Great Works: The Bean Eater (1580/90) Annibale Carracci

Galleria Colonna, Rome

Class is an issue in art, as in everywhere. But it isn't always obvious how it makes itself felt. When it comes to speech, and to an extent writing, then as the song in My Fair Lady says, "An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him/ The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him" – though of course there are accent and diction distinctions in other languages. But what about pictures? Can you class-classify brushwork? Are there accent and diction in the way people paint?

Class is easy enough to spot when it comes to subject matter. Around the start of the 17th century, for example, low-class characters appear prominently in religious scenes by Caravaggio and in kitchen scenes by the young Velazquez. What's usually said about these characters is that they're imbued with dignity, and so they are. But that's not the only way of doing it.

Take Annibale Carracci's The Bean Eater. A peasant having his lunch? It's hard to tell how far this painting is a documentary record of contemporary life, how far it's a slightly improved version. This man eats and drinks well. But the milieu is evidently meant to be rough. Look at the crumbling plaster on the brickwork of the window. Look at the splitting brim of his straw hat, his bared chest.

Maybe his diet of beans has behind it a timeless fart joke. Certainly the way he's caught in the very act of eating has some gross humour. And to be shown open-mouthed, and as a visibly messy eater – his spoon stops between bowl and mouth, and a slurp of juice drops from it – is to go a notch further.

He catches our eye. What seems to have interrupted him, mid-mouthful, is the presence of the viewer. It's an unusually intimate bit of staging, as the table is brought right up to the front of the picture. It's as if you were seated directly opposite the eater, almost sharing his meal with this fellow.

So Carracci doesn't present us with a dignified representation of a peasant. It's a rude image, whose pleasure is to thrust a close-up of low life into the face of the polite viewer – a polite viewer can be assumed – with a mild shock effect. But there's another class marker.

Think of a Caravaggio or an early Velazquez. They have low-class characters. They have tabletops, with food and vessels. There's a Caravaggio – The Supper at Emmaus in the National Gallery – with a loaf of bread almost identical to the one in The Bean Eater. Compare those loaves, then. A difference becomes clear.

It's in the way they're painted. You might call it a difference of style, or equally of accent. It's essentially a difference between the smooth and the rough. Caravaggio and Velazquez paint the solidity of things and bodies, their transitions from light to shade, with smooth gradations. The subjects may be low but the brushwork is polished, finished. It's partly what does the dignity.

Carracci's manner is coarse and homespun. His painting is scratchy and broken. Light meets shade abruptly. His forms are edged with black outlines – look at the beans, the fingernails. They're half-finished, half sketched.

This isn't a register in which you do dignity. You might do mockery with it, or a kind of hearty sympathy. Whichever, it's a class-conscious style. The picture is painted in a dialect that matches – we're to feel – its subject. It's how the bean eater would have painted himself.

About the artist

Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) was the most versatile visual artist of his time. Born in Bologna, active in Rome, he worked in styles high and low. He made comic pictures of peasants and butcher's shops, and elevated frescos of mythological panoramas, reviving the High Renaissance manner. He invented the genre of Ideal Landscape, and made some of the earliest experiments in graphic caricature. He devised a series of picture riddles, like the one where you have a horizontal line, with a semi-circle and a triangle resting on it. (What's this? A mason's head and his trowel appearing just above a wall.)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition