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This rustic window, presumably the same one in the earlier Officer and Laughing Girl, differs in structure and rendering from those more complicated which populate Vermeer's later pictures. Minor incidents of light and texture, such as a broken piece of one of the panes, are registered with utmost precision and pictorial vigor. In Vermeer's later works, the windows become so geometrically stylized that in some cases they seem abstract works of art in themselves.
Critics have always noted that almost every compositional element in Vermeer's works is determined with the utmost care to direct the spectator's eye to the points of thematic interest and create an indivisible expressive unit. The cascade of the black frame, the basket and the brass marketing all lead the eye down towards the thematic center of the painting: the pouring milk. At the same time, each of these three objects preserves its distinct form and texture, which are immediately distinguishable. The critic Edward Snow wrote that The Milkmaid "is a melody of contrasting textures. The pair of hanging baskets provide the key: rough and smooth, hard and soft, woven and molded, curved and angular, open and shut." Consider especially the shifting interplay of organic and manufactured forms (the bread and milk against the containers and the table; the wicker basket against the metal one..." In any case, even though there are many different objects in the painting, a sense of benign order reigns throughout.
The basket, presumably, held bread, the lifeline of any Dutch family. Curiously, when Vermeer died he owed the considerable sum of 617 guilders to the baker and occasional painting client, Hendrick van Buyten. This debt was probably not unusual for the time. After the painter's untimely death, his widow, Catharina Bolnes, turned over two paintings as collateral, a rather generous gesture on the part of the baker.
The wicker bread basket was hung high on the wall away from mice. The copper pail immediately below, called a marktemmer, had a long handle so it could be conformable slung of the shoulder when shopping at the outdoor market. Similar pails appear in many of Dutch interior paintings of the time although Vermeer's is smaller and more finely decorated than most.
In many Dutch homes, one would have stumbled across a foot warmer or foot stove (stoof or stoofje in Dutch), a little wooden box with a perforated top and sometimes perforated sides. Inside these curious objects was a receptacle of pottery or metal filled with hot coals that served to keep one's lower parts warm during the long, gelid Dutch winter, a necessity particularly in damp, poorly heated houses with stone or brick floors. They would have only been found in middle-class homes. While the one featured in Vermeer's Milkmaid is a simple affair, some footwarmers were decorated with elaborate carving, which commemorates family ties, religious beliefs or national preoccupations. Curiously the base was often as elaborately carved like the other sides because when they were not in use foot warmers were hung from a ceiling beam to save space. They appear an infinite number of times in Dutch interior paintings. The types of footwarmesrs used by the Dutch were also common in northern Germany.
Althoug Vermeer may have depicted the foot warmer as an incidental slice of daily life, he may have intended to convey some symbolic meaning. In emblematic literature of the day, footwarmers were sometimes associated with a lover's desire for constancy and caring, an idea reinforced by the cupid images on the tiles directly behind it. As Walter Liedtke pointed out, it may allude to the maid's inner warmth or even have a sexual implication since the warmth of the coals moved upwards under the skirt towards the lady's private parts.
The foot warmer motif appears in the famous emblem book Sinnepoppen by Roemer Visscher in which a stove with a firepan is called a Mignon des Dames: "Love of the Ladies." In winter, reads the text, women love their warm stoves more than anything else. And if a man comes along, though he may do his utmost, he can at best take second place.
Emblem books were a favorite genre in the 16th ans 17th centuries. They displayed an illustration, an aphorism, and an explanation (usually in rhyme) on every page. No single element of this triad could be understood without the other two. In 1612, several of Visscher's poems were printed in Leiden without his knowledge. In reply he commissioned the Amsterdam publisher Willem Jansz Blaeu, especially famous for his atlases, to publish his Sinnepoppen.
In the first two decades of the 17th century the house of Visscher on Geldersekade, Amsterdam, was a meeting point for the Amsterdam cultural elite. The Dutch poet Vondel referred to the blessed Roemer's house" as a place: "Whose floor is daily trod, whose threshold e'en worn bare By painters, artists, poets, by singers everywhere."
This nail—another large nail is above the hanging bread basket—presumably held a framed painting or decorative map. It casts a small shadow on the plaster to the right, signaling the light originates from the left. To the right of the figure's head appear a few nail holes. Until around 1600, wrought handmade nails ("wrought" means beaten into shape by hammer blows rather than cast in its final shape by pouring liquid iron into a mold), nails one by one was one of the blacksmith's many jobs. To make nails the blacksmith first made a square iron rod, to for the nails' so-called shank. Heated in a forge, the rod would be hammered on all four sides to form a point. The pointed nail rod was then reheated and cut off. Then, each nail was forced into a hole in a nail header or anvil and beaten with several glancing blows of the hammer to form the nail's head. One of the most common types of nail head was convex hammer-rounded "rose," made with four or five hammer blows. Being made by hand, nails were relatively scarce and expensive. Nails were so valuable in the early American settlements that in 1646 the Virginia legislature had to pass a measure to prevent colonists from burning down their old houses to reclaim the nails when they moved. Nails provide one of the best clues to help determine the age of historic buildings.
