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.