Old Woman Frying Eggs

Diego Velazquez

Keywords: OldWomanFryingEggs

Work Overview

Old Woman Frying Eggs
Spanish: Vieja friendo huevos
Artist Diego Velázquez
Year c. 1618
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 100.5 cm × 119.5 cm (39.6 in × 47.0 in)
Location National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Old Woman Frying Eggs is a genre painting by Diego Velázquez, produced during his Seville period. The date is not precisely known but is thought to be around the turn of 1618 before his definitive move to Madrid in 1623. The painting is in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. Velázquez frequently used working-class characters in early paintings like this one, in many cases using his family as models; the old woman here also appears in his Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1618).

Old Woman Frying Eggs is considered to be one of the strongest of Velázquez's early works.[1] Like others, it shows the influence of chiaroscuro, with a strong light source coming in from the left illuminating the woman, her utensils and the poaching eggs, while throwing the background and the boy standing to her right into deep shadow. Here the chiaroscuro is very intense, so much so that it would be impossible to see the wall at the bottom of the painting but for the basket hanging from it; it simultaneously manages to combine the murky darkness and high contrasts of light and shadow with the use of subtle hues and a palette dominated by ochres and browns. The composition is organised as an oval with the middle figures in the nearest plane, thus drawing in the viewer.

The realism is nearly photographic and shows everyday plates, cutlery, pans, pestles, jugs and mortars, capturing the special shine on a glass surface and the light's play on the melon carried by the boy. The boiling pan is particularly well-captured, with its spitting oil and the whites of the eggs. Velázquez also worked particularly hard on the detail of the two figures's hands.

Velázquez was eighteen or nineteen when he painted this remarkable picture. It clearly demonstrates his flair for painting people and everyday objects directly from life. His fascination with contrasting materials and textures and the play of light and shadow on opaque and reflective surfaces resulted in brilliant passages of painting, especially the eggs cooking in hot oil and the varied domestic utensils. At the start of his career Velázquez painted a number of these kitchen or tavern scenes, called 'bodegónes' in Spanish.

This painting is one of several early genre scenes by Velázquez for which there are no known precedents in Seville. Using a powerful, focused light, itself a novel feature, Velázquez creates a tour de force of naturalistic painting in which different shapes, textures, and surfaces are miraculously brought to life.

The Old Woman Frying Eggs shows an elderly cook sitting in front of a small clay vessel in which she is cooking eggs over a charcoal fire. The artist's eye has observed and recorded every telling detail, down to the thin sliver of glowing coals that warm the eggs which are absent-mindedly tended by the woman. The worn but fine features of her face, beneath the confident painting of the veil on her head, bear witness to a life well lived. There is a serious, meditative quality about the woman's figure, and the boy with the melon under his arm and a carafe of wine in his hand looks out of the picture at us with comparable gravity. The contrast of youth and age conveys the transience of life, and the egg in the woman's hand suggests associations, familiar at the time, with the mutability of all earthly matter and with another life beyond the grave. The background is dark and indistinct, in contrast to the often over-crowded backgrounds of Dutch kitchen scenes.

An interesting feature of this picture, the main subject of which is the cooking of eggs in a clay pot, is the honeydew melon with a cord slung crosswise around it, making it resemble an imperial orb.