The extraordinary tactility of this picture is particularly evident in the modeling of the woman's head and bodice. Small touches of paint—white, light ocher, reddish-brown, brown, greenish-gray—coalesce magically in the form of a solid head. Brushstrokes, albeit tiny, are boldly juxtaposed with little or no blending. The buildup of paint is so pronounced that one has the impression that Vermeer was attempting to sculpt rather than paint the head.
Critics have frequently speculated that the model for this painting was Tanneke Everpoel, Vermeer's family maid. Through archival documents of 1663, we know something of her temperament. She had once defended Vermeer's wife Catharina from an attack by her lone and wild-tempered brother, Willem Bolnes, which had occurred some years earlier.
The events were recorded in a notary public deposition of several people, Willem de Coorde, Gerrit Cornelisz., stone carver and Tanneke herself who testified concerning Willem's abusive character. Tanneke and Gerrit the stone carver testified: "That on various occasions Willem Bolnes had created a violent commotion in the house—to such an extent that many people gathered before the door—as he swore at his mother, calling her an old popish swine, a she-devil, and other such ugly swear words that, for the sake of decency, must be passed over. She, Tanneke, also saw them Bolnes had pulled a knife and tried to wound his mother with it. She declared further that Maria Thins had suffered so much violence from her son that she dared not go out of her room and was forced to have her food and drink brought the. Also that Bolnes committed similar violence from time to time against the daughter of Maria's, the wife of Johannes Vermeer, threatening to beat her on diverse occasions with a stick, notwithstanding the fact that she was pregnant to the last degree."
Luckily, on this occasion Tanneke was able to prevent some of this violence herself. Moreover, De Coorde declared that on several occasions, warned by Tanneke, Willem had blocked Bolnes from entering the house: "He also had seen Willem several times thrust at his sister with a stick at the end of which there was an iron pin."
Vermeer's mother-in-law, Maria Thins, eventually succeeded in having Willem committed to a house of correction. Many specialists had drawn attention to the fact that the crude domestic violence which plagued the Vermeer household never once found its way into the artist's peaceful compositions.
The milkmaid is dressed in various layers of clothes. She wears a sturdy, leather yellow chamois top with rough, reddish stitching and a blue apron over a heavy red wool skirt, suggesting that the picture was painted in the winter.
The chamois is modeled much with the same technique as the maid's down-turned face and the still life, composed of an interminable series of briskly applied dabs of thick yellow and brown paint, a technique which imitates the rough texture of the garment itself. The yellow pigment used to depict it has been identified as lead-tin yellow, the brightest yellow pigment available in Vermeer's time. The same pigment is to be employed in later representations of the famous fur-trimmed morning jackets adorned by elegant women.
After the Milkmaid, Vermeer never again turned his attention to a working-class theme.
These curious green and blue work sleeves are called morsmouwen, or "mess sleeves." Made of wool or heavy silk, they are not a part of the yellow bodice but are worn separately to protect against staining. They can be occasionaly observed in the works of other painters, such as Pieter de Hooch's Woman with a Child in a Pantry (image above left)
In this detail, Vermeer displays his ability to create very different colored draperies from a limited palette. First, the sleeves were modeled in shades of monochrome brown defining the meandering folds with chiaroscural values. The lightest areas were accentuated with a pale admixture of white and ultramarine blue. Once dry, the outer parts were glazed with a transparent yellow creating a greenish tint. The turned-up, underparts remained unglazed.
Whatever symbolic or practical meaning Vermeer had wished to assign to the milk which falls into the stoneware receptacle below, it is the focal point of the painting as well as the maid's attention. It has been pointed out that the artist chose not to depict the milk inside the jug, which, instead, would have been visible given that the artist's viewpoint was above the lower lip of the jug.
The two-handled bowl and pitcher are examples of redware, which in this period was mostly produced in the town of Oosterhout in North Brabant. The pot served for prolonged cooking. Stoneware was made of clay that produces a gray or brown color when it is fired at a temperature of around 1250 degrees Celsius. It is exceptionally hard and only slightly porous. Moreover, stoneware does not acquire a taste and is easy to clean. It is an ideal material in which to preserve liquids and from which to drink. Around 1300, stoneware acquired something of a mass market and remained popular until glass and Delftware took its place in the 17th century.
In order to intensify the rich, brick color of the stoneware vessels, the artist applied dabs of light blue here and there where one might expect to find reflections, a technique unusual for the time when objects were described strictly with their local colors and anonymously colored dark shadows.
More ink has flowed to describe the poetic and optical qualities of this still life than perhaps for any other detail in Vermeer's oeuvre. The bread, basket, pitcher and bowl display such vibrancy and tactility that they effectively vie with the woman as the focus of the painting.
