What Makes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid a Masterpiece?: A Video Introduction

Johannes (or Jan) Ver­meer’s tran­quil domes­tic scenes draw larg­er crowds than near­ly any oth­er Euro­pean painter; he, like Rem­brandt, is syn­ony­mous with the phrase “Dutch Mas­ter.” But for much of its exis­tence, his work lay in near-obscu­ri­ty. After his death, some of his most-renowned paint­ings passed through the hands of patrons and col­lec­tors for next to noth­ing. In 1881, for exam­ple, Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring sold for two guilders, thir­ty cents, or about $26.

While oth­er Ver­meer mas­ter­pieces lan­guished, one paint­ing nev­er lost its val­ue. The Milk­maid  – “prob­a­bly pur­chased from the artist by his Delft patron Pieter van Rui­jven,” who owned twen­ty-one of the artist’s works, notes the Met — was described at its 1696 auc­tion as “excep­tion­al­ly good.” It fetched the sec­ond high­est price of Ver­meer’s works (next to View of Delft). In 1719, “The famous milk­maid, by Ver­meer of Delft” (described as “art­ful”) began its jour­ney through a series of sig­nif­i­cant Ams­ter­dam col­lec­tions.

The Milk­maid even­tu­al­ly land­ed in the hands of “one of the great woman col­lec­tors of Dutch art, Lucre­tia Johan­na van Win­ter,” who mar­ried into the wealthy Six fam­i­ly of art col­lec­tors. Final­ly, in 1908, the Rijksmu­se­um pur­chased the paint­ing from her sons with help from the Dutch gov­ern­ment. The Milk­maid, that is to say, has remained part of the cul­tur­al her­itage of the Nether­lands from its begin­nings. In the Great Art Explained video above, you can learn what makes this ear­ly work, paint­ed between 1657–58, so spe­cial.

The Baroque art that pre­ced­ed Ver­meer’s gen­er­a­tion “came from con­flict,” name­ly the reli­gious wars of the Ref­or­ma­tion and Counter-Ref­or­ma­tion. “The art being pro­duced in Catholic coun­tries had become a pow­er­ful tool of pro­pa­gan­da, char­ac­ter­ized by a height­ened sense of dra­ma, move­ment and the­atri­cal­i­ty that had nev­er been seen before.” We see the dra­mat­ic tran­si­tion in Dutch art in the move­ment from Peter Paul Rubens to Ver­meer, as “sim­ple domes­tic inte­ri­ors of mid­dle-class life” became dom­i­nant: “sec­u­lar works that con­tain sto­ries of real human rela­tion­ships.” Those works arose in a Calvin­ist cul­ture that banned reli­gious imagery and stressed “sim­plic­i­ty in both wor­ship and dec­o­ra­tive style.”

The Dutch break with Catholic tra­di­tion meant a total rein­ven­tion of Dutch art; thus came the real­ist tra­di­tion, pro­duced not for the church but the wealthy mer­chant class, with Ver­meer as one of its ear­ly mas­ters because of his near-pho­to­graph­ic ren­der­ing of nat­ur­al light and nat­u­ral­is­tic com­po­si­tion. Ver­meer epit­o­mized the new Dutch art, despite the fact that he was a Catholic con­vert through mar­riage. After his mar­riage, he spent his life “in the same town, the same house, slow­ly pro­duc­ing paint­ings in the same room… at a rate of two or three a year.” His out­put, per­haps 60 paint­ings — 36 of which sur­vive — pales in com­par­i­son to that of his peers. But of all the artists pro­duc­ing domes­tic scenes, “there were none quite like Ver­meer.”

These scenes hard­ly seem rad­i­cal to view­ers today. They are prized for every­thing they are not — they are not Rubens: wild, fleshy, pas­sion­ate, las­civ­i­ous, exu­ber­ant… but that does not mean they are devoid of eroti­cism. There are obvi­ous sig­ni­fiers, such as a tile show­ing Cupid “bran­dish­ing his bow.” (Remind­ing us of a once-hid­den Cupid in anoth­er famous Ver­meer.) There are signs much less obvi­ous to us, such as the foot warmer, employed to “fre­quent­ly sug­gest fem­i­nine desire in Dutch genre paint­ings,” the Met writes. And then there is the resem­blance of Ver­meer’s “milk­maid” — with her down­cast eyes, white bon­net, and yel­low blouse — to a fig­ure in The Pro­curess, paint­ed the year pre­vi­ous, a work com­posed almost entire­ly of leers and gropes (and said to fea­ture the only self-por­trait of the artist him­self.)

Ver­meer’s Milk­maid “exudes a very earthy appeal,” a qual­i­ty that comes through not only in its sex­u­al under­tones but also in its ide­al depic­tion of Dutch “domes­tic virtue.” Both are sug­gest­ed at once by the pitch­er and the milk, com­mon sym­bols of female sex­u­al­i­ty. But it is a paint­ing that tran­scends the genre, which often enough shaped itself for the gaze of male employ­ers in a soci­ety that “acknowl­edged and accept­ed that maids engaged in love affairs with their mas­ters,” Gior­dana Goret­ti writes,” with con­sent or with­out it.” The “earth­i­ness” of Ver­meer’s mid­dle-class domes­tic paint­ings — per­haps most pro­found­ly in The Milk­maid as you’ll learn above — comes from a tri­umph of painter­ly tech­nique and per­spec­tive, cre­at­ing scenes so seem­ing­ly real that they resist objec­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

A 10 Bil­lion Pix­el Scan of Vermeer’s Mas­ter­piece Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring: Explore It Online

Down­load All 36 of Jan Vermeer’s Beau­ti­ful­ly Rare Paint­ings (Most in Bril­liant High Res­o­lu­tion)

A Restored Ver­meer Paint­ing Reveals a Por­trait of a Cupid Hid­den for Over 350 Years

See the Com­plete Works of Ver­meer in Aug­ment­ed Real­i­ty: Google Makes Them Avail­able on Your Smart­phone

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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