“God walks among the pots and pans.” St. Teresa of Avila
Early Sunday morning. Skies the color of slate, and slate-colored rain pouring down. Late August in Denmark, but as wet and cold as late November in California. Except for a woman in red tennis shoes walking a tiny black dog, there’s not another soul on the streets in Vesterbro while I wait, shivering, for the number 14 bus. Then I’m the only passenger, still shivering, as the bus splashes through the streets to the foggy green and deserted Østre Anlæg Park. Where in the world is everyone this morning? In church? Certainly not in the Hirschprung Museum. Only an elderly couple shares with me the empty galleries. The man and woman appear to be in their late seventies, if not older. They act tenderly toward each other. She is taller, but that’s perhaps because his shoulders are so stooped. Water drips from their gray coats, like water from my black one. Rain pounding on the roof makes it sound like we’re inside a drum.
Gradually a glow of sunlight illuminates us. It’s not a burst of light on the road to Damascus, but still, it’s a revelation. The clouds of Copenhagen have not evaporated, raindrops still rattle down. But here inside the museum light radiates from a small painting; its gravitational field pulls me and the two strangers into its orbit.
One of the gifts of museums is that they can nudge us into spaces and times other than the ones we happen to be in — in this case, into northern Europe, into a past none of us are old enough to remember. Another thing: looking at artworks requires patience. Paintings and sculptures insist that, in contrast to the hurry and bustle of the rest of our lives, we need to slow down and pay attention. So let’s pause for a moment with our two elderly companions in front of this painting. What are we looking at here?
A narrow, shadowy kitchen, a partially opened door and the shimmer of sunlight on a wall. Light filters into the room through a yellow curtain. In the foreground there’s a wooden bench with some vegetables. A woman with her back to us works intently, perhaps preparing a meal, perhaps cleaning up the remains of one. Perhaps both.
We can’t see her face or her hands, and the limits of photography don’t permit us to penetrate the shadows around her feet. In the the light of the museum however, her ankles and clogs are clearly revealed. So is her blouse, which in the photograph appears black, but in the painting is an iridescent ultramarine blue–a darker mixture of the same blue that medieval painters used exclusively for the robes of the Virgin Mary.
The countertop itself can stand alone as a masterpiece of light and color that rivals the work of any of the French Impressionists. Look at the pitcher and at the other objects on the sideboard and at the splash of yellow on the wall, then at the cool, blue light coming into the room from the open door, then at the subtle dark stripes near the hem of the maid’s skirt and then at the cool gray shadows beneath the sink. The angle of the bench, with its slightly out-of-focus carrots, cabbages and fish, draws our eyes back into the center of the composition and creates a small still-life masterpiece within this larger masterpiece.
The web of light that envelops the maid in the kitchen and has entranced the three of us in the museum gradually weakens. The elderly couple are visitors from Poland. We don’t share a common language except the gestures of hands and the good will of a smile. We drift apart into other galleries, but an hour later I return alone to encounter the maid in the kitchen once again.
In contrast to well-known French artists of the late 19th century, like Berthe Morisot, the works of Northern European artists, like Anna Ancher (1859-1935) remain largely unknown and neglected by most art historians. The artists have been overlooked because they painted in what were then Scandinavian backwaters, not in France. Women artists in general have been ill-judged because they painted “feminine” subjects– interiors and images of women reading or sewing or tending to the lives of children. And neglected because, as we all know, they were women. (As an artist, I sometimes I think that the world’s biggest blockheads are art historians; that is, until I consider clergymen and politicians.)
But what about the maid? The artist, Anna Ancher, is not well-known, but on the web you can learn something about her life. The maid’s name we will never know. And so I wonder, who was she, and why would Anna Ancher bother to paint her? We can presume that the master and his wife and and their children live in another part of the house. The maid is a servant in the kitchen. Servants have lives too, but most artists ignore them and their lives, with notable exceptions like Vermeer, Chardin and Velázquez. Why? Becase they are women? Mere servants? Why did Anna Ancher paint the maid instead of the master?
It’s a question I wish I could answer. But I thank the painter for making me remember Jane Doherty, born in 1884, a year after this masterwork was painted. She emigrated from the poverty of Northern Ireland to the promise of Western Canada during the early days of the First World War in order to care for the homestead in Alberta that had been established by two of her older emigrant brothers, also drawn to the promise of a better world across the sea. Both of them were killed in the war. Eventually she became my grandmother. As a girl she had worked as a maid, scrubbing dishes and peeling potatoes, the same menial work as the maid in the painting, serving the master and his family. Servant and subservient. Jane did not have an artist to paint her, but at least in Anna Ancher’s painting, her work, the work of maids and the anonymity of their lives, is a reality for us in our hurry and bustle to ponder.
Velázquez would admire this painting; so would Chardin and Berthe Morisot and Vermeer– and the Spanish mystic. As I walked out of the museum into the rain, the Polish couple waved as they got into a taxi. Fog still swirled in deserted Østre Anlæg Park. I turned up my collar and thought: to be touched by Anna Ancher as gently on my damp sleeve as a drop of sunlight–for this I have come to Copenhagen.