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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) and The Milkmaid

The Milkmaid was painted by Johannes Vermeer in about 1657–58. The small picture (18 x 16 1/8 in. [45.5 x 41 cm]) could be described as one of the last works of the Delft artist’s formative years (ca. 1654–58), during which he adopted various subjects and styles from other painters and at the same time introduced effects based on direct observation and an exceptionally refined artistic sensibility.

Influenced by the detailed realism of Gerrit Dou (1613–1675) and his followers in Leiden, Vermeer created his most illusionistic image in The Milkmaid (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-2344). To modern viewers, the painting may seem almost photographic in its realism. However, the composition was very carefully designed. This is evident from several revisions made in the course of execution, and from the finished work’s subtle relationships of light and shadow, color, contours, and shapes. As in the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (89.15.21), of about 1662, Vermeer restricted his palette mainly to the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow, and he favored geometric shapes (in The Milkmaid, the right triangle formed by the figure and the table are balanced within the rectangle of the picture field). A low vantage point and a pyramidal buildup of forms from the left foreground to the woman’s head lend the figure monumentality and perhaps a sense of dignity. Indeed, several authors have speculated about the activity and character of the “milkmaid” (who is actually a kitchen maid pouring milk) in terms that would be more appropriate for a saint or an ancient heroine.

The steady performance of domestic chores was often praised in Dutch literature and pictures of the period. It has been suggested plausibly that Vermeer’s kitchen maid is making bread porridge, which puts stale bread—there is an unusual amount of bread on the table—to good use by combining it with milk and a few other ingredients to make a filling mash or meal. And yet, like milkmaids and kitchen maids in earlier Netherlandish art, and like other young women in Vermeer’s oeuvre, his kitchen maid was meant to encourage the male viewer’s amorous musings, and to have her own thoughts of romance.

To the lower right is a Delft tile depicting Cupid brandishing his bow. The box on the floor is a foot warmer with a pot of coals inside; foot warmers frequently suggest feminine desire in Dutch genre paintings (because they would heat not only feet but everything under a woman’s long skirt). To the right of the foot warmer is a Delft tile decorated with the image of a traveling man, to judge from his walking stick and knapsack. This may suggest that the woman is thinking of an absent lover. (The image on the Delft tile to the far right appears to be deliberately indecipherable.) Finally, in earlier Dutch and Flemish paintings of cooks and kitchen maids, including comparatively understated works by Dou, a pitcher tilted forward (as here) or held in some suggestive way refers to female anatomy (17.3.1771).

Vermeer may or may not have intended his pitcher as such an erotic allusion, but he certainly meant for the sophisticated viewer to recall earlier paintings of comely milkmaids and kitchen maids, and the reputation of milkmaids in particular for sexual availability. In real life, their impromptu suitors were often “proper” gentlemen, not social equals, and of course the intended viewer of this painting (and those by Dou) was not a servant but a man of society and a connoisseur. Compared with the sort of ideal women we see in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and other mature works by Vermeer, his “milkmaid” exudes a very earthy appeal, with her pushed-up sleeves (revealing pale skin normally covered), her ample form (similar to that of women in slightly earlier works by Rubens), and her faint smile. For a male viewer of the time (in this case, Vermeer’s patron Pieter van Ruijven), the hints of sexuality would have given the painting an element of fantasy as subtle as the shadows on the whitewashed walls.

In terms of style, The Milkmaid stands on the threshold between Vermeer’s early work and his mature style. In his earliest known paintings, Vermeer reviews various subjects and styles in Dutch art, as if considering alternative paths he might pursue. In Diana and Her Companions, of 1653–54 (Mauritshuis, The Hague), Vermeer, as might be expected of a young artist in Delft, treats a mythological subject in a manner favored at the nearby court in the Hague. Tales of Diana and her virginal band were popular with members of the Prince of Orange’s circle, partly because they enjoyed hunting and partly for the spectacle of nudes in nature. However, unlike court favorites like Gerrit van Honthorst and Jacob van Loo, Vermeer presents the goddess as chaste, her companions as loyal and serious, and the pregnant Callisto in the right background as ashamed.

