Summary

'Cookmaid' and market scenes, popular in the seventeenth century, evolved in the Low Countries from a genre practised by Pieter Aertsen (c.1533-c.1573) and his pupil Joachim Beuckalaer, which combined contemporary kitchen scenes with a New Testament episode beyond. Bacon could have seen such works on a visit he made to the Low Countries in 1613.

An inventory of 1659 connected to the will of the artist's wife lists 'Ten Great peeces in Wainscote of fish and fowle &c done by S:r Nath: Bacon' (quoted in Gervase Jackson-Stops, ed., The Treasure Houses of Britain, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC 1985, p.140). Two other 'Cookmaid' pictures are known to exist: Cookmaid with Still Life of Game and Cookmaid with Still Life of Birds, both in the possession of the artist's descendants. The Tate's work is possibly part of this group. Such groups were often intended to depict the four seasons or the twelve months of the year. In the case of this piece, however, although every item represented in the painting was grown in England at the time, not all would have been in season simultaneously. Bacon, according to a letter dated 19 June [1626], was growing melons at his estate in East Anglia, and he was known to have a keen interest in horticulture. The subject would most likely have had erotic connotations. The abundance of ripe melons surrounding the cookmaid echo her voluptuous cleavage.

Further reading:
Karen Hearn (ed.), Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1995, p.220, reproduced p.221 in colour

Terry Riggs
October 1997