This is a painting paying homage to diligent housekeeping, domestic harmony and a contented husband and wife. We are in a kitchen, so the woman takes centre stage and she sits bathed in light from the high window. She catches our eye, confident perhaps that we will approve of her housekeeping. The pots and pans are clean and orderly, and she has laid out a lunch of bread, cheese and ham on an immaculate cloth – a simple meal, but there is plenty of it. The man puffs on his pipe and enjoys the heat of the fire. His job was not to help in the kitchen, but to provide the money for the household. They are also a patriotic couple: a map of the Netherlands hangs by the chimney breast. However, the scene is not a real one. Van Brekelenkam is representing an atmospheric moment in an ideal home.
This painting is a good example of the potential pitfalls when interpreting art of this kind. Are we looking at a simple, slightly sentimental domestic scene – something to enjoy as a window on some of the details and priorities of seventeenth-century life? Or is the artist hinting at a story of intrigue and seduction, as is often the case in similar scenarios? For example, the pipe and flagon we see here could have sexual overtones; they certainly do in other paintings of the time such as Sorgh’s Two Lovers at Table which is also in the National Gallery.
But such double meanings do not resonate in the paintings of van Brekelenkam. For him, a pipe was a pipe, and he was more concerned with paying homage to diligent housekeepers and domestic harmony. This painting is a case in point.
It shows a contented couple – not household servants, but husband and wife. We are in a kitchen, so the woman takes centre stage and she sits bathed in light from the high window. She catches our eye, confident perhaps that we will approve of her housekeeping. The pots and pans are clean and orderly (they are often depicted on the floor in such scenes) and she has laid out lunch on an immaculate linen cloth, still crisp with creases from the iron. It’s a simple meal of bread, cheese and ham, but there is plenty to eat for both of them.
The man puffs on his pipe and enjoys the heat of the fire in the shadowy background. We might think that he could do a little more to help – he’s just discarded his old pipe and left it in two pieces on the floor. No doubt the wife will soon reach for the nearby broom to restore order. But his job was not to help in the kitchen, but to provide the necessary money to finance the household.
While typical, the scene is not a real one. Van Brekelenkam’s interiors are imaginary, and his figures are generally not portraits. Instead they represent atmospheric moments in an ideal home. And, if this is a model couple, then they are a patriotic one too. It is hard to see but in the background, partly hidden by the chimney, is a map of the Netherlands (as is often the case in seventeenth-century maps, north is not at the top but on the right). It bears the lion of Holland and would have had particular resonance at the time. The painting was made in 1653, only five years after this part of the Netherlands had finally managed to win independence from the Roman Catholic kings of Spain.
Van Brekelenkam worked in Leiden all his life and specialised in such genre paintings. The National Gallery has two more. One, A Woman Asleep by a Fire, is also set in a kitchen. The other, Interior of a Tailor’s Shop, has another map of Holland on the chimney breast.
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