To achieve the extraordinary luminosity which emanates from this work, Vermeer reconstructs, rather than represents, the activity of light with a complex layering of paint. Thick impasto paint is used to render the rough textures of the objects, while thin glazes nuance local color and deepen shadows. The famous pointillés, or spherical dabs of thick opaque paint clearly evident in this detail, suggest nothing more than light as it flickers off the fractured topography of the bread, stoneware and basket. Their presence suggests that the artist used a camera obscura as an aid to the painting process.
The studded beer jug with a pewter lid was most likely manufactured in the Westerwald region of Rhineland in the southeast part of the Netherlands.
Pottery production in the Westerwald region is known from the beginning of the 15th century, but an influx of migrant potters from Siegburg and Raeren helped establish the stoneware industry towards the end of the 16th century. The industry grew in the 17th century and remained strong well into the 18th and 19th centuries, with exports not only to Britain but also Australasia, Africa and America. Westerwald stoneware displays colors that range from light to mid-grey with their surfaces usually treated with a salt glaze, giving the characteristic "orange peel" effect, with the addition of cobalt blue and manganese purple painted details. These two colors were the only ones capable of withstanding the high-firing temperatures of the stoneware kilns.
The dark blue apron and the similarly colored cloth that drapes from the table possess a stunning inner luster that cannot be adequately captured in reproduction. To achieve this effect, Vermeer applied one or two thick transparent layer(s) of the costly natural ultramarine (made of crushed lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan) over a vigorously defined monochrome underpainting, most likely executed in strongly contrasting shades black and white, a standard practice since oil painting was invented.
The transparent layer of paint, called a glaze, produces an effect analogous to that of stained glass. For painting blue objects contemporary painters, instead, usually employed the cheaper blue called azurite which, however, does not possess the depth or the prized purplish undertone of true ultramarine. Some scholars have speculated that it was Vermeer's rich Delft patron Pieter van Ruijven who supplied the artist with such costly pigment seeing that only a few years before The Milkmaid was painted the young Vermeer did not have enough money to pay in full the entrance fee to the Saint Luke Guild, the trade organization of Delft's artists and artisans.
The costume historian Marieke de Winkel explained that the aprons were worn by maids—unlike the white aprons worn by ladies of the house-were often dark blue to mask stains. Blue aprons are seen on the servants in Vermeer's Mistress and Maid and in A Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid.
Although it cannot be fully appreciated in many reproductions, the green tablecloth, which literally glows in the original, mediates between the lustrous blue of the maid's wrap and the yellow warmth of the basket and bread.
The decorated white tiles, seen in more than one work by Vermeer, were made in Delft and were used for covering the lower areas of inside walls and the inside of the hearth. They hid the damp spots on the ground-floor walls and provided a skirting that protected the plaster from the daily assault of brooms and mops. Such tiles were little works of art in their own right and often displayed games of children, Cupids and other amusing themes which Vermeer utilized to tell part of the story of his paintings. The refined and world-renowned Delftware was produced only in the later years of Vermeer's life. Delft porcelain, which initially imitated Chinese imports for local use, became so desirable that it was soon exported not only to Flanders, France England and Spain, but to the West Indies as well.
One of the tiles which Vermeer added displays a fairly recognizable Cupid with a cocked bow trapped midway between the milkmaid's voluminous skirt and the footwarmer. Two leading scholars, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Walter Liedtke, have favored amorous interpretations of this minuscule detail. However, since no period text documents that genre painters availed themselves of such symbolic refineries, some scholars remain skeptical. For example, Taco Dibbits observed that similar Cupids were found on tiles all over Dutch houses, and that the Cupids presence may be merely coincidental and that in the present context need not mean anything very much at all.
From the point of view of the 21st-century observer, it is hard to imagine a more wholesome image than Vermeer's Milkmaid. In Vermeer's time, instead, the handsome young milkmaid may, as Walter Liedtke has recently written, have been seen as "a discreet object of desire." Liedtke relates that 17th-century Dutch viewers, like Vermeer's patron Pieter van Ruijven, were "well acquainted with the reputation of kitchen maids and especially milkmaid, who were known for their sexual availability." Liedtke cites examples of Netherlandish prints which propagate this common opinion.
Although the theme of the "available" milkmaid was largely domesticated in the works of the Leiden painters of the fijnschilder school, Vermeer nonetheless knew he could count on its familiarity when he contrasted the rough leather sleeves with the fleshy nudity of her exposed forearm, which as Liedtke puts it, "is frankly alluring in its own way."
In any case, the figure pouring milk in Vermeer's painting is not actually a milkmaid, but more properly, a kitchen maid.
These curious green and blue work sleeves are called morsmouwen, or "mess sleeves." Made of wool or heavy silk, they are not a part of the yellow bodice but are worn separately to protect against staining. They can be occassionaly observed in work of other painters, such as Pieter de Hooch's Woman with a Child in a Pantry (image above left)
In this detail Vermeer displays his ability to create very different colored draperies from a limited palette. First, the sleeves were modeled in shades of monochrome brown defining the meanering folds with chiaroscural values. The lightest areas were accentuated with a pale admixture of white and ultramarine blue. Once dry, the outer parts were glazed with a transparent yellow creating a greenish tint. The turned-up, under parts remained unglazed.
