrait by Velazquez are upstaged by a dwarf attendant and a large dog. This sort of backhanded treatment of royalty can be likened to nineteenth-century realist art. Edgar Degas, seeking to see and present the world without expected conventions, painted most often not the actual performance of the Paris opera ballet, but dancers behind the scenes, waiting to go on stage, exercising in the practice room, tying their shoes, or scratching their backs on an ordinary day. Another nineteenth-century realist, Adolf von Menzel even employed an oblique vantage point when he painted his native Prussia’s victory over France (Departure of King Wilhelm for the Front, July 31, 1870, 1871, Nationalgalerie, Berlin). He depicted the very moment in 1870 when Germany’s status as a sovereign nation was guaranteed. Menzel showed The Prussian emperor setting off from Berlin for the victorious battle front, but the tiny emperor in his carriage can hardly be seen. Menzel’s painting is filled instead with cheering crowds of people on the streets of Berlin. Menzel’s approach speaks of modern mass society, where the people as a whole define a nation. But his approach, like kitchen imagery for centuries, also speaks of life seen honestly, humbly, without highfalutin glitz and trumpets. The ordinary, the stumbling, vulgar, ungainly activities of the world take precedence over extraordinary events and characters in both seventeenth-century realism and nineteenth-century realism. And the kitchen subject is an important part of this attempt to make art appear truthful. Wtewael’s sweating workers, cheap love, pet animals, and jumble of humble foods and pots and pans give his Biblical image the smack of ordinary reality, and engage the viewer in his own common realm. Kitchens are not the realm of monarchs or grand happenings. They are the spaces of the real world, and give the smell of familiarity to any subject.

The ordinariness of kitchen imagery could be hectic and messy and salacious, as in Wtewael’s painting. But the commonplace realism of the kitchen could also be charming and peaceful—at least in the nineteenth century. The French painter Martin Drolling’s Interior of a Kitchen of 1815 (fig. 8) perfectly exemplifies this more delightful aspect of kitchen realism. We see a plain, undecorated room filled with cleaning and cooking utensils, and with a family at rest. The simple room with all its unpretentious tools and people is suffused with soft late-afternoon light, and a beautiful landscape can be glimpsed through the open window. No illicit dalliances, no hard toil, no filth or chaos disturbs the kitchen serenity. 

 In American Pop Art kitchens of the 1960s, a kind of social realism can be discerned, but it differs from the realism found in such works as Monet’s 1864 painting of beef and garlic. In Pop Art productions, common people’s food appears, but tinged with amusement and only sarcastic appreciation. Mid-nineteenth century American realists such as William Harnett portrayed ordinary folks’ turnips and onions with sincere interest in unbiased descriptions of the life of the poor. (6)  Andy Warhol’s many well-known images of Campbell Soup cans, whether alone or in series or in a kitchen(7),  accurately represent a mainstay of common American food.  Yet Wahol hardly seems to celebrate the affordability of American food, or the tastiness of common people’s diet, or the beauty of American product design. Warhol’s deadened food paintings illustrate the emptiness of American eating habits; they show nothing nutritious or edible, only metal and paper and words. Packaging rather than edibles triumph here, and Warhol mocks the sterility of American consumerism’s dominance. Alone, or in groups, or in a kitchen, his soup cans seem devoid of any enrichment or delight or ease. The cheap empty metal tube of a can of soup overpowers all. Roy Lichtenstein’s Kitchen Stove of 1962 (fig.9) offers a similarly critical view of America food. The style of Lichtenstein’s painting suggests a cheap newspaper advertisement. It is a picture of a kitchen removed from direct experience, seen only through the eyes of salesmanship. The rough marks of inexpensive printing cheapen the distinctly modern stove and its contents, sterilizing the food, mocking the very notion of a kitchen as a place of fulfillment and delight. Look at Lichtenstein’s foods here---crude black and white pictures of items that would not be cooked together, all stuffed into an oven. The bright slickness of the advertiser’s lines and colors serve only to make the food and its production look even more unsavory. Lichtenstein openly admitted his socially critical attitude, even as he embraced the idea of broadening art to include the daily crap of ordinary American life. Warhol, in contrast, pretended to admire the crass popular stuff he portrayed. Only his careless-looking representations of electric chairs, automobile accidents, and scenes of death, repeated mechanically, made his negative attitude obvious to the American public and to art critics in the 1960s. (7)  In both Pop Art kitchens and nineteenth-century realist kitchens, the ability of the kitchen to pinpoint social caste and to delineate incisively whole ways of life and living conditions becomes obvious. Whether the artist set out to decry the state of the working class, or attack the domination of corporate power, or celebrate modern food-production machinery in the home, the kitchen offered a sphere particularly suited to social commentary. 

