Pieter Aertsen’s (1508-1575) The Market Woman with Vegetable Stall (fig. 1) features a gleaming, pulsing heap of vegetables that appears to spill out into the viewer’s space. The seller opens her arms and invites us to behold nature’s bounty: we cannot help but think of the taste, texture and smell in addition to the obvious visual appeal. Every grape reflects light individually, sharing the space with leafy, papery cabbages, various warped and twisting root vegetables, and chalky apricots whose matte rendering recalls fuzzy, dusty skin. Bumpy, gnarled surfaces nestle up against their glossy counterparts, and crimson flirts freely with emerald, mauve and orange. The vibrant, frolicking colours, light and textures meld into a veritable symphony that stops just short of engaging the viewer’s every sense; the only obstacle is the surface of the canvas.
How does Aertsen manage to verge so closely upon the “real?” What was it about this work and others like it that made them so familiar to contemporary viewers and their daily lived experiences? And finally, what greater purpose did this “realism” serve? In order to begin trying to answer these questions, I will consider the market and kitchen paintings of Aertsen and his nephew and student, Joachim Beuckelaer (1533-1574)…. PDF