Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Milkmaid at the Met

When I visited the Rijksmuseum in 2006, Vermeer's "The Milkmaid" entranced me: I kept walking in close to see the intriguing pointillist bits, backing up again, standing close again, and backing up once more to admire the way those points resolved themselves into a unique and vivid texture. Then I wandered off with my mind pleasantly blown, only to come back a few minutes later for another iteration. I never expected to see it again without visiting Amsterdam.

When I got the e-mail from the Met about a month ago I was so excited that I was almost jumping out of my chair. I was going to get to see her again - in New York! Then I realized that Grace's parents, who would be visiting on Columbus Day weekend, would probably love to see it with me. I was right. We went to see the exhibit today, and my head is fit to bursting. As always, I don't presume to know that my assertions about what I see reflect reality. The following are just my strong reactions.

In 2006 I spent a long time pondering "The Milkmaid" but gave very little thought to its symbolism, context or implications. Marveling at the technique was more than enough for me. I was taken with Vermeer's little dots that, once I stepped away, composed a texture that nearly leaped off the canvas. That construction of texture reminded me of nothing so much as a field of ragged robin. Every once in a while during the summer I'll be riding around and I'll glance out my window and say "that's ragged robin". Each flower is too far away for me to see, and its color and overall appearance at that distance is indistinguishable from many other flowers. Yet my eye can distinguish the overall texture created by the aggregation of blooms of that particular configuration.

After taking a look at the Wikipedia entry for "The Milkmaid" and its image page, make sure you click on the full-sized version and pan around. Look at the bread especially, and then zoom back out. You'll see what I mean about the pointillist technique.

Today, just seconds after getting another look at "The Milkmaid", I was brimming over with gratitude and joy at the privilege of standing in front of that canvas again. The contrast between the subtle gradations of curve and shading on her dress, and the way the rough texture of the bread pops out of the canvas, is endlessly captivating. As it turned out, I'd barely begun to appreciate this piece. But before my big revelation, I had one or two others to get to.

I had seen "Woman With a Water Jug" back in January of last year at the "Age of Rembrandt" exhibit at the Met. Again, at the time I thought of little but the technique. But today I saw something new: she is a conduit.

Take a look at the Wikipedia page, its image page and the full-sized image. Look at how she grasps the window with one hand, and the pitcher with the other. Look at the way the light flows through her, pools in the bowl, and spills over into the Turkish rug. The chivalric imagery is almost staggering: the atmosphere is guazy and ethereal, and with her head covering she is untouchable. In this vision, Dutchmen could brave every ocean and return with the world's riches, but only the Dutchwoman could imbue them with meaning. Her society needed her there.

The next thing that caught my interest was the map in "Woman With a Lute". Check out the Wikipedia page, the image page, and the full-sized image. Note that the map on the wall in "Woman With a Water Jug" was a relatively innocuous map of Zeeland. The map behind the smiling woman with her lute, however, is one of Europe, and it's swarming with ships. Vermeer finished this painting four years before the Dutch raid on the Medway, during a time when English paranoia over Dutch activity was something like American anti-Soviet paranoia of the 1950s. Pepys conveyed this vividly in his conclusion to his diary entry from August 27, 1664.
All the newes this day is, that the Dutch are, with twenty-two sayle of ships of warr, crewsing up and down about Ostend; at which we are alarmed. My Lord Sandwich is come back into the Downes with only eight sayle, which is or may be a prey to the Dutch, if they knew our weakness and inability to set out any more speedily.
I think the woman is composing a love song to a man out there on one of those ships - ships of which anyone in Vermeer's town of Delft would have been acutely aware.

I gravitated back to "The Milkmaid"; I had a lot more admiring to do. As I made several more cycles from the back of the crowd to the front, I thought more and more about the blue jug. The material beneath the cobalt blue glaze didn't look white, which made me suspect that it was a very poor, locally produced imitation of true China. As I'd just learned by reading Vermeer's Hat, by 1657 anyone who was anyone in Delft would have had imported blue and white China. Then I noticed a display case I'd walked by a number of times without noticing. It turned out to be the key that opened up the painting for me.

There behind the glass were contemporary examples of the objects in the painting. They could very well have been fired in the same kilns, and perhaps in the same batches, as the ones Vermeer painted. Seeing the grey stoneware jug with its thick glaze of imported cobalt forming a literal veneer of culture, I knew I was right: every object in the painting is of the cheapest possible variety. Suddenly a fact that had eluded me snapped into place: "The Milkmaid" portrays a household that is among the poorest of the poor.

I returned to the painting and saw its subject in a new light; now the roughness and ruddiness of her face made more sense. She has a lot of strength, this woman - too much strength to be defeated by her circumstances. She's not worn out. But I was able to see more clearly that she is careworn. Then, as my eye went back over the picture with this new information, it settled on a detail that had been nagging at me, and it all fell into place.

Look at the blotch on the section of bare wall to the right of her head. It's not just a blotch. It's a nail hole.

They had to sell their map.

Did the family of the house fall on hard times because of an unwise business venture? Was the husband an aspiring merchant whose ships were lost to Cromwell's aggressive attempts to control the Channel trade? It's fun to speculate, but all I can say for a fact is that there was something hanging there, and now it's gone.

Think of the maps on the walls in the other Vermeer paintings. They represented the power of the Dutch trading empire and evoked images of the places from which the Dutch middle class got its upward mobility. Light comes in through the window, and shows us a map which itself is a window to the outside world. The woman may be permanently installed in her domestic function, but she is an integral part of that world-wide network of trade, and well should her dreams fly along the rhumb lines of the map on her wall. But the milkmaid... her map is gone.

Like the woman with the water jug, the milkmaid takes radiant energy and redirects it, imbuing mundane objects with significance and life. Unlike that other woman, though, there is nothing ethereal about the milkmaid. She is achingly real, and only the real surrounds her. The map that once gave her a window to the greater world is gone. Look at that wall, with its solitary nail and the inconspicuous nail holes that you only notice after Vermeer has drawn your eye to the big one. Now step back and look at the painting again. Isn't that the saddest wall you've ever seen?

After seeing the real examples of the objects in the painting, and then noticing the nail hole, I'm seeing "The Milkmaid" with new eyes. As in "Woman With a Water Jug", the chivalric meaning assigned to the domestic female is weighty enough to make my knees hurt. And at the same time Vermeer is taking the viewer on an artistic slumming tour. He's brought a romanticized vision of the lower class to life and beyond: the viewer gets to be a condescending voyeur in the milkmaid's quaint and hyper-saturated reality. The occupants of the house may have had to sell their map, and they may suffer the indignity of serving from the poorest implements, but they have everything they need: nourishment, as from the bread and milk on the table; comfort, as from the foot-warmer on the floor; homely culture, as portrayed on the ceramic tile on the baseboard; love, as personified by the Cupid on one of those tiles; and sex, which our sturdy subject seems to promise. The painting invited the viewer to gaze with benevolence upon this prototypical noble savage.

And standing behind it all is a blank wall that shrieks with its silence. In other Vermeer paintings, maps speak volumes: they testify to the Dutch skill in making the maps; they tell stories about the people teeming onto wharves on the other side of the world to load their carefully-packed products into Dutch ships; and they speak romantically of the female subject's vital place in that web. The wall behind the milkmaid, not just empty but emptied, transforms the scene into a tragedy of Shakespearean grandeur. The greater world into which she once was tied has been taken away. She still fills her world with nobility, but that world now stops at the nail holes on the wall.
After I posted this entry I mentioned it to my friend "J" in Amsterdam. Our conversation is worth recounting here.
Nice thinking Hugh.

And indeed the milkmaid is not upper or even middle class, like the idle, lute playing woman is. But you should note that both the lute player and the woman with the water jug are in the parlour, the family's living & receiving room. The milkmaid however is in a kitchen in the basement (look at the light falling down through the window!), with a tiled floor. The rather pricey Delft blue tiles along the foot of the wall are there to protect it when the floor is (daily!) scrubbed with water, naval style.

Maps hung in parlours, hallways, offices and such, not in kitchens. They were popular wall decorations, cheaper then paintings, but more expensive then most prints aka etchings.

Maybe the milkmaid is in her own kitchen, but probably in that of a middle class family. Even rich Dutchmen would not provide expensive tools for use in their kitchens, which explains the basic quality of the jugs and such. A poor family's kitchen would be darker, damper, lower and without even such tools and without the decorated tiles along the wall's bottom.

So the general assumption is that she is a servant, preparing breakfast: the milk will be cooked to make porridge I guess.

However looking at her dress and head gear the girl with the water jug IMHO also is a servant. The water pitcher is silver and stands in a large silver bowl. After their dinner which still was eaten with a knife but without a fork, guests at the table would wash their greasy hands under water poured by a servant using just such jugs and bowls, the bowl for catching the water. So the silver water jug undoubtedly is in a wealthy household, the milkmaid me be the only servant in a lower middle class family like shopkeeper or of some ship's officer.

Thanks for the detailed response.

Even while I was having my thoughts about "The Milkmaid", that flaw in my logic nagged at me: that she was a servant in a back room, and therefore might be expected to use the cheapest of cookware. Ah well. Ideas are like money, yes? Easy come, easy go.

And yet I can't help but think that I shouldn't throw out my whole thesis. I should not expect to see a map behind the milkmaid. But now that I have noticed those nail holes, they seem conspicuous. It seems clear that Vermeer wanted to draw the viewer's attention to them. To put it another way: now that I've seen them, I can't unsee them. From a purely compositional standpoint, they seem like a hidden focus of the painting.

Where there is a map on a wall in a Vermeer, that map is significant. Is not the conspicuous absence of the map in "The Milkmaid" also significant? Perhaps Vermeer is simply pointing out that the milkmaid is disconnected from the broader world?

The main thing that makes me wonder about this is that the nail holes seem to form a rectangle. There was something hanging there at one point, although of course it could have been anything.

You are right re the 'hidden focus'. There is nothing accidental in Vermeer's compositions and specialists have mathematically analysed his dimensions and perspectives: everything always is in place.
However the nail may have been used to hang her apron.

Another thing is that it was typical for many painters in our Golden Age to depict common people as such: a milkmaid, a peasant, a market woman, a butcher or baker. Before this was done nowhere, the commoners were at best seen in the background, a crowd watching something more important like a crucifixion or a nobleman doing something and such. In The Netherlands art for a first became 'democratic', also because the market for art did no longer consist of princes, nobles and the church but of urban citizens, wealthy and just doing well: a kind of proto-middle class came up and bought paintings. It has been estimated that between 1600-1700 some 5 or 6 million paintings were made in this country and about 1,000,000 of those survive, one at my wall!
I'm anxious to hear more thoughts on the subject.