Gabriël Metsu (Dutch, 1629–1667)
Oil on wood
10 7/8 x 8 7/8 in. (27.6 x 22.5 cm)
The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982 (1982.60.32)
This type of composition was called a nisstuk or vensternis ("niche-piece" or "window-niche") in the seventeenth century. Popularized in Leiden by Gerrit Dou (1613–1675), these pictures created the impression of peeking into private homes and provided the opportunity to display illusionistic effects. In its scale, careful description of objects, and illusionism, The Milkmaid responds to the work of Leiden artists, among whom Metsu is the most comparable with Vermeer in his treatment of light.
The figure wears fine clothing, a white apron, tasteful makeup and jewelry, and a satisfied expression. She is a housewife not a maid, and the picture pays routine tribute to domestic virtue. Motifs such as the birdcage and the "fruitful vine" (from Psalm 128) indicate contented confinement in the home and attachment to a husband. In this context, peeling apples may suggest chastity (recalling the Virgin as the New Eve) as well as wifely duty, and the butterflies may refer to the soul. The book could be religious or secular but is surely intended for edification.