1559; Oil on wood, 172.5 x 82 cm; Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
Firmly positioned in front of the imposing chimney-piece, the cook stands surrounded by the food she is preparing to cook: voluminous cabbages in a basket, and fowls and a leg of meat skewered on a spit which she holds firmly in one hand, whilst with the other she grabs a skimming ladle. The sculptural silhouette with its powerful arms, its solid body and vigorously modelled face radiates a strong sense of assurance. The fact that she is looking towards the unseen part of the room suggests that something is going on there that the viewer is unable to see. Pieter Aertsen made use several times of this form of composition in which a single, solidly-built figure occupies the entire panel in a vertical which accentuates his or her solidity. This is an invention by the artist, which although originating in the foregrounds of the works of Jan van Hemessen, has no real precedent in the Antwerp painting of the period.
Even though he never painted a picture not containing a human figure, Pieter Aertsen played an essential role in the emergence of the still-life by granting a dominating place to objects and to victuals, which he represents in all their triviality. Whilst every element appears to have been observed with attention to real-life detail, the image has nonetheless been recomposed in the studio. What cook would place small fowls and a heavy leg of lamb on the same spit? We also find the same kitchen utensils, furniture and victuals, differently interlinked, in many of the artist's compositions. Whilst the household objects are drawn from life, the classical lines of the chimney are taken from the architectural treaty of the Italian Sebastiano Serlio, whom Aertsen would have known from the Antwerp edition of his works in 1549.
The total absence of religious subject matter, which still underlay all genre scenes at the time, is another stroke of daring by the painter, even if 16th century viewers would have immediately recognised, in the cook, the Martha of the gospel narrative, who is busy preparing the meal whilst her sister Mary is listening to Christ's words. This image also has a moralising content and should be read as a warning against the dangers of the pleasures of the flesh, "voluptas carnis".