Such red petticoats are commonly pictured in Dutch interior paintings. The popularity of this garment is testified by the fact that they were worn by both ladies of the household and maids. Since seventeenth-century painters lacked a deep red of the kind shown in the paintings, red objects were first modeled in shades of vermilion, a popular orange-toned pigment, and black for the deepest shadows. When dry, the whole passage was glazed with a thin layer of a highly transparent pigment called red madder. The layer of madder not only deepened the vermilion without hiding the tonal contrasts but protected it from turning black. Given its vibrant depth, Vermeer must have layered this passage with more than one glaze of madder.
Vermilion (mercuric sulfide), also known as cinnabar, was found in all mineral extraction localities that yield mercury, notably Almadén (Spain). This mine was exploited from Roman times until 1991 and continued for centuries to be the most important cinnabar deposit in the world. Vermilion's notorious tendency for turning black over time was well known and is painfully evident in works ranging from ancient Roman frescoes to the baroque paintings by Peter Paul Rubens. Although this defect was previously unexplained, researchers have shown that the culprit is the elemental mercury. The chemist Katrien Keune, showed that the compound can be broken down through a series of chemical reactions initiated by chlorine ions—which are especially abundant in the air near the sea—together with light.
Although rarely discussed, the prosaic white-washed wall which set the stage for the artist's quiet little dramas are crucial components of Vermeer's interiors. These walls not only mark the furthest limits of pictures' implied three-dimensional space but silently orchestrate the mood of each scene and establish the broader scheme of illumination by which the chiaroscural and chromatic relationships of the architectural features, figures and movable objects can be appropriately gauged.
In oil painting, the naturalistic rendering of a brightly lit wall, such as those found in the Delft works of Pieter de Hooch, Antonie Palamedesz. or Vermeer, is a challenging undertaking. However, while Vermeer's colleagues depicted walls in a fairly summary and standardized manner, attentive examination shows that Vermeer experimented with a more refined and broader range of techniques just as he had done with others of his preferred motifs (e.g. leaded windows, floor tiles, wall maps etc.). Vermeer's exceptional powers of observation and pictorial synthesis allowed him capture nuances of light, shade and texture in his walls that his colleagues either ignored or were unable to represent.
In Vermeer's walls, the broader left-to right chiaroscural variation immediately establishes the direction and intensity of the incoming light and how it gradually diminishes as it flows obliquely over its surface. Nail holes, cracks, crevices and other minor surface irregularities are recorded with discreet variations in the paint's tonal values. In some works, such details are "literally" depicted with darker and lighter paint, in others by digging the stiff-bristled brush into the wet, light-toned paint exposing here and there the underlying darker ground. Sometimes paint is used metaphorically. By piling up thick paint impasto in the lighter areas of the wall, the painter evoked not only the strength of the light which illuminates its surface but their crusty texture produced by repeated coatings of lime that were necessary to maintain the walls clean, fully reflective and hygienic. Minor cast shadows, instead, were often painted with thin, semi-transparent layers of darker paint in order to suggest their insubstantial nature. The contours, tones and shapes of the shadows cast by the widows, painting-within-paintings, maps etc. provide more precise information about the intensity and direction of the light as well as information about the morphological characteristics of the objects which cast them.
Although rarely discussed, the prosaic white-washed walls that set the stage for the artist's quiet little dramas are crucial components of Vermeer's interiors. These walls not only mark the furthest limits of picture's implied three-dimensional space but silently orchestrate the mood of each scene and establish the broader scheme of illumination by which the chiaroscural and chromatic relationships of the architectural features, figures and movable objects can be appropriately gauged.
In oil painting, the naturalistic rendering of a brightly lit wall, such as those found in the Delft works of Pieter de Hooch, Antonie Palamedesz. or Vermeer, is a challenging undertaking. However, while Vermeer's colleagues depicted walls in a fairly summary and standardized manner, attentive examination shows that Vermeer experimented with a more refined and broader range of techniques just as he had done with others of his preferred motifs (e.g. leaded windows, floor tiles, wall maps etc.). Vermeer's exceptional powers of observation and pictorial synthesis allowed him to capture nuances of light, shade and texture in his walls that his colleagues either ignored or was unable to represent.
In Vermeer's walls, the broader left-to-right chiaroscural variation immediately establishes the direction and intensity of the incoming light and how it gradually diminishes as it flows obliquely over its surface. Nail holes, cracks, crevices and other minor surface irregularities are recorded with discreet variations in the paint's tonal values. In some works, such details are "literally" depicted with darker and lighter paint, in others by digging the stiff-bristled brush into the wet, light-toned paint exposing here and there the underlying darker ground. Sometimes paint is used metaphorically. By piling up thick paint impasto in the lighter areas of the wall, the painter evoked not only the strength of the light which illuminates its surface but their crusty texture produced by repeated coating of lime which necessary to maintain the walls clean, fully reflective and hygienic. Minor cast shadows, instead, were often painted with thin, semi-transparent layers of darker paint in order to suggest their insubstantial nature. The contours, tones and shapes of the shadows cast by the widows, painting-within-paintings, maps etc. provide more precise information about the intensity and direction of the light as well as information about the morphological characteristics of the objects which cast them.
In keeping with the humble kitchen setting the pavement of the shows no fancy ceramic or marble tiles, but a simple bare floor with a rustic footwarmer and a few pieces of what appear to be bread crumbs and a loose straw scattered about. Modern art goers remain transfixed by the light and seemingly monumental character of the picture. But the humble subject matter of the painting was not accepted by all art lovers of Vermeer's times.
Although it is hard to understand today, in the seventeenth century there existed a clear hierarchy of subject matter in painting that was based on a conceptual distinction between art that was produced by an intellectual effort in order to "render visible the universal essence of things" (imitare in Italian) and that which merely consisted of "mechanical copying of particular appearances" (ritrarre). Gerard de Lairesse, a well-known art theoretician of the time, held that appropriate subjects were not those extracted from the artist's imagination or personal circumstances, such as those seen in Vermeer's interior paintings, but from texts: the Bible and Classical literature and mythology. Paintings of street peddlers, cuckolded husbands, kitchen maids, unruly country bumpkins and buxom courtesans would not do, despite the fact that they were eagerly collected by Dutch art buyers, giving birth to a veritable army of highly specialized Dutch painters. One of the most popular categories of painting was the kitchen scene, which had been developed in Southern Netherlands in the late part of the sixteenth century and had an reached unimaginable level of technical refinement. It is hard to understand if Vermeer's humble milkmaid owes anything to the great Flemish tradition but the artist must have been aware not only of classicist prescription but of the fact that in the Netherlands kitchen maids were often associated with licentious conduct.
Despite their popularity, De Lairesse recommended that paintings of kitchens should only be hung in kitchens due to their inherently vulgar subject matter. But evidently, Dutch buyers thought otherwise. Of seventy-two kitchen paintings described in specific rooms in Dutch inventories during the years from 1600 to 1679, only three were found in kitchens. Moreover, Vermeer's humble milkmaid was sold at a posthumous the now-famous Dissius auction held in Amsterdam for the considerable sum guilders 175 guilders: more than any of the 21 Vermeer's at the same auction except for the View of Delft, which is many times larger than The Milkmaid.
No signature appears on this work.
(Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)
Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 2000
Walter Liedtke, New York, 2008
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015
(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).
The closed, plain-weave linen still has its original tacking edges. The thread count is 14 x 14.5" per cm². The canvas was relined with wax/resin in 1950 over an existing paste lining.
The ground is a pale brown/gray, containing chalk, lead white, and umber. Apart from a strip above the milkmaid's head along the upper edge of the painting, there is a dark underpainting in the background. Infrared reflectography shows broad, black undermodeling in the shadows of the blue apron. A pinhole with which Vermeer marked the vanishing point of the composition is visible in the paint layer above the right hand of the maid.
A red lake glaze is used as an underpaint in the flesh color of the maid's right hand. It is followed by an ocher layer in the shadows, and a white layer followed by a pink layer in the highlights. Several areas were painted wet-in-wet: the glazing bars, the maid's white cap and the details of her yellow bodice. The still life is richly textured with a combination of glazing, crumbling and thick impasto. The bright blue edge to the maid's skirt is created by the luminosity of the underlying white layer.
* Johannes Vermeer (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis - Washington and The Hague, 1995, edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.)
(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in their frames).
(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).
(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in scale).
It is well known that the Netherlands, and particularly its women, had an international reputation for cleanliness. Between 1500 and 1800, numerous travelers reported the habit of housewives and maids who meticulously cleansed the interior and exterior of their households. Why so? Historians Bas van Bavel and Oscar Gelderblomt have argued that "it was the commercialization of dairy farming that led to improvements in household hygiene. In the 14th century, peasants but also urban dwellers began to produce large quantities of butter and cheese for the market. In their small production units, the wives and daughters worked to secure a clean environment for proper curdling and churning."
The two historians have estimated that at the turn of the 16th century half of all rural households and up to one-third of urban households in Holland produced butter and cheese, for which hygiene is of paramount importance. Cows have to be milked with proper care to prevent the transmission of diseases between them. Small farmers may have to save up raw milk for several days before they can start dairying. Without the use of modern equipment, the production of butter and cheese requires several days.
A German professor of veterinary medicine noted that cleanliness in stables was very important for dairying which explained why Dutch butter was so much better than German butter. Dutch milkmaids were noted for their hygiene and speed with which they churned. Presumably, such good care would be able to produce butter of equal quality and the higher price this fetched would compensate for their extra efforts.
Even the eyes of the most sophisticated veiwers rarely fail to be mesmerized by the glistening stream of white liquid issuing from the pitcher in Vermeer's Milkmaid. But milk was rarely drunk in urban areas because it was likely to spoil before it could be consumed.
