Critical Assessments: The Milkmaid

The Milkmaid

c. 1658-1661
Oil on canvas
45.5 x 41 cm. (17 7/8 x 16 1/8 in.)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Vermeer, Lawrence Gowing

Lawrence Gowing

Vermeer
London
1950, pp. 109- 112

The Maidservant (The Milkmaid) has on the surface some resemblance to the painting of Vermeer's predecessors, but both the plan of the picture and the refined style of representation belong to his maturity. The detail of life is rendered here as a bare map of the incidence of light. The optical vocabulary becomes at once so convincing and complete that it is not always recognized how deep is the change, how unexplained in this head for instance the accent of the cheek, how unexpected the omission of drawing at the base of the nose and across the expanse of shadow. There is a wide gulf between this confident manner and the head of the Laughing Girl. The maid's left arm, as comparison with the passage in the Edinburgh picture demonstrates, draws from its contour neither form nor supporting detail; the record of tone is bare of the structural modeling of the Dresden Letter Reader. The other arm, equally independent of convention, of necessity relies more on its defining outline, and round it are visible, strangely, the pentimenti which rarely occur in the painter's work.

The Maidservant has been a favourite picture of those who have seen Vermeer as a simple precursor of Chardin and of Corot. It is perhaps largely in the interests of a uniform progression, in whichever direction, that it has commonly been counted among his early works. Few have followed Dr. Valentiner to the extreme, in dating the picture two years before The Procuress. There is in fact little reason in the view of Vermeer's development as a steady and elegant decline. For all the weight and continuity of modeling in the Maidservant its beauty lies as much in the elements which contradict them. It is perhaps only the radical change of method, approaching an abdication of the traditional demands upon painters to know and understand, that allows the painter "here to make his single frontal assault on the problem of physical immediacy which lies at the heart of his development. We may imagine a mood of confidence, a liberation; the boldness does not quite agree with his temperament and it is possible to prefer the tender yet inflexible system of tone against which he balances the magnetism of the Lacemaker. In the Maidservant he treats a common subject of genre painting in previous decades, following precisely the pattern of Gerard Dou (upper right). The lustrous simplicity with which he handles the material of commonplace things pays another distant tribute to Carel Fabritius. But the vision that emerges is his own.

Vermeer's deliberation and his reserve complicate greatly the study of his development. He often reverts to his sources or appears to repeat himself, and as often foreshadows elements of his meaning which are not to come to fruition until a later phase. His colour, his subject matter, even his handling of paint are so deliberately contrived that they may well mislead the historian accustomed to artists who readily reveal themselves. Nevertheless his technical evolution yields certain useful historical criteria and one in particular concerns us here. In the early pictures Vermeer's touch is never without descriptive purpose. Even in the Street each fleck of paint palpably constitutes leaves or mortar. But in succeeding pictures the pointillés loses its function of representation; the touch which has embroidered the sleeve of the Letter Reader gains its independence. Granules of light are scattered irrespective of the textures on which they lie (lower right). There is no plainer sign of Vermeer's direction, his movement of withdrawal from the substantial world. At some point, probably at a time a little after the completion of the Street, paint revealed its capacity to provide a glittering, barely relevant commentary of light. Once discovered, the device, so germane to the essence of Vermeer's thought, is hardly used except in its fullest form.

There is no doubt that the Maidservant dates from after this crucial development. By how long we can hardly tell; the development may have been achieved in this very picture. In the Maidservant light collects into pearly globules. The surface of the bread is lost under a separate crust of incandescence. On the skirt, where it is gathered at the waist, the points of paint lie like jewels, lending the cloth an independent and immaterial luster. The picture must belong to Vermeer's full development, as a broader view of it was enough to suggest, to the phase, that is to say, of the View of Delft rather than that of the Street. For a more precise indication of its date we may compare it with the Berlin drinking scene, the first conversation piece in which points of paint have a similar independence. The clotted paint which is so conspicuous here appears again in the lady's bodice. Her skirt shows just such forms as that of the Maidservant; they do not appear in Vermeer's work again. Perhaps the two pictures were not painted far apart.

The use of Vermeer's pointillés continues with increasing economy and refinement in later works; they are absent only in the modest style in which the jeweled subjects of the pearl pictures are set. Finally even this concession to the natural world becomes flattened and elaborated into the symbolic, lucent; facets of the latest works. Some reflection of the Maidservant can perhaps be discerned in pictures by De Hooch in his style of the early sixties.

The Cook, Gerrit Dou
The Cook
Gerard Dou
1640s
36 x 27 cm.
Louvre, Paris
The Milkmaid (detail), Johannes Vermeer
The Milkmaid
(detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1658-1661
Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 41 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer (Cambridge Companions to the History of Art)

Rodney Nevitt

"Vermeer and the Question of Love"
The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer
2001, pp. 100-102

Cupid reappears in Vermeer's Milkmaid on the tile (lower right) between the maid's skirt and the foot warmer, preparing to shoot his bow. (Another tile to the right seems to contain a figure with a walking stick.) We can confirm the identity of the Cupid here by comparing it to a seventeenth-century Dutch tile (upper right) that was clearly made from the same design.

a delft floor tileA 17th-c. Delft floor tile

The Cupid tile in Vermeer's painting may be deliberately juxtaposed with the foot warmer, the wooden box containing a ceramic bowl for hot coals. Arthur Wheelock has called attention to a picture entitled "Mignon des Dames" (Servant of Ladies) from Visscher's Sinne-poppen in which a foot warmer becomes a symbol of the attention paid by courting men to their ladies. Such metaphoric uses of the foot warmer occur in other genre paintings. An illustration from (Scoperos satyrae ofter Thyrsis' minnewit (Scopus's Satire or Thyrsus' Wit of Love), a vryerijboek published in 1668, shows a young man kneeling to attend to his lady's foot warmer the accompanying text compares men who are open about their desires to women who cloak them: "The burning of maidens can be hidden,/ The coals exist in the heart ..."

