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David Teniers the Younger (Antwerp 1610-Brussels 1690)

The Interior of a Kitchen with an Old Woman Peeling Turnips c. 1640-44

Oil on panel | 50.6 x 71.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 405945

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  • The Old Woman peeling Turnips appears to be set in a crude tavern, with customers drinking in the background, a roughly constructed bread oven in the left middle ground, and a servant or innkeeper’s wife at work in the foreground. The idea of the still life to the left would seem to be that of ‘poor plenty’: of an abundance of basic fare.

    This painting belong to a distinctive tradition, one of the most enduring within Dutch and Flemish (and even British) painting. The comic peasant interior goes back ultimately to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but his ideas were taken up again in the 1620s by a Flemish artist, Adriaen Brouwer (1605-38), who in a brief career worked in Haarlem in the northern Netherlands, as well as in Antwerp in the south, and whose works appealed alike to Rubens and Rembrandt. Brouwer invented the type of interior we encounter here: a barn-like hovel with dirt floor and wooden beamed ceiling poorly lit by a single, small shuttered window. The smoky drabness of these spaces can be appreciated by contrast with the high glass windows, stone floors and brightly decorated walls of a merchant’s house in paintings such as Jacob de Formentrou’s Cabinet of Pictures also in the Royal Collection. Brouwer depicted his interiors frontally (like a stage set) and peopled them with carousing and brawling boors. He suggested the uncertainty of peering into a drab and smoke-filled room by leaving visible the scrubbed pattern of the brown underpaint layer. Against this a single light source (usually to the left) picks out a haphazard assortment of objects across the foreground, realised in thicker and brighter (though still sketchily applied) paint. By the time of his death in 1638, Brouwer’s theme was material for a range of variations, in Holland by Adriaen van Ostade, Gerrit Dou (1613-75) and Rembrandt, and in Flanders by David Teniers the Younger.

    In this painting Teniers follows the formula precisely, making much of the picturesque textures of wood grain and daubed walls, while at the same time turning the foreground into an opportunity for a full still life. Teniers seems to give each foreground object a droplet of highlight from the window. This quality of light and technique creates a kind of interior aerial perspective. At the extreme front verge of the painting objects are light, brightly coloured, tactile, fully modelled and in every way illusionistically realised. As you move back in space objects become darker, drabber, flatter and more elusive, as if enveloped in dusk and smoke. The contrast in techniques required to achieve this effect was especially admired by Reynolds, who wrote in his Journey to Flanders and Holland in 1781 that Teniers’s handling ‘has perhaps never been equalled; there is in his pictures that exact mixture of softness and sharpness, which is difficult to execute’.

    The tradition of the Netherlandish ‘smoke-filled-room’ underwent an extraordinary revival in Britain at exactly the time that the Old Woman peeling Turnips (Royal Collection) was acquired (Sir Francis Baring bought it in 1802 and George IV in 1814). In 1806 Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841) painted his Blind Fiddler (Tate Gallery), a homage to Teniers; in 1810 and 1813 George IV commissioned two similar scenes from Wilkie (both Royal Collection): Blind Man’s Buff and Penny Wedding. Turner’s absurdly named A Country Blacksmith disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price charged to the Butcher for shoeing his Poney (Tate, London), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1807, is part Wilkie parody and part Teniers tribute.

    Signed lower right D TENIERS. F

    Catalogue entry adapted from Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting, London, 2007
    Provenance

    Purchased by George IV from Sir Thomas Baring as part of a group of 86 Dutch and Flemish paintings, most of which were collected by Sir Thomas’s father, Sir Francis Baring; they arrived at Carlton House on 6 May 1814; valued in 1819 at 500 guineas; previously belonged to Mary, Countess of Holderness.

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on panel

    Measurements

    50.6 x 71.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external)

    72.4 x 92.1 x 5.5 cm (frame, external)