The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer
“The Milkmaid” by Johannes Vermeer depicts a domestic kitchen maid, an indoor servant, and not a milkmaid who milks the cow. She is carefully pouring milk into an earthenware container, now commonly known as a “Dutch oven”. She is a young woman wearing a linen cap, a blue apron and work sleeves pushed up from the forearms. Various art commentators have pointed to the possibility of symbols in the painting that suggest amorous references, while others argue to the contrary and that the maid is treated in an empathetic and dignified way.
On the floor level, are some Delft wall tiles depicting some blue figures. One of the blue characters on the tile is a cupid figure, and that has been identified as one of the amorous symbols in this work that show the Dutch tradition of that time when maids were depicted as subjects of male desire. Vermeer in his art has depicted many women in interior domestic scenes, and they all include interesting everyday details, as in this example. This painting’s domestic features include a variety of bread pieces on the table, and on the floor is a foot warmer. On the wall by the window are further kitchen utensils. As with many other Vermeer paintings, the exact year of this painting’s completion is unknown, with estimates varying by different sources from 1657 to 1661.
Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) was a Dutch Baroque Period painter who specialised in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. He was a moderately successful painter in his lifetime. However, he was not wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death.
There are only thirty-four paintings by Vermeer, and they are challenging to date. Vermeer painted mostly domestic interior scenes, and most of his pictures are set in the rooms of his house in Delft. There are similar furniture and decorations in various arrangements in his domestic scenes and his art often portray the same people. He was not wealthy, as he left his family in debt after his death. He produced relatively few paintings compared to his contemporaries. Art historians mainly overlooked Vermeer’s works for several centuries after his death. However, his reputation has skyrocketed in the last few hundred years, and he is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.
- Does this painting justify the contrary meanings?
- How is Vermeer treating this subject? Amorously or empathetically?
- How is Vermeer viewing this subject?
- Only 34 Vermeer paintings have survived. Which are your favourite?
- Title: The Milkmaid or The Kitchen Maid
- Dutch: De Melkmeid or Het Melkmeisje
- Artist: Johannes Vermeer
- Year: 1658
- Type: Oil on canvas
- Period: Dutch Golden Age
- Dimensions: H 45.5 cm × W 41 cm ( 17 7⁄8 in × 16 1⁄8 in)
- Museum: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
- Artist: Johannes Vermeer
- Born: 1632 – Delft, Dutch Republic
- Died: 1675 (aged 43) -Delft, Dutch Republic
- Nationality: Dutch
- Movement Dutch Golden Age, Baroque
- Notable works:
Explore the Rijksmuseum
- “The Night Watch” by Rembrandt van Rijn
- “The Jewish Bride” by Rembrandt van Rijn
- “The Milkmaid” by Johannes Vermeer
- “The Little Street” by Johannes Vermeer
- Masterpieces of the Rijksmuseum
Questions about Vermeer and his Art
- Where was Johannes Vermeer born?
- Born in 1632 in Delft, he lived there most if not all of his life.
- Delftware or Delft pottery is a general term now used for Dutch tin-glazed earthenware. Most of it is blue and white pottery, and the city of Delft in the Netherlands was the primary centre of production.
- What was Vermeer’s faith?
- Vermeer was born and raised Protestant but converted to Catholicism on the occasion of his marriage into a Catholic family.
- What do we know about Vermeer’s parents?
- His father was Reynier Janszoon, an inn-keeper, silk weaver and art trader and his mother was Dingenum Balthens.
- What type of painter was Vermeer?
- His long term interest in domestic genre scenes but his earliest known works, such as ‘Saint Praxedis’ (1655) were history paintings.
- The motif of the woman by a window in a domestic setting, or reading a letter, is a recurring element in Vermeer’s art.
- Of his 36 paintings, 32 feature women in them, and 23 of the 36 feature only women.
- Eleven of Vermeer’s 36 paintings have pearls in them. Pearls were a status symbol, and he painted them three-dimensionally, most famously in the famous “Girl With a Pearl Earring”.
- What do we know about Vermeer’s wife?
- He married Catharina Bolnes who came from a well-to-do family. She was from Gouda. She was slightly older than Vermeer and very devoted to preserving his work after he passed.
- Did Vermeer have children?
- Vermeer was the father of eleven children, but children do not appear in his paintings, except for the kneeling children with obstructed faces in ‘The Little Street’.
- What are the key dates in Vermeer’s life?
- Baptised – 1632 in the Nieuwe Kerk
- Married – 1653 to Catharina Bolnes in a clandestine church in Schipluiden
- Admitted – 1653 to the Guild of St. Lucasguild as “Master” in
- Buried – 1675 in the Oude Kerk
- Which art museums have the most Vermeers?
- Twelve of Vermeer’s approximately thirty-five extant paintings are housed within the U.S., mainly at the Metropolitan and Frick Museums of New York City, and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
- What technology did Vermeer use to help him in his visual effects?
- Vermeer’s works suggest that he used the camera obscura, an optical device that reflects the subject onto the canvas, to achieve his close imitation of visual reality.
- How old was Johannes Vermeer when he died?
Camera obscura also referred to as pinhole image, is the natural optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene at the other side of a screen is projected through a small hole in that screen as a reversed and inverted image on a surface opposite to the opening. The term “camera obscura” also refers to constructions or devices that make use of the principle within a box, tent or room.
While the technical principles of the camera obscura have been known since antiquity, the broad use of the technical concept in producing images with a linear perspective in paintings started in the Western Renaissance and the scientific revolution. Camerae obscurae with a lens in the opening has been used since the second half of the 16th century and became popular as an aid for drawing and painting.
“Tears come from the heart and not from the brain.”
– Leonardo da Vinci
Photo Credit: 1) Johannes Vermeer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons