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Special Exhibition—Vermeer's Masterpiece: The Milkmaid

Exhibition curator Walter Liedtke discusses the unique patronage of Johannes Vermeer and its influence on the artistic and psychological aesthetic of The Milkmaid and other works by the artist.


Walter Liedtke: Hello, I'm Walter Liedtke, curator of European Paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we're talking about the exhibition Vermeer's Masterpiece: The Milkmaid, which will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum from September 10 through November 29, 2009.

And the reason for this exhibition right now is it's the four hundredth anniversary—actually the week of our opening, the second week of September in 2009—of Henry Hudson's sail to the island of Manhattan on behalf of the Dutch. And Henry Hudson was an English sea captain but he was hired by the East India Company in Amsterdam, a merchant marine, to discover a "northwest passage," as it was called even in those days, to Asia, to see if you could actually sail westward across the Atlantic and make it all the way to China somehow.

And he sailed up the river that now, of course, bears his name, the Hudson River—they called it the North River optimistically—and he got as far as Albany and realized it was too shallow to do that. But it was on the basis of Hudson's sail that the island of Manhattan was settled by the Dutch in 1624. It was called New Amsterdam in the colony of New Netherland and it remained a Dutch settlement until 1664, when the English seized it by force and named it New York.

We are one of several New York institutions celebrating this four hundredth anniversary this year. It was the Rijksmuseum itself, which is really a rather gratifying thing, that said, "Why don't we send you what is really the most famous painting in the Netherlands?" If you just walk up to any person at random in the Netherlands and say, even in English, The Milkmaid, or in Dutch, Melkmeisje, they will immediately think of this image, this picture by Vermeer.

This is the first time that The Milkmaid has been in America, except for its presence at the famous New York World's Fair of 1939 to '40, in a show called "Masterpieces of Art," which was just works from around the world to celebrate that occasion.

And this is really a wonderful gesture on the part of the Rijksmuseum to another great museum—the City of Amsterdam to the City of New York on its birthday—and from the Dutch government and people to the people of the United States and whatever the many visitors we have in New York City during the fall of 2009.

The Milkmaid is a fairly early work by Vermeer and it should be said right away that there's only thirty-six paintings by Vermeer, and in the Metropolitan Museum we're blessed to have five of them, more than any other institution. And of course New York has three more at the Frick Collection, half a mile down Fifth Avenue. The Frick paintings, however, can never be lent. In this exhibition, we're setting The Milkmaid in a broader context by putting our five Vermeers with it and seven other Dutch pictures of about the same time, most of them from Vermeer's city of Delft, although not exclusively.

We have a painting that probably immediately precedes it, and that's A Maid Asleep of about 1656 or '57 in the Altman Collection of the Met. And that is probably Vermeer's first painting of the subject that's so typical for him: a young, attractive woman in a private domestic interior, and she is actually a maid, as is the kitchen maid in the so-called Milkmaid. It should be said that the title is a bit poetic, because she happens to be a kitchen maid pouring milk. A milkmaid would be a person who actually milks the cows out in the fields, brings it to the towns, and sells it door to door, or in the market. In any case, both pictures represent domestic servants and both of them were acquired by a single patron in Delft who bought about half of everything that Vermeer did in the span of some twenty years. His name was Pieter van Ruijven. He was a minor nobleman and we know that in 1657 he lends to Vermeer and his young wife five hundred guilders—which is a very unusual thing for a nobleman to do with a young artist—and it's almost certain that what that really was was an advance on pictures to get Vermeer started, give him a little funding, and pay in advance for the right of first refusal, probably, for some of Vermeer's work.

In any case, that painting, A Maid Asleep, The Milkmaid, and the Cavalier and Young Woman in the Frick Collection, which is also about 1657, were listed in this collector's son-in-law's estate in the 1690s when these twenty-one Vermeers were sold in Amsterdam.

This is an extraordinary circumstance where Vermeer can actually talk to the owner of the pictures, the direct buyer. So many of these, especially these fashionable scenes of everyday life, but also minor landscapes, still lifes, etc.—most Dutch painters worked for an open market and their paintings were sold through middlemen to people they never knew. But most of Vermeer's work went to somebody that he knew very well who gradually had this couple of dozen Vermeers around the house and he could go from one to the other and see how themes varied and so on. And Vermeer could be much more allusive, suggestive, subtle in his meanings than the average Dutch painter. And this is what we see in Vermeer, in terms of narrative or imagery. It's much more poetry rather than prose: a maid asleep at a table is dreaming probably about a boyfriend and there are little hints in the picture. She looks sort of tipsy and dreamy and drowsy. And all of this is so much more evocative and suggestive and psychological than the average Dutch picture would be.

Similarly The Milkmaid itself looks like and is an earthy young woman who is pouring milk from a pitcher into a bowl on a table. And on the table, sparkling wonderfully in sunlight pouring in the window, is an extraordinary amount of bread—several loaves and smaller rolls broken up. She is probably making something called "bread porridge," which is the way you make use of bread when it goes stale, and you make it into a kind of mush with some seasoning and so on. And it becomes a kind of unsweetened cereal that is the basic staple of the Dutch diet; any kind of bread is, in this period. And Vermeer is gradually accumulating, eventually, eleven girls and three boys in this household. At this point he's probably only got four children and a wife and a mother-in-law, but that's still a fairly big house.  

So the woman's doing something quite practical, but she is smiling subtly. She seems to be musing about something other than what she's doing, like we all do when we perform routine household tasks. And then to the lower right of this figure we see a row of Delft tiles at the baseboard of the rear wall behind her. And right next to her is this figure of Cupid, with his bow held out in front of him. And to the other side of a foot warmer on the floor is the image of a standing man with a walking stick and what appears to be a backpack. And there's this third Delft blue-and-white tile and the design on that is really illegible, and I think that's deliberately so.