Similarly, Vermeer's Milkmaid is absorbed in her work, a paragon of domestic virtue without any overt amatory meaning. Cupid, however, is the peripatetic messenger of love, mischievously cropping up where one least expects him. Thus his understated presence here may be precisely the point. For both servants and mistresses, household work was often set in opposition to more pleasurable activities. In the popular kluchten (farces), maids regularly seek to evade their chores for amorous pursuits, like Jannetje in Klucht van de koeck-vreyer (Farce of the Cake-Vrijer), who wishes to go out "to the vrijers's path, to see and be seen."

This stereotype was grounded in a social reality; in the Dutch Republic, maids were often young women who hoped to marry rather than make a lifelong profession of domestic work. A similar dynamic of work and play obtained for their mistresses. The preface to Delft Cupidoos schighje, addressed to "the Delft song- loving young ladies," focuses on lacemaking as a duty: "Don't throw this book away,/ When with your fingers/You weave nice, dense little' laces." Put it in your lap, the author suggests, and enjoy it later. We do not know what book lies next to Vermeer's Lacemaker, but certainly it represents another contemplative pursuit that will occupy her when the lacemaking is done.

The Milkmaid (detail), Johannes Vermeer
The Milkmaid (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1658-1661
Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 41 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Delft tile

Cupid with His Bow
c. 1675 (Dutch blue and white tile)

Vermeer and the Art of Painting, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

Vermeer and the Art of Painting
1995, pp. 65-67

One of the qualities of The Milkmaid that gives it its extraordinary power is the three-dimensional character of the image, an effect achieved by both the force of light entering from the left and the textural effects of Vermeer's painting techniques. Although the milkmaid's white cap, wide forehead, and full figure are vigorously lit by light from the window, Vermeer has further accentuated her body by manipulating the play of light against the rear wall of the room. Where the milkmaid's body is illuminated by the sun, Vermeer has thrown the rear wall into shadow; where her body is shaded, he has painted behind her the full force of the sunlight. The play of light against dark and dark against light, however, appears so natural that one is unaware of the artificiality of Vermeer's construct or of the fact that the pattern of light falling into the room is illogical. Too little light falls on the wall to the left of the figure and too much to her right. Vermeer also heightened the light-dark contrast of the milkmaid's body against the wall by contouring her entire right side with a thin stroke of white paint. Given the realistic character of the scene, the artificiality of this contour line, which also gives the figure a slightly radiant quality, is striking. Its presence, however, is symptomatic of Vermeer's willingness to manipulate light effects for expressive purposes.

The care Vermeer exerted in creating this three-dimensionality is particularly evident in the modeling of the woman's head and body. Small touches of paint-light ocher, reddish brown, brown, greenish gray, and white dabs and specular highlights-are joined together to build the form of her face. Brushstrokes are boldly juxtaposed, with little or no effort to blend the various colors together. The buildup of paint is so pronounced that one has the feeling that Vermeer was trying to sculpt the woman's form with it.

This technique could not be further from that found in his works of the mid-1660s. In Woman in Blue Reading a Letter; for example, the face is so subtly modeled that virtually no brushstrokes are visible. Although x-radiographs indicate that Vermeer did accent her head with some bold strokes of a lead-bearing paint, presumably lead white mixed with ocher, the thin glazes that he subsequently applied to model the face removed all evidence of individual brushstrokes. Eyes, nose, and mouth are indicated in softly modulated tones and never denoted with contours.

The vigor of Vermeer's brushwork in The Milkmaid is evident not only in the impastos of the face and shoulders, where the paint is most densely applied, but also in his mastery of translucent glazes. In the greenish area of the sleeve, for example, Vermeer articulated folds by altering the thickness of his paint as well as the color tonalities. The deepest shadows are created by the black he used to block in the form. No added color was used in these areas. For the rest, he allowed the ocher ground to serve as the intermediate tone. He highlighted the ridges of the folds with yellow paint, and even more expressively rendered is the blue cuff by the woman's left elbow. Although a freely brushed thin layer of blue defines the color, Vermeer used the ocher ground that shows through the blue to help model its form.

Given the expressive character of the brushstrokes in this area, it is not surprising that Vermeer made a number of modifications in the appearance of the sleeve during its execution. The image in the x-radiograph does not conform exactly to the final appearance of the sleeve, and the infrared reflectogram shows how boldly he blocked in shadows on the sleeve and below the arm. In particular he seems to have changed the shape of the blue cuff and extended it downward at the rear.

Perhaps the most fascinating demonstration of Vermeer's masterful use of paint is the extraordinary still life on the table. The sparkling character of this assemblage of baskets,. earthenware bowls, jugs, and bread has no equivalent in Dutch art. Its impact is unmistakable. The still life has a luminosity and radiance that seems to elevate it beyond ordinary reality. With specular highlights from its surface glistening in the sun, the bread could be priceless treasure, created in part by the dedication of the woman who carefully measures its ingredients.

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initiated: march 12, 2014