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Art term

Baroque, Rococo

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Art UK


Women, Servants

The Scullery Maid (1738)
by Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin (1699–1779)

Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: H 45.7 x W 36.9 cm

At the time this was painted, images of everyday people were not very popular. However, the French artist Chardin was known for finding beauty in the commonplace, and his elevation of this humble domestic scene is no exception. The maid washes utensils in a drab interior dominated by a large wooden barrel that competes with an exquisitely rendered copper pot. Chardin shows off his artistic skill in bringing a multitude of textures to life.

How many different textures can you find? How does the artist convey different materials so convincingly? The maid's bent pose and scrubbing arm gesture suggests intense labour but is this an image of work, or, a break from it? Who is she thinking about, and what clues can we spot to suggest she is thinking about anyone? The discreet use of blue in an otherwise drab palette is interesting, isn't it?

The Scullery Maid

The Scullery Maid

Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow


Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

Show your students this painting and ask them: Are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe the figure and what's going on in the foreground and around them.

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views.  

Tip: in class, use the zoom feature on the image below to look closer at details. You can open a full-screen version by clicking here.



Stage 2: nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • How has the character and identity of the person in the painting been expressed?
  • What is she doing at this particular moment in time? If we entered the room, would we be interrupting her? Would she notice?
  • Do her clothes tell us anything about her character? Does her facial expression, in profile, tell us how she is feeling?
  • Important elements often feature in the middle of a painting, can you spot anything small enough to miss if it was anywhere else in the composition?

Suggested activity: a picture's worth a thousand words

Remove the painting from display. Whilst it's not visible, ask your students to work in pairs to write down as many words as they can think of to describe the picture, including details they can see and words that describe what the figure might be thinking and feeling. Give them around five minutes to do this.

Once time is up, display the painting again and discuss the words they jotted down as a class. What words were most common? Were any unusual or new to some of the class? What do these new words mean? Are there any features of the painting that the class didn’t describe? Why might this be?

Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions about the work and spark a discussion.  

We'd suggest focusing on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):




Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.


Comparison activity

Watch and discuss the following film in which jazz musician and broadcaster, YolanDa Brown, uses her Superpower of Looking on Pieter de Hooch's 1663 oil painting A Boy Bringing Bread at the Wallace Collection in London.



Once your students have watched the film, ask them to compare The Scullery Maid with A Boy Bringing Bread.

You may wish to use the following areas of the Superpower Kit to support discussion: Space, Light and Figures.

Cross-curricular activity: English

Extend into an English lesson by tasking your students to write a creative response to one of the works in this lesson. Ask them to write a first-person story or monologue exploring what one of the figures is thinking. Encourage them to relate their written piece back to details in the painting that may give some clues to the person's back story. For instance, with The Scullery Maid, they may wish to provide answers to the following questions in their creative response:

  • What could the key hanging from her necklace open?
  • Why does the blue of her ribbon necklace match the blue of her skirt, visible under her work apron?
  • What might she be planning to do after she has finished cleaning the pots and pans?

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