Velázquez turned ordinary chores into art

What could possibly be a more precise moment than the instant when a raw egg starts to cook in a pan? In this early work painted in Seville about five years before the artist moved to Madrid to become court painter, 17th-century Spanish artist Diego Velázquez transformed an ordinary domestic happening into art. The yolks and whites of the two eggs draw the eye, followed by the third egg still in its shell held by the woman, ready to be cracked into the oil or water. (Some commentators see the eggs as fried, some as poached.)

Velázquez was 19 when he painted "An Old Woman Cooking Eggs," and it marks him as a prodigy. Although the influence of Caravaggio seems unquestionable - the realistic figures of the peasants emerging out of darkness into a strong, shadow-casting light - there is no evidence that the young Velázquez could have actually seen an original by the Italian in Seville by that date.

There was already, however, a tradition for paintings showing poor people in commonplace settings. In Spain these were called bodegones. They brought together people with still lifes of food and domestic objects. They were composed for rich patrons who not only enjoyed the skills involved in painting such lowly subjects beautifully and accurately, but also found them telling or instructive in a proverbial, moralistic, or religious sense.

Velázquez's boy coming forward with the realistic melon, and the old woman with her poised spoon and piercingly intent profile, have a serious dignity. David Davies, writing about Velázquez's bodegones (which ceased when he went to work for royalty), considers them evidence of changing attitudes in the 16th and 17th centuries toward the poor. They were no longer depicted solely as buffoons or criminals. They may be seen as having a rough nobility.

Partly because of the lighting of figures and objects in this picture, each seems to exist in its separate space and identity - plate, knife, head shawl, hands, faces - and eggs, instantaneous almost 400 years ago.

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