Although northern Netherlands' soil proved too wet for large-scale wheat farming, the Baltic grain trade allowed the nation ample access to this staple crop. By the 17th century, the Dutch virtually controlled wheat and rye production in Poland, East Prussia, Swedish Pomerania and Livonia. Silos in the Dutch cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Middelburg stored large grain surpluses, thereby safeguarding against price fluctuation and bread shortage. As a result of these and other government-enforced measures, the Dutch enjoyed greater food stability than their counterparts throughout much of 17th-century Europe.
At least two meals per day in a typical Dutch household included sliced bread, usually topped with butter or cheese. The more affluent enjoyed herenbrood—"white" bread made from wheat flour—on a regular basis, while the less prosperous typically depended on semelbrood, "black," rye-kernel bread, for their daily starch. During times of extreme food scarcity, some peasants turned to bread made from ground chestnut meal.
By the end of his life, Vermeer had accumulated a sizable debt with one of Delft's principal bakers, Hendrick Van Buyten, who also was an occasional collector of Vermeer's paintings. Van Buyten once showed the French aristocrat Balthasar de Monconys one of his works by Vermeer, which he estimated as being worth 600 livres. After the artist's death, he received two more paintings from Vermeer's wife, Catharina Bolnes, as a security for the debt for bread of more than 600 guilders.
The economist and art historian John Michael Montias reckons that this sum covered about 8,000 pounds of white bread at the prices of the time, roughly three years' worth of supplies for a household of that size. When Vermeer died, he left his wife with 11 children.
Jonathan Israel, a historian of the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, remarks that "no aspect of Dutch freedom in the golden age struck contemporaries, especially foreigners, more than that enjoyed by women, of all classes and types. Everyone agreed that in Dutch society wives were less subservient to their husbands than elsewhere." Simon Schama goes even further than Israel by asserting that "the Netherlands has one of the oldest and richest traditions of feminism in Europe."
Unfortunately, first-person descriptions of Dutch women, whether they come in the form of books, letters or diaries, are exceedingly rare. The only autobiography of note was written by Anna Maria van Schurman, an extraordinary, highly educated woman who excelled in the visual arts, music, and literature as well as being proficient in 14 languages. Otherwise, we know little how real Dutch women acted.
We know quite well how Dutch women were expected to behave to themselves, at least that in theory. Conduct books, manuals for child-rearing and sundry moralistic writings, which were less popular only than the Bible, speak loud and clear. First and foremost, women were expected to fulfill themselves entirely through marriage, child-rearing and house-keeping. The home was the appointed place for the woman and it was also the safest place, for there she could not succumb to temptation. Domestic virtue was seen not only the prime regulator of interpersonal male/female relationships but one of the keys to the stability and prosperity of the Dutch nation itself. Perhaps no other painting of the Golden Age conveys so convincingly this quintessential value more than Vermeer's Milkmaid, if not the more discreet Lacemaker.
But in daily life, Dutch women must not have blindly live up to the strict guidelines laid down by the moralists, and in a surprising number of eyewitness accounts, especially those of foreign visitors, we encounter an entirely different kind of women especially outside the domestic setting.
When Vermeer began to produce his genre paintings in the late 1650s, he could not have embarked upon a career at a more propitious moment. The Dutch economy virtually exploded after the cessation of hostilities with Spain in 1648; indeed, the nation's economy would reach its apogee within a few short years.
After a first few attempts at history painting in the mid-1650s, Vermeer abruptly changed course to devote his full attention to his now-famous genre interiors, a new art form pioneered by Dutch painters decades before.
Although popular conception has it that genre pictures constitute essential slices, or "snapshots," of daily life, in reality, they portray only a small portion of daily experience in Dutch living. For example, people engaged in intellectual or entertaining activities far outnumber people shown at work. Notwithstanding the long and cruel wars which the Dutch were constantly forced to wage to preserve their independence and prosperity, very few actual battle scenes were painted. Soldiers were preponderantly depicted in fancy military costume as they engage in such harmless activities as card-playing or mercenary lovemaking. And while innumerable ships and marinescapes testify to the Dutch dependence on maritime trade, the seamen are usually depicted with a few adroit dabs of paint as they scuttle about the complex riggings and naval fixtures. They are seldom shown close up working at any specific task or given a face.
Although the widespread distribution of paintings in the Netherlands may have been exaggerated by contemporary accounts, a large swath of the population could indeed afford at least a painting or two. In an age when the average working-class wages amounted to approximately 500 to 700 guilders, a good quality genre painting might be had for 10 guilders or even less. One tronie (a single head) by Vermeer bought by a Danish sculptor was esteemed 10 guilders although his more complex works must have reached much higher sums. A well-to-do Delft baker once reported that a single-figure work by Vermeer was worth the astounding sum of 600 guilders.
None of the sitters, including the young woman who posed for The Milkmaid, has ever been identified, even though there persists a sentimental tendency to associate her with a maid of the Vermeer household, Tanneke Everpoel. Whether she is Tanneke or not, the painting was certainly not intended as a portrait.