Pop Art painters concentrated on food probably more than any group in the history of Western art (Dutch and Flemish artists of the seventeenth century are their only competitors in the field). And thus one more Pop Art kitchen in this essay is appropriate: Tom Wesselmann’s Still Life #30 of 1963 (fig. 10). This work reaffirms some of the basic interpretations of Western art’s kitchens given above, while also illustrating again the critical tone that marks Pop Art in general. Wesselmann presents a banal middle-class American kitchen with glaring popular processed food packages collaged into the image. Pop Art’s usual deadpan acceptance of corporate graphics is evident. The perky food, however, intrudes upon an image that otherwise would be a calm homage to the beautiful interiors of Henri Matisse:  careful rectilinear composition, open window view of a landscape, strong colors and patterns, and powerful simple shapes. In Wesselmann’s painting, the American goods strike a discordant note, as if some philistine had barged into a hallowed museum of art. Wesselmann’s kitchen image as a whole comments on the history of art. Above the refrigerator hangs a reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s Seated Woman of 1927 (Museum of Modern Art, New York). The Picasso image of a violently disrupted figure is as intrusive as the American packaging—an affront to the Matisse-like vision. And maybe this art history-referenced image by Lichtenstein, for all its sneering presentation of common commercial products, admits the power of this cheap and vulgar reality to alter our outlook. Like Picasso’s small but emotional image, the breakfast cereal and soda bottles and other debris from American supermarkets, can possess destructive force. These items appear cheap and crass, but they also represent the real world in our time, and they enter the kitchen temple of art with a challenging visual spirit. The common kitchen, that back-room realist space, was an appropriate art historical bomb site for Wesselmann, because the kitchen is not only a seat of basic necessity, whether comforting or ignoble, but also the battleground of art’s relationship to reality.



1 For a good recent overview of food images in Western art, see the exhibition catalog Augenschmaus—vom Essen in Stillleben, ed. Heike Eppeldauer, Bank Austria, Kunstforum, Vienna, 2010.

2 On the increased delicacy of eating habits in the eighteenth century, see Stephen Mennell, “On the Civilizing of Appetite,” in Food and Culture: A Reader, ed. C. Counihan and P. van Esterik (New York and London, 1997), and Norbert Elias, The Civilising Process, 2 vols (Oxford, 1978-82).

3 On the ancient system of temperaments and a balanced diet, see Terence Scully, The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1995), pp. 41 ff.

4 See Corinne Mandel, “Food for Thought: On Cucumbers and their Kind in European Art,” in Foodculture, ed. B. Fischer (Toronto, 1999), p. 53. The painting by Giovanni da Udine is in the Loggia of Psyche, Villa Farnesina, Rome.

5 For example, Rembrandt, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis ( 1661-62, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm).

6 For example, William Harnett, Munich Still Life (1882, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts)

7 At least one of Warhol’s soup cans, Big Campbell Soup Can, 19 cents (c 1962, Daros Collection, Switzerland) has an implied kitchen setting. The background is blank white, but the half-opened, empty can indicates that the object sits in a kitchen environment.

8 On Warhol and the reception of his works, see K. McShine, Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, exhibition catalog, Museum of Modern Art, New York (1989), and Georg Frei and Neil Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonne, vol. 1 (London, 2002).


1. Pieter Aertsen, The Cook, 1559, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.
2. Lilly Martin Spencer, Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the ‘Lasses , 1856, Brooklyn Museum, New York.
3. Jehan-Georges Vibert, The Marvelous Sauce, c  1890, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.
4. Joachim Wtewael, Kitchen Scene, 1605, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.
5. Diego Velazquez, Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, c 1618, National Gallery, London.
6. Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, The Brioche, 1763, Musee du Louvre, Paris.
7. Claude Monet, Still Life with Beef, c 1864, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
8. Martin Drolling, Interior of a Kitchen, 1815, Musee du Louvre, Paris.
9. Roy Lichtenstein, Kitchen Stove, 1962, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
10. Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #30, 1963, Museum of Modern Art, New York.


No Comment!
UserName Password Anonymous   No Username Yet ?