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.)

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