In composition and to some extent in palette and execution, the mythological painting recalls Van Loo, but in Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, of about 1654–55 (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh), Vermeer emulated more famous masters: Hendrick ter Brugghen, the Caravaggesque master from Utrecht; and the internationally successful Fleming Anthony van Dyck. The white daylight and the sculptural figure of Mary in the foreground recall the Dutch painter, while the fluid folds, agitated contours, and elegant pose of Christ recall Van Dyck. Again, feminine virtue comes into question: the fussy hostess Martha as opposed to the deeply thoughtful Mary, of whom Christ gently approves.

The Procuress, dated 1656 (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden), looks back to bordello scenes that Van Honthorst painted in the 1620s, which were well known in Delft. But in the play of light, textures of cloth, still-life details, and especially in the figure on the left (a likely self-portrait), Vermeer’s interest in direct observation has become more intense. The same may be said for A Maid Asleep, of about 1656–57 (14.40.611), where Vermeer’s point of departure—in subject, the warm palette, the rich shadows, and the rectilinear design—was Nicolaes Maes, the former Rembrandt pupil who in the mid-1650s painted popular genre scenes in Dordrecht (somewhat south of Delft). Finally, in The Letter Reader, of about 1657 (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden), the exquisite young lady and her reflection are inspired by Gerard ter Borch the Younger, the most refined Dutch genre painter of the day. The illusionistic setting recalls Leiden masters such as Dou and Frans van Mieris, although the large scale of the canvas and the curtain in the foreground are typical of Delft (Hendrick van Vliet’s views of Delft church interiors often feature a curtain in the foreground, as if covering the painting itself).

In the pictures of about 1657, one senses Vermeer’s growing independence, although various artistic sources may still be named. The arrangement of the figures at a table and the receding window in the Officer and Laughing Girl (Frick Collection, New York) are ideas shared with Pieter de Hooch (29.100.7) in Delft, while Dou and the Leiden master Gabriël Metsu (1982.60.32) (who had a strong interest in naturalistic effects of light) come to mind in The Milkmaid. But in these illusionistic works, Vermeer reveals a new confidence: the compositions become simpler and more effective; the space recedes naturalistically, without any props at the picture plane; and the attention to effects of natural light are remarkably convincing. In The Milkmaid, tactile and optical sensations coexist: nowhere else in Vermeer’s oeuvre does one find such a sculptural figure and such seemingly tangible objects, and yet the future painter of luminous interiors has already arrived. As if conforming to the play between optical and tactile qualities throughout the picture, the pointillist pattern of bright dots on the bread and basket, Vermeer’s most effusive use of the scheme, suggests scintillating daylight and rough textures at the same time.

In later works, Vermeer would minimize the sensation of textures, volumes, and receding space (although there are a few conspicuous displays of linear perspective). The Museum’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and the slightly later Woman with a Lute (25.110.24) describe figures and interiors largely in terms of light and shadow; frontal forms are carefully balanced, to tranquil and contemplative effect. In a sense, it becomes more obvious that Vermeer creates idealized visions of reality, like dreams of what the next day would bring. But such a vision—close at hand and forever out of reach—is already seen in The Milkmaid.

The painting was probably purchased from the artist by his Delft patron Pieter van Ruijven, who at his death in 1674 appears to have owned twenty-one works by Vermeer. When these pictures were sold from the estate of Van Ruijven’s son-in-law Jacob Dissius, in 1696, The Milkmaid was described as “exceptionally good” and brought the second highest price in the sale (Vermeer’s celebrated cityscape, View of Delft (Mauritshuis), was slightly more expensive). “The famous milkmaid, by Vermeer of Delft, artful,” was auctioned in 1719 and then went through at least five Amsterdam collections to one of the great woman collectors of Dutch art, Lucretia Johanna van Winter (1785–1845). In 1822, she married into the Six family of collectors, and it was from the heirs of Lucretia’s two sons that the Rijksmuseum, in 1908, purchased The Milkmaid, with support from the Dutch government and the Rembrandt Society.