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Jan Vermeer - The milkmaid

by Sylvi Weidlich

Genre painting at the time of Jan Vermeer repeatedly dealt with the motif of the maid. Often, however, in a less favorable light, often with a raised forefinger pointing to reprehensible virtues such as laziness.

Vermeer, on the other hand, shows us a maid pouring milk from a clay jug - almost meditatively - in high concentration. In front of the original, this impression is reinforced: it almost seems as if the action of pouring milk is "actually" taking place. How does the painter manage this amazing impression?

Except for a small warming stove at the lower right edge of the picture, this room does not radiate anything cozy: A young maid stands in front of a cool, barren wall without pictures, illuminated by an incidence of light through the glass window. There are virtually no details behind her to distract the viewer: she alone is the focus, she is what is at stake here.

Her sleeves rolled up over her elbows, she stands behind a small table. On this is a still life of earthen vessels, a two-handled pot into which she poured the milk and individual pieces of bread. The current state of research assumes that the pieces of bread on the right side of the table were painted in three layers: for the first layer Vermeer used thick lead white, applied a reddish glaze over it, through which the underlying white lumps of paint show through. Vermeer finished the last layer with yellow and white accents. This pointillism is also found on the left blue and white clay jug as well as on the bread basket.

The painter succeeds in this almost photographic achievement by greatly reducing the contrasts in the picture. He does not allow the individual forms to blur: they remain delineated from one another and blurred at the edges.

Hajo Düchting emphasizes that in Vermeer's time it was unusual to place a maid in the center of a picture as Vermeer did. He elevates the young woman almost to a royal status with a solemn aura; the everyday chores of a maid are completely relegated to the background.

Jan Vermeer - The milkmaid

Oil on canvas, 1655-1656, 45.5 × 41 cm, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam


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