The painting I selected to share and analyze is titled, The Milkmaid, by the artist Johannes (Jan) Vermeer. This painting, which hangs in The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, was painted by Vermeer between 1658 and 1661, during what is called the “Dutch Golden Age”. It is oil on canvas and measures approximately 18” x 16” and is sometimes called The Kitchen Maid. This is what is called a “genre painting” and it is also a still life of magnificent compositional planning on the part of the artist. Although the title of the piece is The Milkmaid, the person depicted here is actually a kitchen maid. In those days, milk maids strictly did the milking and kitchen maids did the cooking. The scene shows a thoughtful, plump, young woman, carefully pouring milk into a Dutch oven. The surrounding bread leads one to believe she is preparing a bread pudding, a popular dish in those days.
As far as the composition, it is pyramidal in nature with the lines and the light from the window flowing to the maid’s face where her gaze and the positioning of her left arm leads the viewer to the focal point, which is the flow of milk. The skill at capturing the soft light of this scene is amazing. In one place, the artist Vermeer painted a very thin stroke of white paint, contouring the maid’s body on the right side which resulted in the luminescent and radiant quality of the subject.
This painting is very illusionistic with skillful three-dimensional rendering of the woman’s face and clothing, as well as the use of pointille’ to pattern the breads and the basket. There is also much symbology in this scene as in other still life paintings of this era. Some people see the dignity and morality of hard work, but others see eroticism and sexual undertones. In Dutch literature and paintings of the time, maids were often depicted as objects of male desire. The main clue that this may well be the hidden meaning to this scene is the appearance of Cupid in the Delft wall tiles near the floor.
Cupid was also a common symbol as an innocent messenger of love, but also had a more erotic meaning implying “arousal of the fairer sex.” That symbol, being juxtaposed next to a common foot warmer on the floor probably meant that Vermeer had love on his mind. The foot warmer was an item known to symbolize “a lover’s desire for constancy and caring” as well as it was used to heat up the underside of women’s skirts in an erotic sense. It was interesting to learn that Vermeer had painted over a large wall map and made the wall blank except for a few nail holes, and he replaced a sewing basket with the foot warmer for reasons only Vermeer knows, but we know now because of the use of X-Rays to analyze these masterpieces.
Vermeer painted about 45 paintings in his short lifetime; only 37 of them exist today. No one knows who his teacher was, and he seemingly had no students himself. He married a wealthy divorcee’, they lived in the central part of the city of Delft; and he died at the age of 43, leaving his wife and eleven children. Vermeer was able to command high prices for his paintings while alive, and it seems his main patron was a man named Pieter Claesv Ruijven. Ruijven worked for a city institution but was also independently wealthy. This was the beginning of an era when the merchant class began to buy artwork for their personal enjoyment, not just the royalty and/or the Church. In fact, Ruijven pre-paid in part for many of the paintings he purchased from Vermeer. Vermeer was known to like to use high quality paint, for example ultramarine (made with the rare mineral, lapis lazuli) instead of azurite.
I am so interested in this artist that as I finish this analysis, I just purchased the Kindle version of the book The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (a 2000 Bestseller Winner at Barnes & Noble) and also plan to view the movie of the same title on DVD with Colin Firth playing the part of Jan Vermeer, and Scarlett Johansson as the girl with the pearl earring.