Sorgh was a prominent painter in his native Rotterdam, known for domestic interiors that combine elements of still life and genre painting. Here, two kitchen maids prepare a meal, their diligent activity contrasted with the amorous couple just visible between them. On the far right, a cat peers into a tub of fish, adding a further note of mischief to the scene. Contemporary viewers would have found such elements as the birdcage, plucked poultry, and earthenware pots erotically suggestive, at the same time as they might admire Sorgh’s skill in capturing surface effects.
This typical domestic scene dates from about 1643, when Sorgh painted a number of similar subjects. The background was quite thinly painted, and has become more transparent with age and with overcleaning in the past. Technical examination and conservation treatment in 2004 helped to clarify the composition, and permitted study of various changes made by the artist in the course of execution.
Two kitchen maids work in the bright light of a tall window. Ivy and an open shutter are seen outside. The standing maid, a fair young woman in green and white, is busy peeling apples, while the kneeling maid, in green and mauve, cleans fish on an overturned tub. The apple peeler's smile may be a response to private thoughts, to the cat inspecting fish fillets in the pot on the right, or to words spoken by the couple at the fireplace. These figures, which Sorgh borrowed from A Barn Interior with an Amorous Couple (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam) and squeezed in between the maids, have become less distinct in the course of time. They were not painted out by the artist and then revealed at a later date.
Sorgh used a door, some plates on a shelf, and a few hanging objects (one of which is a grilling rack) to define the sun-washed surface of the rear wall. A spiral staircase in the right background once played an important part in suggesting interior space. The two forms that hang from the rafters would also have enhanced the impression of depth. The dead game bird on a hook close to the window is suspended from the nearest visible beam, and a birdcage with a parrot(?) hangs at a distance that is two beams farther back. These markers in space complement the recessions of the wall on the left, the ceiling boards, and the floor tiles. The tiles are based on a perspective scheme drawn on the prepared panel and then revised.
At an earlier stage of the composition, a man in a cap stood in the area just beyond the cat, bent over a large round object that he holds in his hands. Such a figure is familiar from contemporary works by Sorgh, such as A Kitchen Interior of about 1643 (Museum Stiftung Jakob Briner, Rathaus, Winterthur) where a young man comes into the kitchen with a basket of fish for sale. This may have been the original object of the kneeling woman's glance, and perhaps even the reason for her companion's smile. Kitchen maids had a reputation for entertaining male visitors, and the offer of fish or fowl was often meant as an erotic metaphor. Phallic and seemingly feminine forms, like ladles and pots, and the inclusion of a birdcage might underscore the message. It appears that Sorgh initially intended to describe a more suggestive situation, which he then confined to the awkwardly placed couple in the background. In a much less significant change, the woman by the window was moved slightly, as the dark zone along her left contour suggests. The object on the wall by the window is an iron candleholder, and the dark lines over the mantel are rotisserie spits.
The simple title by which this painting has been known for more than a century is, unusually, completely in accord with seventeenth-century descriptions. Works ranging from large, complicated compositions by Pieter Aertsen (1507/8–1575) to pictures by Sorgh and by followers of Gerrit Dou were commonly listed in inventories as "a kitchen" (een keuken).
[2016; adapted from Liedtke 2007]
W. H. Aspinwall, New York (by 1860–d. 1875; cat., [between 1856 and 1860], no. 51; his estate, 1875–86; his estate sale, Chickering Hall, New York, April 6, 1886, no. 12, for $600 to Marquand); Henry G. Marquand, New York (1886–89)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Collection of Dutch and Flemish Paintings by Old Masters, Owned by Mr. Charles Sedelmeyer," Winter 1886–87, no. 21 [Some works in this exhibition are marked in the catalogue: Owner, Mr. Henry G. Marquand. This picture is not, but this is probably an error.].
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Exhibition of 1888–89," 1888–89, no. 33 (as "Dutch Interior").
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Vermeer's Masterpiece 'The Milkmaid'," September 9–November 29, 2009, no. 5.
Descriptive Catalogue of the Pictures in the Gallery of W. H. Aspinwall, No. 99 Tenth Street, New-York. [New York], [between 1856 and 1860], p. 23, no. 51, as "Dutch Interior".
Walter A. Liedtke. "Toward a History of Dutch Genre Painting II: The South Holland Tradition." The Age of Rembrandt: Studies in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting. Ed. Roland E. Fleischer and Susan Scott Munshower. [University Park, Pa.], 1988, p. 102, fig. 5-20, reports Liane Schneeman's dating of about 1645.
Walter Liedtke. "Dutch Paintings in America: The Collectors and Their Ideals." Great Dutch Paintings from America. Exh. cat., Mauritshuis, The Hague. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1990, p. 36.
Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, p. 356; vol. 2, pp. 832–34, no. 194, colorpl. 194, fig. 240 (infrared reflectogram mosaic), dates it about 1643.
Walter Liedtke. Vermeer: The Complete Paintings. Antwerp, 2008, pp. 33, 78, figs. 24, 7d (overall and detail).
Walter Liedtke. "The Milkmaid" by Johannes Vermeer. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2009, pp. 8, 20, 29, no. 5, colorpl. 5, fig. 7 (color detail).