Going on right now at the Metropolitan Museum is a fantastic little show entitled Vermeer's Masterpiece: The Milkmaid. I highly recommend it. I was actually expecting a very stuffy, high-brow examination of this painting in historical context. Quite the contrary, this show is not only instructive, but intimate, personal, and downright funny. There are also somewhat complicated Feminist issues being alluded to by the discussion, but I'll let someone else travel down that bumpy road.
I had actually missed the retrospective of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) when it was going around the United States in the 1990s. If I remember correctly, I think it bypassed New York and the closest it got was the National Gallery in D.C. But that summer, a friend of mine and I were traveling all around Europe, and got to Amsterdam while the retrospective was in The Hague. We figured we were already close enough, and The Hague seemed an interesting side-trip, a bit off the beaten path. So we went for two days and a night so we could see the Vermeer. He didn't really do all that many paintings, I think it's something like thirty-five altogether, and I think the retrospective included pretty much all of them. It was quite wonderful. So I'd seen all these pieces and studied them somewhat closely before, but as I told another friend when the Met show opened, I don't think you can ever really see too much Dutch Renaissance.
Anyhow, a first section explains how milkmaids and kitchen workers in general had a reputation--or "were assigned" the reputation--for being ~ahem~ amorous. The similarity between a milkmaid milking a cow and...other activities...was not lost on these painters or viewers of the works. These paintings have enough subtly and not-so-subtly sexual imagery to make a 1970s advertising executive start foaming at the mouth.
Click that and look at her back, right above his left hand.
--Credit there in the image.
This is the earliest piece in the show.
Her putting the chicken on the spit is so blatantly obvious it's almost hard to believe this is a painting from the 1600s. It's practically obscene and totally hilarious. But then there's also his hand holding the jug, also quite suggestive of certain other...parts.
It's not all fun and games, however, here's one without as much suggestiveness:
Hendrick Sorgh, A Kitchen (ca. 1643, oil on wood)
Sorgh's piece is more just a reflection on the lives of these women, tending house for a wealthy middle-class family in the Netherlands. Text in the show also mentions how the middle-class grew to such prominence in the Netherlands during this time, and the lower-class house workers became a favored subject amongst painters, no doubt for its brutal realities. The woman at center does look off to the right, though. Evidently an older version of this work included a man entering with fish for sale, likely suggesting some erotic interlude. The posture and position of the woman on the left is remarkably similar to that of Vermeer's milkmaid.
Emanuel de Witte, Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft (1650, oil on wood)
De Witte (1616-1690) is surely one of my ancestors, or at least, descended from one common to me. Since the name is relatively uncommon, I get excited about things like this. Very likely, he and I could both trace our lineage back to the Wittisheim or Witternheim communes in Alsace. I guess it's only fitting then that I adore this piece in so many ways. There's another, almost identical view of the Oude Kerk by Hendrick van Vliet, but I thought it'd be better to support the work of my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great-uncle twice removed instead (that's thirteen "greats"). I wish I could find a more similar view, but here's the Oude Kerk in a lovely photograph by Theo Jacobs:
But click on de Witte's piece. First of all, it's a beautifully precise architectural rendering, which I love, of course. The quality of the light foretells the work of Vermeer and painters like him. And I just had to laugh. The boys at the left are tagging the column with graffiti. It'd be awesome to visit and examine that column very, very carefully to see if there are still remnants of graffiti on that spot. Even better, there's a dog peeing on the column on the right. Again, the realism is astounding, as is the painter's sense of irreverence for his sacred architectural subject.
Back to the sex, we have this one:
This is the original. The piece at the Met is an engraving of it done about a century later. Dou's kitchen maid is incredibly lusty. Her surroundings are just chock full of all these objects that, to a viewer in 1650, would have been completely, blatantly sexual and suggestive of parts of the body where your bathing suit covers. The orifice of the jug she's pouring and the carrots are particularly obvious. I'm going to take a guess that the open lantern is an invitation for the viewer to light her passions aflame. The look on her face is about as come-hither as it gets.
Some of the objects on view in this show made it especially fantastic. They show pottery almost identical in style and age to the ones in Vermeer's painting. Not the one on display at the Met, but very similar is this Westerwald stoneware jug:
Westerwald Stoneware Jug (ca. 1650-1700)
--Photo courtesy H. Paul Garland.
The one in Vermeer's scene and the one on display have a pewter lid and slightly different design, but it's clear these were quite common at the time. The Met also shows a couple of earthenware kitchen vessels remarkably similar to the ones in the painting. In other words, when the exhibition is described as putting the painting into a context, they really mean in every possible way. It's such a delightful work of curatorship by Walter Liedtke from the department of European paintings.
Vermeer was quite a bit more subtle when it comes to l'amour than some of the other, more crass examples in the show, but one little detail was quite interesting. It's a ceramic tile in the lower right hand corner of the painting with the figure of cupid on it. It's very easy to miss if you're not looking closely. To illustrate all the better, the Met had next to the kitchen vessels an example of such a tile:
Delft tile depicting cupid (ca. 1650-1700, tin-glazed pottery)
--Photo courtesy Essential Vermeer.
Johannes Vermeer, A Maid Asleep (ca. 1657, oil on canvas)
Here Vermeer has already started to explore the subject of romance amongst household workers. The door left ajar and the position of the chair on the right indicates the recent departure of a gentleman caller. The maid is dreaming about the guy, of whom she's obviously quite fond. On her face is the remnant of a sort of peaceful smile.
Here it is, the painting touted as his "masterpiece":
Vermeer, The Milkmaid (1658, oil on canvas)
It really is a gorgeous painting. So much of Vermeer's work was masterful, however, I think I'd be hard-pressed to decide on a favorite. Nonetheless, it really is fantastic and the Met describes it as such because it was a transitional piece for Vermeer. The orifice of the milk jug has the same connotations here. The cupid tile is on the wall at bottom right, just next to that wooden box, which is a foot warmer. One might be tempted to wonder if these paintings weren't sort of like pin-ups. The only problem, really, is their intended audience. Presumably the consumer of such a piece would be an upper-middle class man with adulterous fantasies about the woman working in his kitchen. It leads to all kinds of creepy exploitative implications.
This is that guy's wife or potential girlfriend:
Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662, oil on canvas)
Here Vermeer switched from the servant of the house to the mistress of the house. This is an upper-middle class woman who the presumed owner of the painting would have courted. The map indicates worldliness. Here the pitcher isn't shown with its orifice on display, but rather concealed from view. Furthermore the bowl in which it sits is a symbol of purity. The faceted planes of the pitcher are rendered with these beautiful bands of reflected color. Those bands travel up her arm and are mirrored by the pleats in her collar, leading to her head, connecting her mindset directly to those symbols of purity. The headdress is the type of garment that would be worn during the morning toilette, alluding to a relatively intimate aspect of ordinary daily life. Another painting in the exhibition, A Young Woman at Her Toilet with a Maid (ca. 1651) by Gerard Ter Borch, who was a bit older but a contemporary of Vermeer's, describes a similar scene but with the tinge of vanity.
There are quite a few other interesting paintings in the show that really round out this examination. I've decided not to mention them, but they are definitely worth going to see. It's a very impressive little show.
©2009, Ryan Witte