So there's this juxtaposition of a milkmaid, a Cupid, and the figure of a wandering man, it seems. And between them the foot-warmer itself, which consists of a pot of hot coals shoved into a wooden box that's perforated on the top so you can rest your feet on it. And this was a very common symbol of amorous feelings in women especially, I suppose because they would rest their feet on top of the foot warmer when it was cold and all that warmth would go up their skirts and this was read in a kind of suggestive way at the time. There are many Dutch paintings of amorous subjects in which a foot warmer occurs. And all of that suggests that romance is in the air for the milkmaid. And you also need to know that there is this long tradition of kitchen maids and milkmaids in earlier Dutch art and poetry and the popular imagination, thinking of milkmaids and kitchen maids as physically available young ladies.

Now when you look at the painting by Vermeer, you might really object to this line of thought, because it is by no means obvious. And I don't think that's all there is to it—that, you know, the milkmaid's a kind of sex object. Vermeer is aware that his viewer is going to be aware of that long tradition. So he benefits from this reputation and artistic tradition to just subtly suggest that romance is on the mind of the milkmaid. He's really approaching young ladies in romantic situations with a lot of thought for how they feel about it and how their expressions and body languages are affected by that.

It's interesting that a painting that was made for a very sophisticated private collector, treating a fairly common theme but in an unusual and very sophisticated way, is now such a broadly popular work, probably the single most famous painting in the Netherlands after The Night Watch by Rembrandt, which is a totally different kind of thing, a big public picture of a civic guard company in Amsterdam. And this is a single kitchen maid in a private interior. And this woman is so admired that you see countless sort of photographic or other analogies to it and there's even a sculpture on the streets in Delft, life-size, of the milkmaid and her table, translated into a kind of concrete abstraction, but perfectly recognizable. And I think that since probably the early nineteenth century, certainly since 1850 or so, the milkmaid has been seen as a kind of heroine of the people, a working-class woman who is extremely diligent, who runs a good household for the owner of the house, who performs hard work on a daily basis, happily so; who's very good at her job, and earthy, and a good, straightforward person. American viewers identified with that kind of subject strongly in the nineteenth century.

I think I'm the first scholar of Dutch art to write about The Milkmaid as something romantic. And there's examples of people writing books on Vermeer who give it a very different spin. That's not wrong, but it's important to know what people thought about the picture in its own day. And the fact that this painting, which is now visited daily by thousands of people in Amsterdam, was not seen that way originally. It went to one person's house and was essentially seen by one private collector and that's true for most paintings by Vermeer.

A very important aspect of this picture—we've said a lot about the subject—but I think the first thing a collector would notice in its day is its astonishing illusionism. And within the scope of Vermeer's work, he, of course, is famous for naturalistic daylight, atmosphere, kind of soft-focus forms, figures, objects set in space, which make it all look like a convincing vision. We speak of a kind of optical approach to reality rather than a tactile one. But this particular Vermeer, a kind of early transitional work—it's something you feel like you can touch the bread, you can touch the figure, which is one of his most sculptural, and you can also see very convincingly the sense of daylight coming in the window on the left. And there's this very clever little hole, a crack in the window that shows you the intensity of daylight outside, and then it plays along the whitewashed wall in the background and in the much damper shadowy wall which recedes on the left. It behaves differently on the different vessels on the table (earthenware), the copper pail, the wicker basket on the wall, and, of course, the very grainy texture of bread.

And I think the collector of the day, more than in the nineteenth century when photography was introduced, would know that this high degree of illusionism is actually a stroke of genius on the part of the artist. It's an artistic alternative. Today we think of art, in a way, as opposed to photographic reality but in Vermeer's day, it was understood as a new style and a creation of the artist. So all of this illusionism, realism, would have been dwelled upon by the collector as an example of artistic virtuosity and genius.

He may also have known enough—certainly Vermeer's fellow artists would have noticed—that this composition, which seems so naturalistic that you feel like you've just walked through a kitchen door and there is reality itself in front of you—but given a little time, you see that this picture is really put together very carefully in artistic terms. The recession of the table from the lower left corner up to the head of the milkmaid forms a right triangle which is within a rectangle of the composition. And then you have the table, the floor, the window to the left, these various rectangles that balance the triangular figure of the maid. And we see this all from a very low point of view, which is just above the pitcher in the woman's hand; her higher hand is holding the pitcher over the table. And that low point of view gives us the feeling that if we imagine ourselves in the scene, we're in a chair in the foreground seated at the table and the milkmaid is really rising above us.

There's also the color, of course, which is essentially the primaries: yellow, red, blue. The only mixture is the green sleeves on the milkmaid. All of this creates a sense of peace and harmony and tranquility. But the way the milkmaid rises like a monument above our eye level gives her a commanding presence, a kind of dignity, which makes our attraction to her earthy physique kind of complicated. We think we can go in and, you know, strike up a conversation and get to know her. And at the same time, we're sort of intimidated by this figure who knows exactly what she's about and is too busy for our romantic overtures.

And so, I should say finally that the Dutch in this day, in the 1650s and after that, called these pictures conversation pieces, conversatiestukken. And the English picked up that term later and changed its meaning somewhat. But everything I've been saying was what you were supposed to be doing in front of a picture in the 1650s—is stand in front of it for a long time and figure it out and savor the artistic and psychological nuances of it.

Vermeer's Masterpiece: The Milkmaid is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from September 10 through November 29, 2009.

The exhibition is made possible by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, Daphne Recanati Kaplan and Thomas S. Kaplan, and Bernard and Louise Palitz.

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