In Dutch emblematic and popular literature maids were often represented in their subservient role and as a threat to the honor and security of the home, the center of Dutch life. In effect, maids were considered the most dangerous women of all. Kitchen maids, and especially milkmaids, were known for their sexual availability. Nonetheless, some of Vermeer's contemporaries, like Pieter de Hooch or Michael Sweerts, represented maids in a more neutral role. Certainly, Vermeer's empathetic interpretation of this maid stands virtually alone if not for a few pictures by Sweerts who had a predilection for painting characters who rarely appeared in formal portraits of the time. Sweerts' Young Maid Servant is a rare example of a dignified treatment of a specific individual from the lower class of Dutch society.
An infrared radiography image demonstrates that the slight shift in tone (pentimento) behind the milkmaid's red skirt indicates the existence of a large conspicuous clothes basket, later painted over by Vermeer. This was not the only time that Vermeer simplified his compositions by removing large objects from the picture. In the Woman Reading by an Open Window a dark-framed Cupid once was hung directly behind the girl and in the Maid Asleep, a dog once stood in the open doorway and a cavalier stood in the see-through room. Some critics believe they were removed to bring into precise focus the work's symbolic significance.
The most frequent explanation for the basket's disappearance is that the aesthetic balance of the composition would be improved. But scholar Paul Taylor has recently written that "contemporary art theoretical texts written in Dutch provide no evidence that 17th-century Dutch and Flemish artists tried to achieve an overall balance of design. Although Dutch authors wrote at some length about composition, ordinantie, they never suggested that 'visual balance' was a part of the concept as they understood it." In essence, "composition was first and foremost the attempt to tell a story clearly and logically."
Thus, Vermeer would have suppressed the basket to clarify the narrative of the picture rather than improve its formal balance. Taylor posits that "the maid would have to be a rather heedless person if she gathered all the laundry of the house, took it down to the kitchen and then left it on the floor while she made a meal with bread and milk."
None of the sitters, including the young woman who poses in the Milkmaid, has ever been identified even though there persists a romantic tendency to associate her with a maid of the Vermeer household, Tanneke Everpoel. Whether she is Tanneke or not, the painting was certainly not intended as a portrait.
In Dutch emblematic and popular literature maids were often represented in their subservient role and as a threat to the honor and security of the home, the center of Dutch life, being considered the most dangerous women of all. Kitchen maids, and especially milkmaids, were known for their sexual availability. However, some of Vermeer's contemporaries like Pieter de Hooch began to represent maids in a more neutral role. Certainly, Vermeer's empathetic and dignified interpretation of this maid stands virtually alone if not for a few pictures by Michael Sweerts who had a predilection for painting characters who rarely appeared in formal portraits of the time. Sweerts' Young Maid Servant is a rare example of a dignified treatment of a specific individual from the lower class of Dutch society.
This small painting has been renowned throughout its history. Twenty years after Vermeer's death, it was auctioned with 20 other works by Vermeer for the sum of 175 guilders, while the much larger View of Delft, always highly considered throughout history, went for 200 guilders. The title given to the painting in 1719 already speaks volumes: "The famous Milkmaid, by Vermeer of Delft, artful." Later, English painter and critic Joshua Reynolds praised the striking quality of the work. It passed through various noted collections until it was purchased for the Rijksmuseum in 1908 along with 39 paintings from the famous Six Collection after much public squabbling and the intervention of the parliament.
Like his contemporaries, Vermeer possessed a very limited number of pigments when compared to those available to the modern artist. Throughout his career, he seemed to have employed no more than 20 different pigments although he rarely used more than 10 with any regularity. The only difference in Vermeer's palette was his preference for the costly natural ultramarine, made of crushed lapis lazuli, imported from Afghanistan through Venice. Other painters used the more common and much cheaper azurite. Although The Milkmaid bears much in common with the technique of the preceding Officer and Laughing Girl, in it we find, perhaps, the most brilliant color scheme of his oeuvre.
Lead-tin yellow and natural ultramarine are used full force although the purity of strong local color cannot in itself account for the exceptional luminosity of this work.
It still has not been explained why the artist passed from a somber and rather conventional rendering of light of the early paintings to the startling sunlight effect of The Milkmaid. In any case, artists in Vermeer's time usually set out their palettes differently each day with only those few pigments necessary for the day's work. Once a monochrome underpainting was worked up sufficiently defining basic forms and lighting, each passage was worked up piecemeal, one at a time.
The humble walls illuminated by daylight of different intensities, present one of the most challenging pictorial problems in Vermeer's oeuvre. When similar representations of walls by contemporaries are compared to those of Vermeer, one cannot help but note the various tones of gray pigment used. Instead, in Vermeer's renderings these same or similar tones, appear inseparable from the illusion of the natural light as it rakes across the uneven texture of the plastered surface. Surprisingly, the palette Vermeer employed for painting the wall in this painting is simple as it is effective: white lead, umber and charcoal black. This simple formula for painting white objects was widely known but among contemporary genre painters perhaps no artist more than Vermeer was able to use it so effectively.
The lime-plastered walls were not only appreciated for their light-reflecting quality, but for their hygienic function, which was necessary for the production of cheese and beer. The Dutch were known for their cleanliness then as today and Delft, where Vermeer lived and worked all his life, was the cleanest town of all. Foreigners often laugh when they are told that the earlier Dutch term schoon stands for both "beautiful" and "clean."
From the outset of his career, Vermeer spared no pains to achieve the most powerful, communicative image possible making scores of major and minor alterations in the composition during the painting process. It may come as a surprise that the present work, whose design is so stark and so solid as to seem inevitable, was achieved after considerable reworking. In fact, two large objects that were part of the original composition were painted out by Vermeer himself. In the lower-left behind the maid's skirt there once stood a large, open clothes basket with laundry issuing from it. A large rectangular object whose horizontal form suggests that it may have been a mantelpiece once stood behind the maid. The Delft wall tiles and the footwarmer were, instead, afterthoughts.
To appreciate the exceptional quality of this canvas, which has a remarkable impact on anyone who has the fortune to see it, it may be helpful to decipher Vermeer's intentions. Oddly, even though Vermeer's Milkmaid has been scrutinized from head to toe, art historians have generally ignored the question of what she is doing. Obviously, she pours milk and does so in a particularly thoughtful way, but for what reason? Art historian Harry Rand addressed the question in great detail and his theory is reported below.
First of all, the woman Vermeer depicts is not the home's owner, she is a common servant, not to be confused with the other servants called kameneir, who attended the personal needs of upper-class women and functioned simultaneously as a sort of guardians of their mistress.
Vermeer's unassuming maid is slowly pouring milk into a squat earthenware vessel which is commonly known as a Dutch oven. The deeply recessed rim shows the vessel was meant to hold a lid to seal the contents for airtight baking. Dutch ovens characteristically were used for prolonged, slow cooking and were made of iron or in the case of the present painting, of ceramic. Rand posits that the key to the contents are the broken pieces of bread that lays before her in the still life assuming she has already made custard in which the bread mixed with egg is now soaking. She now pours milk over the mixture to cover it because if the bread is not simmering in liquid while it is baking, the upper crusts of the bread will turn unappetizingly dry instead of forming the delicious upper surface of the pudding. The maid takes such care in pouring the trickle of milk because it is difficult to rescue bread pudding if the ingredients are not correctly measured and combined.
The foot warmer with its smoldering ember on the floor below reinforces Rand's hypothesis. The maid's kitchen is not properly heated. In the best well-to-do houses, two kitchens were often found, one "hot" for daily cooking of meats, breads etc., and another "cold" reserved for baking confectioneries and pastries. The cold kitchen did cause the all-important butter to melt and allowed the cook time to fold it into dough or crusts.
Thus, Vermeer describes not just a visual account of a common scene, but an ethical and social value. He represents the precise moment in which the household maid is attentively working with common cooking ingredients and formerly unusable stale bread transforming them into a new, wholesome and enjoyable product. Her measured demeanor, modest dress and judiciousness in preparing her food convey eloquently yet unobtrusively one of the strongest values of 17th-century Netherlands, domestic virtue.
The maid, of course, could have been making something far more simpler than Rand's tasty pudding, simple pap for small children made of bread and milk, ingredients present in Vermeer's painting.
It is more likely than not that the bread in Vermeer's Milkmaid was not made at home but purchased at the bakery shop, perhaps from one of Vermeer's collectors, Hendrick van Buyten, who owned the largest bakery in Delft. It is known that the Vermeer family had run up a considerable debt for bread which Vermeer's wife, Catharina, paid off Van Buyten with a picture by her late husband.
The number of bakeries was considerable in 17th-century Holland, and like most merchants, bakers usually set up their operations in their own homes. Because their ovens were considered fire threats to adjacent property, they were often forced to live and do business in stone buildings.
Since rye bread was the main food for the people, the price and quality of the rye bread were strictly regulated, but always low according to the bakers. They tried to make the bread smaller, but the authorities appointed official controllers—obviously unpopular—to measure and weigh the bread in the shops.
But besides common rye bread, bakers produced fine breads in various kinds of quality and taste. The regulation concerning white bread and other luxurious kinds of bread were not as strict as for rye bread. The bread baker was not allowed to make biscuit, pie or pastry, since 1497 the guild had been split up and each delicacy had its own guild.
In a work by Job Berckheyde, a baker is shown blowing a horn to announce his new production of bread, rolls and pretzels all ready for sale.
From the album Speelman, Gij Moet Strijken
With kind permission by Davidsfonds, Belgium
Vermeer specialists have long been puzzled by a presumed anomaly of the perspectival construction of the clothe-covered table. Only recently has its real construction been understood. Dutch art expert, Taco Dibbits, has revealed that the table was, in effect, was a Dutch 17th-century gateleg table with, when open, an octagonal top. Such a table would have been readily understood by Vermeer's contemporaries.
In the diagram below, the white lines trace the visible orthogonals, which, correctly converging at the picture's vanishing point, inform the height of the painter's eye as he painted the picture. The yellow lines trace to the perimeter of the folded table.