The exhibition Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry (from October 22, 2017 to January 21, 2018 at the Washington National Gallery), including major masterpieces as The Milkmaid or The Lacemaker, was presented earlier this year at the Louvre.
At the same time, the Louvre reopened its beautiful Dutch and Flemish galleries after a year of renovation works; they house one of the richest collections in the world. As we are working on a private tour of the Dutch paintings at the Louvre, we are taking a closer look at a few of our favourite works of the masters of the Golden Age.
Vermeer is a virtuoso of observation. He worked slowly, taking his time, and produced only a couple of paintings a year; that was way below the average pace of his fellow painters. It was a luxury that Vermeer could afford thanks to a generous patron (Pieter Claesz van Ruijven), but it also meant that he didn’t make a lot of money and eventually left nothing to his family but a mountain of debt. Anyway, the best way to look at The Milkmaid—or any other Vermeer’s painting—is to adopt the same slow, careful, mindful approach, letting the meaning unfold as we move from one detail to another.
What is a milkmaid?
In Vermeer’s day, the actual job of a milkmaid in the Netherlands consisted of milking cows. Therefore, milkmaids were usually pictured next to a cow or at least with a bucket, outside (cf. this engraving by Lucas van Leyden from 1510). This woman is not exactly a milkmaid, but a common servant. She is likely not a kameneir, a lady’s maid attending the personal needs of the mistress of the house, but rather a kitchen or a house maid—or probably both, as most Dutch households didn’t employ many servants.
It’s not impossible that Vermeer pictured their own maid, Tanneke Everpoel, under the traits of the milkmaid. But it’s hard to tell, because this painting is not, strictly speaking, a portrait. It is a tronie—a figure not referring to a specific person but exploring a type, a character, or a role.
What is she doing?
The girl is pouring milk from a stoneware jar into a ceramic cooking pot known as Dutch oven. Her gaze is strikingly attentive, her entire body is absorbed in a task requiring both strength (the muscles of her left forearm are flexed) and cautiousness (her right arm is controlling the movement to pour just a thin trickle of milk). The pot is sitting on an octagonal table next to a pitcher and a few breads.
Where is she?
The room is humble, with its bare walls—bare except for a small mirror on the wall in the upper left corner; but the mirror isn’t reflecting anything, as we see it from the side. Next to it, we see a wicker basket and a brass jug used for milk. The wall is lit with gorgeous light that Vermeer is famous for. There is only one modest element of decoration in the room is the skirting board of Delftware tile depicting a Cupid with his bow and a traveller with a staff. Such tile was common in Dutch kitchens. A foot warmer is placed in front of it, probably because the maid is working in the so-called cold kitchen; in wealthy Dutch houses, there were two kitchens, one “hot” for daily cooking of meats, and another “cold” for baking and confectionary.
This is how Delft tile appeared in old Dutch kitchens (pictures taken in the Museum Our Lord in the Attic in Amsterdam).
Good girl or bad girl?
In the pictorial tradition of the Dutch paintings, these tiles, the foot warmer, and the gaping black opening of the milk jug on the wall could be seen, believe it or not, as bawdy allusions to female sexuality. In the rather cold Dutch houses women used foot warmers all day long, placing them under their feet; hence a rather racy picture of a foot warmer as something to heat a woman up under her skirt. And do we need to elaborate on Cupid or the (almost Freudian) staff?
Such innuendos could have been more obvious and vulgar in other genre paintings of that time, but Vermeer plays with these accessories with an almost mischievous subtlety. As a result, it’s hard to tell what he really means; it’s almost as if he was checking how dirty-minded we are. Still, these signs, along with the implied play on words,—in the 17th-century Netherlands the word ‘melken’ meant ‘to milk’, but also ‘to seduce’—led to seeing the milkmaid as an object of desire.
However, another reading is also possible—a more virtuous one. A woman pouring liquid has often been a symbol of Christian charity, an image of generosity towards the poor. While in Dutch popular literature and art maids—and particularly milkmaids—were often treated as dangerous seducers, a threat to the honour and peace of the home, this one is cooking something nice and simple. She’s probably making a pudding by slow-baking staled bread mixed up with eggs and milk. Nasty women don’t make comfort food.
Why milk and bread?
Milk and bread were two major staples of the Dutch kitchen in the 17th century. Thanks to an important wheat and rye production, bread was on the table at least twice a day. Vermeer’s family of 13 accumulated a debt of about 600 guilders with the baker of Delft—roughly three years’ worth of bread supplies. His widow would have to part with two paintings to pay for it.
Milk was rarely drunk in the cities; it would spoil quickly without refrigeration. But many households produced dairy for sale—both peasants and urban dwellers. That explains the obsessive cleanliness of Dutch households, for which Dutch women were both admired and mocked. Without the modern equipment we have today, making butter and cheese took several days, and keeping raw milk at home required perfect hygiene. Interestingly enough, the Dutch are still crazy about dairy; they say there are more cows than people in Friesland…
The traditional cheese market in Edam, Netherlands.
In France, many people know the image of the milkmaid from a regional brand of dairy-based desserts called La Laitière” (“The Milkmaid”), owned by Nestlé.
The milkmaid is cooking with milk, an all-times symbol of purity and maternity. Furthermore, she is transforming something as hardly eatable as stale bread into something nourishing; this no-waste attitude would be certainly met with high praise in the 17th-century Netherlands. She is dressed modestly, and she is also concentrated and conscientious. Hence, she embodies the domestic ideal of the Dutch society of that time. Her virtues are emphasized by her quiet, almost monumental appearance. Is she just pouring milk—or performing a sort of secular rite? One can never tell with Vermeer!
For sure, Vermeer’s contemporaries were aware of the value of the painting. Shortly after the painter’s death, this early work (he was about 25 years old when he painted it) was sold for a whopping 175 florins—just the second most expensive of his paintings after the View of Delft.
- Essential Vermeer
- Adriaan E. Waiboer, Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr, Blaise Ducos. Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry. Catalogue of the exhibition. Yale University Press, New Haven and London in association with the National Gallery of Ireland, 2017