The Milkmaid, c. 1658
The Kitchen Maid
Current Loc Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Milkmaid (De Melkmeid or Het Melkmeisje), sometimes called The Kitchen Maid, is an oil-on-canvas painting of a "milkmaid", in fact a domestic kitchen maid, by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. It is housed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, which esteems it as "unquestionably one of the museum's finest attractions".
The exact year of the painting's completion is unknown, with estimates varying by source. The Rijksmuseum estimates it as circa 1658. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, it was painted in about 1657 or 1658. The "Essential Vermeer" website gives a broader range of 1658–1661.
Despite its traditional title, the picture clearly shows a kitchen or housemaid (a low-ranking servant) in a plain room carefully pouring milk into a squat earthenware container (now commonly known as a "Dutch oven") on a table. Also on the table are various types of bread. She is a young, sturdily built woman wearing a crisp linen cap, a blue apron and work sleeves pushed up from thick forearms. A foot warmer is on the floor behind her, near Delft wall tiles depicting Cupid (to the viewer's left) and a figure with a pole (to the right). Intense light streams from the window on the left side of the canvas.
The painting is strikingly illusionistic, conveying not just details but a sense of the weight of the woman and the table. "The light, though bright, doesn't wash out the rough texture of the bread crusts or flatten the volumes of the maid's thick waist and rounded shoulders", wrote Karen Rosenberg, an art critic for The New York Times. Yet with half of the woman's face in shadow, it is "impossible to tell whether her downcast eyes and pursed lips express wistfulness or concentration," she wrote.
"It's a little bit of a Mona Lisa effect" in modern viewers' reactions to the painting, according to Walter Liedtke, curator of the department of European paintings at The Museum of Modern Art, and organizer of two Vermeer exhibits. "There's a bit of mystery about her for modern audiences. She is going about her daily task, faintly smiling. And our reaction is 'What is she thinking?'"
(Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
None of the sitters, including the young woman who poses in the Milkmaid, has ever been identified even thought there persists a romantic propension to associate her with a maid of the Vermeer household, Tanneke Everpoel. Whether she is Tanneke or not, the painting was certainly not intended as a portrait. This small painting has been renowned throughout its history.
Twenty years after Vermeer's death it was auctioned with 20 other works by the artist for the sum of 175 guilders while the much larger View of Delft, always highly considered as well, went for 200 guilders. The title given to the painting in 1719 already speaks volumes: "The famous Milkmaid, by Vermeer of Delft, artful."
Later, English painter and critic Joshua Reynolds praised the striking quality of the work. The painting passed through a number of noted collections until it was purchased for the Rijksmuseum in 1908 along with 39 paintings from the famous Six Collection after much public squabbling and the intervention of the parliament. Vermeer, like his contemporaries, possessed a very limited number of pigments when compared to those available to the modern artist. Throughout his career, he seemed to have employed no more than 20 different pigments although he rarely used more than 10 with any regularity. The only difference in Vermeer's palette in respects to his contemporaries was his preference for the costly natural ultramarine, made of crushed lapis lazuli, frequently imported from Afghanistan through Venice. Other painters used the more common and much cheaper azurite.
Although the Milkmaid bears much in common with the technique of the preceding Officer and Laughing Girl, in it we find, perhaps, the most brilliant color scheme of his oeuvre. Lead-tin yellow and natural ultramarine are used full force although the purity of strong local color cannot in itself account the exceptional luminosity of this work. It still has not been explained why the artist passed in space of just two works from a somber and rather conventional rendering of light of the early paintings to the startling sunlight of the Milkmaid.
In any case, artists in Vermeer's time usually set out their palettes differently each day with only those few pigments necessary for the day's work. In fact, once a monochrome underpainting was worked up sufficiently defining basic forms and lighting, each color was worked up piecemeal, one at a time. It is more likely than not that the bread in Vermeer's Milkmaid was not made at home but purchased at the bakery shop, perhaps from one of Vermeer's collectors, Hendrick van Buyten, who owned the largest bakery in Delft. It is known that the Vermeer family had run up a considerable debt for bread which Vermeer's wife, Catharina, paid off Van Buyten with a picture by her late husband. The number of bakeries was considerable in 17th-century Holland, and like most merchants, bakers usually set up their operations in their own homes. Because their ovens were considered fire threats to adjacent property, they were often forced to live and do business in stone buildings. Since rye bread was the main food for the people, the price and quality of the rye bread were strictly regulated, but always low according to the bakers. They tried to make the bread smaller, but the authorities appointed official controllers - obviously unpopular - to measure and weigh the bread in the shops. But beside common rye bread bakers produced fine breads in various kinds of quality and taste. The regulation concerning white bread and other luxurious kinds of bread were not as strict as for rye bread. The bread baker was not allowed to make biscuit, pie or pastry. Since 1497 the guild had been split up and each delicacy had its own guild.
The small picture (18 x 16 1/8 in., or 45.5 x 41 cm) could be described as one of the last works of the Delft artist's formative years (ca. 1654–58), during which he adopted various subjects and styles from other painters and at the same time introduced effects based on direct observation and an exceptionally refined artistic sensibility. Influenced by the detailed realism of Gerrit Dou (1613–1675) and his followers in Leiden, Vermeer created his most illusionistic image in The Milkmaid. To modern viewers, the painting may seem almost photographic in its realism. However, the composition was very carefully designed. This is evident from several revisions made in the course of execution, and from the finished work's subtle relationships of light and shadow, color, contours, and shapes. As in the Woman with a Water Pitcher (89.15.21), of about 1662, Vermeer restricted his palette mainly to the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow, and he favored geometric shapes (in The Milkmaid, the right triangle formed by the figure and the table are balanced within the rectangle of the picture field). A low vantage point and a pyramidal buildup of forms from the left foreground to the woman's head lend the figure monumentality and perhaps a sense of dignity. Indeed, several authors have speculated about the activity and character of the "milkmaid" (who is actually a kitchen maid pouring milk)
(Walter Liedtke, Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art at metmuseum.org)