This morning I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent most of the day thinking about the stunning collection of Vermeer currently on display through November 29th. The centerpiece of the exhibition is the Milkmaid (reproduced below). At first glance it is an unremarkable and quotidian scene. How could this be considered one of the greatest works in the canon of art history? I’m certainly no expert on the topic of art, but I just wanted to point out few things.

Tension: As do many of Vermeer’s paintings, this scene takes place inside, adjacent to a window. Feel the tension between interior and exterior as daylight fights its way into the room through the murky glass. There is chip missing from one of the window panes (second row down, all the way to the right), notice how the daylight streams in showering the milkmaid.

Geometry: The basket hanging on the wall, the windowsill, the edge of the table, and the foot warmer (the box on the ground in the bottom right) all draw lines directing the viewer’s eye toward the milkmaid. It’s as if every object in the room is watching her work.

Eroticism: On the most subtle of levels the milkmaid is also rather erotic. As a servant, the milkmaid is already subject to some taboo sexual connotations, but the way that she is pouring the milk (with the open top facing the viewer) is also a sexual allegory (the open top of the pitcher is crudely associated with feminine sexuality). Additionally, a discerning viewer will notice that on the baseboard (between the milkmaid and the foot warmer) is a child’s drawing depicting cupid holding a bow.

Unlocking the secret meaning in this painting is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. It takes time, patience, and discipline. Walking through the exhibit this morning I couldn’t help notice that the most of the people there were over the age of 50. Perhaps it was because all of the young people in New York were still asleep – but perhaps it was because the patience and discipline it requires to appreciate classic art are no longer values that are instilled in young people. I could be reading into things too much here – but think about it – when was the last time you saw someone do a jigsaw puzzle?



Vermeer and Jigsaw Puzzles
  • Alex

    I think there’s also a lot to his use of color. Her hands and wrists are red like the milk jug. Her apron matches the color of the cloth on the table. The golden yellow of her shirt reflects the golden brown of the bread. Her white bonnet and collar echo the milk itself. Vermeer makes her blend in entirely to her work; the scene is more a still-life than an action shot, despite the activity.

    Taking a step back though, I appreciate Vermeer’s mastery, but I don’t like it. He is not for me. I don’t really find it at all attractive, which to me is the most crucial aspect of art. Thought-provoking and deep is nice, but I wouldn’t want it on my wall – priceless masterpiece or not.

  • Very apt points. I espeically like your comment about the milk jug coloring her hands and the bonet echoing the color of the milk – these are details I had not seen at first.

    I agree that I would probably not want to have this piece on my wall – probably because it lacks context for my life and because there is something about the yellow ochre color of the shirt that I find unattractive. To be honest – I probably would not have given the piece a second look if it wern’t deemed so important by art historians. However, I’m glad I did.