The Milkmaid

(De Melkmeid)
c. 1657–1661
Oil on canvas
17 7/8 x 16 1/8 in. (45.5 x 41 cm.)
The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
inv. A2344
there are 13 hotspots in the image below
The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer

critical excerpt

No signature appears on this work.

Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1658–1660
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997

c. 1657–1658
Walter Liedtke, New York, 2008

Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

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.)


Johannes Vermeer's Milkmaid with frame

  • (?) Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1674); (?) his widow, Maria de Knuijt, Delft (d. 1681);
  • (?) their daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1682);
  • (?) her widower, Jacob Abrahamsz Dissius (d. 1695); Dissius sale, Amsterdam, 16 May, 1696, no. 2;
  • Isaac Rooleeuw, Amsterdam (1696–1701);
  • Rooleeuw sale, Amsterdam, 20 April, 1701, no. 7;
  • Jacob van Hoek, Amsterdam (1701–1719);
  • Van Hoek sale, Amsterdam, 12 April, 1719, no. 20;
  • Pieter Leendert de Neufville, Amsterdam (before 1759);
  • Leendert Pieter de Neufville, Amsterdam (1759–1765);
  • De Neufville sale, Amsterdam, 19 June, 1765, no. 65, to Yver;
  • Dulong sale, Amsterdam (H. de Winter and J. Yver), 18 April, 1768, no. 10, to Van Diemen;
  • Jan Jacob de Bruyn, Amsterdam (1781);
  • De Bruyn sale, Amsterdam, 12 September, 1798, no. 32, to J. Spaan;
  • Hendrik Muilman sale, Amsterdam, 12 April, 1813, no. 96, to J. de Vries for Van Winter;
  • Lucretia Johanna van Winter (Six van Winter, after 1822), Amsterdam (1813–1845);
  • Jonkheer Hendrik Six van Hillegom, Amsterdam (1845–1847);
  • Jonkheers Jan Pieter Six van Hillegom and Pieter Six van Vromade, Amsterdam (1847–1899/1905); Six van Vromade heirs;
  • purchased in 1908 by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (inv. A2344).
  • Amsterdam 1872
    Katalogus der tentoonstelling van schilderijen van oude meesters
    Arti et amicitiae
    21, no. 142
  • Amsterdam 1900
    Catalogus der verzameling schilderijen en familieportretten van de heeren jhr. P. H. Six van Vromade, Jhr. J. Six en jhr. W. Six
    Stedelijk Museum
    17, no. 70
  • Paris 1921
    Exposition hollandaise. Tableaux, aquarelles et dessins anciens et modernes
    Jeu de Paume
    10, no. 105
  • London 1929
    Exhibition of Dutch Art, 1450–1900
    Royal Academy of Arts
    144, no. 302, and pl. 77
  • Amsterdam 1935
    Vermeer tentoonstelling ter herdenking van de plechtige opening van het Rijksmuseum op 13 July, 1885
    27, no. 163, and ill.
  • Rotterdam 1935
    Vermeer, oorsprong en invloed. Fabritius, de Hooch, de Witte
    Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
    35, no. 81 and ill. 62
  • New York 1939
    Masterpieces of Art. New York World's Fair
    194–195, no. 398 and pl. 71
  • Detroit 1939
    Masterpieces of Art from Foreign Collections. European Paintings from the New York and San Francisco World's Fairs
    Detroit Institute of Arts
    19 and ill. 52
  • Detroit 1941
    Masterpieces of Art from European and American Collections. Twenty-Second Loan Exhibition of Old Masters
    The Detroit Institute of Arts
    19 and ill. 62
  • Montreal February 5–March 8, 1942
    Loan Exhibition of Masterpieces of Painting (Exposition de chefs-d'oeuvre de la peinture)
    Museum of Fine Arts, Art Association
  • New York October 8–November 7, 1942
    Paintings by the Great Dutch Masters of the Seventeenth Century
    Duveen Galleries
    87, no. 67 and ill.
  • Chicago November 18–December 16, 1942
    Paintings by the Great Dutch Masters of the Seventeenth Century
    Art Institute of Chicago
    64, no. 41 and ill.
  • Zurich 1953
    Hollander des 17. Jahrhunderts
    72, no. 171 and ill. 28.
  • Rome January 4–February 14, 1954
    Mostra di pittura olandese del seicento
    Palazzo delle Esposizioni
    90, no.176 and ill. 31, as "La cuciniera"
  • Milan February 29–April 25, 1954
    Mostra di pittura olandese del seicento
    Palazzo Reale
    no. 176 and ill. no. 31, as "La cuciniera"
  • The Hague June 25–September 5, 1966
    In het licht van Vermeer
    no. 2 and ill.
  • Paris September 24–November 28, 1966
    Dans la lumière de Vermeer
    Musée de l'Orangerie
    no. II and ill.
  • The Hague March 1–June 2, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis
    108–113, no. 5 and ill. (not shown in Washington)
  • Amsterdam 2000
    The Glory of Golden Age: Dutch Art of Seventeenth Century
    197, no. 136 and ill.
  • New York March 8–May 27, 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    no. 69
  • London June 20–September 16, 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School
    National Gallery
    no. 69
  • Tokyo June 26, 2007–September 26, 2007
    "The Milkmaid" by Vermeer and Dutch Genre Painting: Masterworks from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
    The National Art Center
    48, no. 1 and ill.
  • New York September 9–November 29, 2009
    Vermeer's Masterpiece '"The Milkmaid'"
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Paris February 22–May 22, 2017
    Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivaly
    Musée du Louvre
Johannes Vermeer's Milkmaid in scale
vermeer's life

In this period, the Guild of Saint Luke was probably the center of Vermeer's public life.

Vermeer may have began distancing himself from his family or origin. This fact is seen in his failure to name any of his children after his mother or father as was common practice of the time. His first two daughters, born before 1658, Were named Maria and Elizabeth after his mother-in-law and her sister.

In Vermeer's Procuress a Chinese bowl appears in the still life. Between 1602 and 1657 the Dutch had imported millions of pieces of porcelain. Native Delft artisans began feverishly producing everything from elaborate imitations of Chinese porcelain to the humble floor tiles seen in some of Vermeer's interiors.

dutch painting

Pieter de Hooch: paints Courtyard of a House in Delft, one of finest works. De Hooch's courtyards may have influenced Vermeer's The Little Street.

Frans van Mieris paints The Duet.

Adriaen van de Velde paints Farm with a Dead Tree.

european painting & architecture Bernini: church at Castel Gandolfo (-1661). Bernini did not build many churches from scratch, preferring instead to concentrate on the embellishment of pre-existing structures. He fulfilled three commissions in the field; his stature allowed him the freedom to design the structure and decorate the interiors in coherent designs.
music Apr 22, Giuseppe Torelli, composer (Concert Grossi op 8), is born in Italy.
literature Moliere was anointed with the patronage of King Louis XIV. Molière left behind a body of work which not only changed the face of French classical comedy, but has gone on to influence the work of other dramatists the world over. The greatest of his plays include The School for Husbands (1661), The School for Wives (1662), The Misanthrope (1666), The Doctor in Spite of Himself (1666), Tartuffe (1664, 1667, 1669), The Miser (1668), and The Imaginary Invalid (1673).
science & philosophy Amsterdam naturalist Jan Swammerdam, 21, gives the first description of red blood cells. He will complete his medical studies in 1667 but devote himself to studying insects, tadpoles, frogs, and mammals rather than practicing medicine.
history Sep 3, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the New Commonwealth, i.e. ruler over England's Puritan parliament, dies at age 59. Richard Cromwell succeeded his father as English Lord Protector.
vermeer's life

Around 1659 or 1660, Vermeer's brother-in-law Willem Bolnes left his irascible father's house in Gouda to live on one of the family's properties in Schoonhoven. Willem incurrs in debts and borrowing money from his mother, Maria Thins, since his father had become too impoverished to help. Willem apparently had no kind of work. He was later to become a serious problem for Vermeer and his wife.

In the late 1650s Vermeer, paints two exceptionally luminous interiors, inspired by genre models of the time. In both Officer and Laughing Girl and The Milkmaid he uses his famous "pointillist" technique (thick points of light colored paint in the most intensely light areas of the composition called pointillés. This technical artifice conveys a sense of brilliancy rarely seen in any other of his works. Vermeer never again painted a humble sitter, such as the common milkmaid.

dutch painting

Jan van der Weff is born. Johan Willem, Elector Palatine, whom he had met in 1696, appointed him Court Painter in 1697 at a salary of 4,000 guilders on condition he work for him six months of the year. In 1703 this was increased to nine months, and he was made a knight. He remained in Rotterdam, making trips to Düsseldorf to deliver pictures and paint portraits.

Jan Janz de Heem (d. 1695) is born. Son of the celebrated still life painter Jan Davidsz de Heem he was baptized on 2 July, I650 in Antwerp. From 1667 to 1672 he worked in Utrecht with his father who sometimes retouched the son's work. There has undoubtedly been much confusion between the work of father and son. Jan Jansz is last recorded in a document of 1695.

european painting & architecture 1659–1661 Michael Sweerts, Flemish painter, created his rosy Portrait of a Youth.
music Mar 7, Henry Purcell, English organist, composer (Dido & Aeneas), was born. Purcell was one of the greatest composers of the Baroque period and one of the greatest of all English composers. He wrote fantasias for viols, masterpieces of contrapuntal writing in the old style, and some at least of the more modern sonatas for violins, which reveal some acquaintance with Italian models. In time Purcell became increasingly in demand as a composer, and his theatre music in particular made his name familiar to many who knew nothing of his church music or the odes and welcome songs he wrote for the court.
literature Oedipus (Oedipe) by Pierre Corneille 1/24 at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, Paris
science & philosophy

Christiaan Huygens of Holland used a 2-inch telescope lens and discovered that the Martian day is nearly the same as an Earth day. He also discovers the rings of Saturn. He also constructs a chronometer for use at sea; however, it is influenced by the motion of the ship and does not keep correct time.

English physician Thomas Willis, 38, gives the first description of typhoid fever.

Elementa curvarum by Jan De Witt gives an algebraic treatment of conic sections using the newly developed analytic geometry. It appears as part of an edition of Schooten's Geometria a Renato Des Cartes.

history The Spanish infanta Marie Therese introduces the French court to cocoa, which will be endorsed by the Paris faculty of medicine and received with enthusiasm until it becomes surrounded with suspicion as an aphrodisiac in some circles and as a mysterious potion in others.
vermeer's life

Vermeer is appointed one of the headman of the Guild of Saint Luke to a term of two years. This fact has been interpreted as a testimony of the high esteem in which the artist was at the time held. However, by the time Vermeer was elected headmaster, many of the painters resident in Delft had left for the more prosperous Amsterdam and so his election may have had less significance than usually thought.

Vermeer and his wife bury a child in the Old Church in Delft. The same document states, Vermeer and his wife were then living in the house of Maria Thins on the Oude Langendijk in Delft. At the time, the household included Vermeer, his wife, his mother-in-law, and three children, not counting an infant who had died and at least one female servant. The house had a basement, a lower hall with a vestibule, a great hall, a small room adjoining the hall, an interior kitchen, a little back kitchen, a cooking kitchen, a washing kitchen, a corridor, and an upper floor with two rooms, one of which was taken up by Vermeer's studio.

Vermeer's family situation was unusual. Very few married men in the Netherlands lived with a parent or parent-in-law for an extended period of time. Vermeer's marriage too, must be considered exceptional in as much as he married outside his own family's religion and social class. He moved from the lower, artisinal class of his Reformed parents who lived on the Delft Square to the higher social stratum of the Catholic in-laws who instead lived in the somewhat segregated "Papist Corner," the Catholic quarter of the city.

The burial of his child is the earliest known record of the artist's residence in Maria Thin's house.

dutch painting

Jan van Mieris is born. Son of the famous Frans van Mieris, Jan painted principally history subjects, but his earliest works were apparently genre scenes in his father's manner.

Jacob van Ruisdael paints Jewish Cemetery. The painting's ruinous, glowering scene exemplifies the trend toward turbulence in Dutch landscape at mid-century.

Adriean Coorte is born. Coorte devoted himself to the precise rendering of simple objects in small paintings. His paintings often have strong illumination that gives the composition an enchanting stillness.

european painting & architecture Diego Velázquez, Spanish painter, dies.
music Alessandro Scarlatti, Italian musician and composer, father of Domenico is born.
science & philosophy

Marcello Malpighi discovers that the lungs consist of many small air pockets and a complex system of blood vessels. By observing capillaries through a microscope he completes the work of Harvey in describing the circulation of the blood.

Robert Boyle announces in New Experiments Physico-Mechanical Touching the Spring of Air that removing the air in a vacuum chamber extinguishes a flame and kills small animals, indicating that combustion and respiration are similar processes.

history May 28, George I, king of England), is born.

May 29, Charles II, who had fled to France, is restored to the English throne after the Puritan Commonwealth. Charles made a deal with George Monck, a general of the New Model Army, and with the old parliamentary foes of his father. The British experiment with republicanism came to an end with the restoration of Charles II.

Dec 24, Mary I Henriette Stuart (29), queen of England, dies.

The Dutch crafted an early version of a boat they called a "yacht."

1660s The British began to dominate the trade in port wine from Portugal after a political spat with the French denied them the French Bordeaux wines. Brandy was added to the Portuguese wines to fortify them for the Atlantic voyage.
vermeer's life

In Dec. Maria Thins, Vermeer's mother-in-law, purchases a grave in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft. Originally from Gouda, at this time she probably had come to understand that her son-in-law had become an inseparable part of the family she headed.

Willem Bolnes, brother of Vermeer's wife Catharina, showed up on several occasions at Vermeer's house and made trouble. Several witnesses, including Tanneke Everpoel, Vermeer's servant which some scholars believe to have posed for The Milkmaid, claimed that Willem created violent commotion, causing people outside to come to the front door and listen. He swore at his mother Maria Thins, with whom Vermeer and his family resided, and called her an "old popish swine," a "she-devil," and other words "that could not be decently mentioned." He pulled a knife on his mother and tried to stab her. He also once threatened Catharina with a stick although she was pregnant "to the last degree." The stick, added a neighbor Willem de Coorde, had an iron spike on one end. Tannake prevented Willem from hitting her with it. None of this violence seems to have worked its way into the world of Vermeer's art.

Willem Bolnes, like his father, is prone to moments of uncontrollable violence. He soon after had another serious incident which left Maria Thins with a 74 guilder fee to pay two surgeons and wine necessary to help him recover.

In the estate inventory of an innkeeper named Cornelis de Helt who died in 1661, the first item listed is as "a painting with a black frame by Jan van der Meer."

dutch painting

Rembrandt depicted himself in a painting as the Apostle Paul.

Apr 20, Gerard Terborch, the elder, painter, dies.

Rembrandt paints The Syndics of the Cloth Hall.

Jacob van Ruisdael paints Landscape with Watermill.

Jan Steen paints Easy Come, Easy Go.

european painting & architecture

The Tent of Darius by Charles Le Brun, now 42, who has been commissioned by Louis XIV to create a series of subjects from the life of Alexander the Great. Le roi de soleil fancies himself a latter-day Alexander and makes Le Brun first painter to the king, giving him a huge salary.

The Château Vaux-le-Vicomte is completed for France's minister of finance Nicolas Fouquet with a two-story salon. Architect Louis Le Vau has designed the structure (his Collège des Quatre-Nations is also completed this year), and landscape architect André Le Nôtre, now 48, has created its gardens. Le Nôtre will begin work next year on the gardens of Versailles.

music The Paris Opéra Ballet has its beginnings in the Royal Academy of Dance (Académie Royale de Danse) founded by Louis XIV
science & philosophy

The Sceptical Chymist by Robert Boyle discards the Aristotelian theory that there are only four basic elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and proposes an experimental theory of the elements. Boyle will be called the "father of chemistry" but he holds views that will encounter skepticism from later chemists, e.g., that plant life grows by transmutation of water, as do worms and insects since they are produced from the decay of plants.

Christiaan Huygens invents a manometer for measuring the elasticity of gases.


Mar 9, Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the chief minister of France, dies, leaving King Louis the 14th in full control.

Apr 23, English king Charles II is crowned in London.

Henry Slingsby, master of the London Mint, proposes the "standard solution" a mix of flat rules and free markets, to resolve the ongoing problem of money supply and coin value. Britain adopts the idea in 1816 and the US follows in 1853.

Water ices go on sale for the first time at Paris under the direction of Sicilian limonadier Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli from Palermo. Fruit-flavored ices were originated by the Chinese, who taught the art to the Persians and Arabs.

still life with Glass, Cheese, Butter and Cake, Floris Gerritsz. van Schooten

still life with Glass, Cheese, Butter and Cake
Floris Gerritsz. van Schooten
First half of 17th century
Oil on panel
Private collection

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 of 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.

Still Life, Pieter Claesz.

Still Life (detail)
Pieter Claesz.
Oil on oak panel, 64 x 88.5 cm.
Museum Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, Kassel

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 an 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.

Lady at her Toilette, Gerrit ter Borch

Lady at her Toilette (detail)
Gerrit ter Borch
Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 59.7 cm.
Institute of Arts, Detroit

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 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 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 the daily lives for 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.

Book and Picture Shop, Salomon de Bray

Book and Picture Shop
Salomon de Bray
76 x 76 mm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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 devoted his full attention to his now-famous genre interiors, a new art form which had been 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 such harmless activities as card-playing or mercenary lovemaking. And while innumerable ships and marinescapes testify 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 almost never 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-figured work by Vermeer was worth the astounding sum of 600 guilders.

Amoris divini emblemata, Otto van Veen

Amoris divini emblemata (titlepage)
Otto van Veen

None of the sitters, including the young woman who posed for The Milkmaid, has ever been identified, even thought there persists a sentimental propensity 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 (see left) is a rare example of a dignified treatment of a specific individual from the lower class of Dutch society.

The Milkmaid (detail x-radiograph), Johannes Vermeer

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 in order 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 in order 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."

A Young Maid Servant, Michael Sweerts

A Young Maid Servant
Michael Sweerts
c. 1660
Oil on canvas, 61 x 53.5 cm. Fondation Aetas Aurea
Vaduz, Liechtenstein

None of the sitters, including the young woman who poses in the Milkmaid, has ever been identified even thought there persists a romantic propension 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 (see left) 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 a number of 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.

Vermeer's palette

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 in respects to his contemporaries 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 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. In fact, 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."

The Shoemaker's Shop, Quiringh Gerritsz. van Brekelenkam

The Shoemaker's Shop (detail)
Quiringh Gerritsz. van Brekelenkam
Oil on panel, 59.4 x 82.6 cm.
Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena CA

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 course of 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.

A Kitchen, Hendrick Sorgh

A Kitchen
Hendrick Sorgh
c. 1643
Oil on panel, 52.1 x 44.1 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In order 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 deep 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 which lays before her in the still life and assumes that 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, confectionary, pastries. The cold kitchen did cause the all-important butter to melt and allowed the cook time to fold it in to 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 conveys 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.

The Baker, Job Berckheyde

The Bakerr
Job Berckheyde
Oil on canvas
c. 1681
Worchester Art Museum, Massachusetts

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 beside 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 (see image above), a baker is shown blowing a horn to announce his new production of bread, rolls and pretzels all ready for sale.

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Iep Fourier, hurdy-gurdy

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 reveals that the table was, in effect, was a Dutch 17th-century gateleg table which, when open, has 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.

The Milkmaid (diagram), Johannes Vermeer