The Milkmaid

size(cm): 45x41 Original size
Sale price£125 GBP


With quiet concentration, a woman pours milk into a bowl. With his left hand he holds the can from which he is pouring. Around him are various objects: a loaf of bread, a stoneware jug, a basket, and a brass bucket. The woman is standing near the window so she can see what she is doing. The light falls on his hands; his silhouette is dark against the white wall. There is a fascinating play of light and shadow in this painting. This is one of Johannes Vermeer's genre pieces in which he establishes an intensely intimate atmosphere. Although the artist watches his model closely, she continues with her work, completely unperturbed.

The Milkmaid was painted by Vermeer around 1657–58. The Small Picture could be described as one of the last works of the artist's formative years, during which he adopted various themes and styles from other painters while at the same time introducing effects based on direct observation and an exceptionally refined artistic sensibility.

Influenced by the detailed realism of Gerrit Dou and his followers in Leiden, Vermeer created his most illusionistic image in The Milkmaid. To modern viewers, the painting can appear almost photographic in its realism. However, the composition was designed very carefully. This is evident from various revisions made during execution and from the subtle relationships of light and shadow, color, contours and shapes in the finished work. As in the Young Woman with a Jug of Water , from about 1662, Vermeer restricted his palette mainly to the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow, and favored geometric shapes (in The Milkmaid, the right triangle formed by the figure and the table are balanced within the rectangle of the image field).

A low bay window and a pyramidal accumulation of forms from the left foreground to the woman's head give the figure monumentality and perhaps a sense of dignity. In fact, various authors have speculated on the activity and character of “La Lechera” (who is actually a kitchen servant serving milk) in terms that would be more appropriate for a saint or ancient heroine.

To appreciate the exceptional quality of this canvas, which has a remarkable impact on anyone lucky enough to see it, it may be helpful to decipher Vermeer's intentions. Interestingly, even though Vermeer's The Milkmaid has been scrutinized from head to toe, art historians have generally ignored the question of what it is doing. Obviously she pours milk and does it 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.

In the first place, the woman Vermeer describes is not the mistress of the house, she is a common servant, not to be confused with the other servants called kameneir, who attended to the personal needs of upper-class women and simultaneously functioned as a kind of of guardians of life. her lover

Vermeer's modest maid is slowly pouring milk into a squat earthenware pot commonly known as a Dutch oven. The deeply recessed rim shows that the container was intended to contain a lid to seal the baking contents tightly. Dutch ovens were characteristically used for long, slow firing and were made of iron or, in the case of today's painting, ceramic. Rand posits that the key to the content is the pieces of bread before her in the still life, assuming that she has already made custards in which the bread mixed with egg is now soaked. Now pour milk over the mixture to cover it because if the bread doesn't simmer in liquid as it bakes, the top of the bread will dry out without appetite instead of forming the delicious pudding top surface. The maid is very careful when pouring the splash of milk because it is difficult to rescue the bread pudding if the ingredients are not measured and combined correctly.

The foot warmer with its smoldering ember downstairs reinforces Rand's hypothesis. The maid's kitchen is not heated properly. In the better affluent houses, there were often two kitchens, a "hot" one for the daily cooking of meats, breads, etc., and a "cold" one reserved for the baking of sweets and cakes. Cold cooking caused the all-important butter to melt and allowed cooking time to double in batter or crusts.

Therefore, Vermeer describes not only a visual account of a common scene, but an ethical and social value. It represents the precise moment in which the domestic worker carefully works with the common kitchen ingredients and the previously unusable stale bread, transforming them into a new, healthy and pleasant product. His measured demeanor, modest dress, and prudence in preparing his food eloquently but discreetly convey one of the strongest values ​​of seventeenth-century Dutch domestic virtue.

The maid, of course, could have been making something much simpler than Rand's tasty pudding, a simple porridge for young children made from bread and milk, ingredients present in Vermeer's painting.

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