Willem van Mieris belonged to a group of Dutch artists based in Leiden who are known as the Fijnschilders (‘fine painters’) because of their attention to accurate, realistic detail and their smooth technique. They aimed to show each object, each texture so authentically that they would seem tangible.
A kitchen setting provided van Mieris with the opportunity to show off his skills in representing many different textures in one picture: wicker and earthenware, fur and feathers, lace and leather, cabbage leaves and fish scales.
Van Mieris made a successful career from pictures of interiors. He painted kitchens or shops, but always elevated their status by using the arched window with a classical frieze below and by including a profusion of objects. He took this idea from his father and teacher, Frans van Mieris, who had himself followed the example of Gerrit Dou.
Willem van Mieris, son of artist Frans van Mieris – his Self Portrait with a Cittern is in our collection – belonged to a group of Dutch artists who are known as the Fijnschilders (‘fine painters’) because of their attention to accurate, realistic detail and their smooth technique. They aimed to show each object, each texture so authentically that they would seem tangible.
A kitchen setting provided van Mieris with the opportunity to show off his skills in representing as many different textures as possible. The plump hand of the young woman rests on the plump, feathered breast of one of the ducks on the stone windowsill. Her smooth skin contrasts with the grizzled flesh of the old man who has come to sell her a fish. He handles its silvery scales, lifting it from the wicker basket he holds; another is fixed on his back with leather straps.
Two more wicker baskets appear, quite different but both portrayed with infinite precision, one holding turnips and the other snipe (small wading birds with long beaks). The two enormous cabbages nestling at the end of the windowsill look heavy, but the leaves have delicate frilled edges echoed in the lace decorating the woman’s shift and cap. Above the cabbages are more feathers – the soft, downy plumage of the pheasant’s breast and the long, stiff pinion feathers of its wings – and, close by, the fur of two dead rabbits, contrasting with the very live cat sniffing for food. A heavy woven curtain is drawn back to reveal the interior of the kitchen. A pewter pot stands on the table and ceramic dishes on wooden shelves. In the centre of the ceiling, joints of meat are impaled on gleaming metal hooks.
But this hyperreality isn’t reality at all. This isn’t what a kitchen in the seventeenth-century Netherlands would have looked like – so many objects laid out in such a state of perfection. Van Mieris shows us the scene through a stone window with an arch, a carving of a classical scene beneath it, reminiscent of a niche in a grand building or church. This elevates the status of the kitchen and also, more importantly, of this picture and the artist’s skill in painting it. The carving shows the story of Galatea, a Greek nymph who escaped over the sea from the clutches of the one-eyed giant, Cyclops. Van Mieris seems to contrast the grotesque stone fish Galatea clutches with the weighty, slippery one on the earthenware dish on the sill, and the hard chill of the stone frieze with the soft, warm fur of the cat strategically placed in front of it.
Van Mieris made a successful career from the portrayal of the interiors of kitchens or shops, using the device of an arched window with a classical frieze below and a profusion of objects to elevate their status. He took the idea of the ‘niche picture’ from his father and teacher Frans, who had himself followed the example of Gerrit Dou (look at A Poulterer’s Shop).
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