The Milkmaid is one of Vermeer’s best-known paintings. In this work, he once again captures a scene of everyday life. However, The Milkmaid is different to similar works by Vermeer: instead of an elegant, affluent young lady at leisure, we see a sturdy maid at work.
Standing in the kitchen, she concentratedly pours milk into a bowl.
Aside from the trickle of milk, everything appears to be completely still. The woman is an impressive figure, with the slightly lower perspective lending her a monumental character.
The kitchen itself is convincing, thanks to Vermeer’s subtle use of perspective and light, and the arrangement of the objects.
This painting is one of the first works in which Vermeer depicted a single figure in an interior. Vermeer’s majestic treatment of this simple subject makes the work exceptional. The Milkmaid has always been greatly admired, as is reflected in its appearance in various auctions throughout the centuries.
The kitchen maid
Why did Vermeer paint a kitchen maid at work? Is this actually an everyday scene, or does it belie deeper symbolic significance? There are many different interpretations. Some see the maid as a paradigm of accuracy and virtuousness, in light of her meticulous focus on her domestic duties.
Others place her in the tradition of paintings of kitchen maids, which often contain suggestive references. In any case, housemaids and kitchen maids had a reputation for promiscuity.
However, this does not correspond with her monumentality, and the fact that she seems completely unaware of the viewer.
X-ray research has revealed that Vermeer initially painted a basket filled with laundry here, emphasising her domestic responsibilities. The foot stove, however, is actually a more improper reference.
A woman would warm herself by hanging her skirts over the stove...
... and the stove was therefore seen as symbolising the burning desire for love and fidelity.
This idea appears to be supported by the images of Cupid on the tiles behind the stove. In this case, the theme could be the maid’s dedication to caring for others, not romantic love.
The kitchen maid carefully holds the earthenware jug...
... and pours a narrow stream of milk into the pot.
It’s a lifelike portrayal; you can almost hear the milk splashing into the pot.
The large amount of bread on the table seems to indicate that the kitchen maid is busy preparing bread and milk, a simple dish consisting of milk and stale bread. Vermeer has masterfully painted the various textures.
The coarse, crumbling bread...
... but also the glazed earthenware jugs and pot.
Vermeer has successfully brought the effect of sunlight dancing over the objects to life. He used small brushstrokes and dots – an almost impressionistic pointillist technique – to paint the areas illuminated by the sun.
The maid’s rolled-up sleeves reveal strong arms.
Her hands are rough and browned through hard work...
... but the skin from her wrists to her elbow is pale. You wouldn’t see such a difference in skin tone on the arms of elegant, refined young women.
The daylight shining through the window creates distinct contrasts of dark and light.
The figure of the woman stands out against the white wall...
... especially the side of her in shadow.
Vermeer has emphasised her right arm by highlighting it against a dark background.
He deliberately used light and dark to strengthen his composition and to clearly position the woman in the kitchen.
Vermeer further intensified the light-dark contrast by adding a thin white line to the right-hand contour of the maid’s body, which helps to subtly distinguish her from the wall.
This white contour appears to make her shimmer slightly.
At first sight, the wall appears to be completely empty. But if you look closer, you’ll see that Vermeer has added various details.
There are several holes in the wall to the right of the maid’s head, where nails have been somewhat roughly pulled out, as well as all sorts of irregularities.
To the top left above the maid, a nail remains in the wall.
The shadow cast by this nail does not correspond with the light shining through the window. This shadow suggests a much higher light source than the window at eye level. Perhaps there’s a second window, higher up the wall?
Vermeer originally positioned a rectangular object on the wall, perhaps a map. He eventually decided to remove this object from the painting. The void that this created
– also by replacing the laundry basket with a foot stove –
increases the sense of space in the room, focusing all of the attention on the kitchen maid.
The milkmaid by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.