The Milkmaid, Jan Vermeer
One of the crowning items in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid is one of the most enduring and iconic paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. Working at the same time as Rembrandt Van Rijn. Vermeer’s oeuvre is fixated on the domestic interior, the scene of silent dramas and personal epiphanies, which characterizes the home as the site of lives lived and loves spent. One of his most famous paintings, The Milkmaid was painted between 1657 and 1658 and depicts a young woman, most likely a domestic servant, pouring milk from a jug. She stands by a window, inside a room that Vermeer used as the setting for a large number of his works, the ethereal light cast upon her hands and drawing the viewer’s eye towards this subtle yet symbolic act. Little known to modern audiences, Vermeer’s painting was a genre piece that inserted itself into a recognized trajectory or canon of works that used the figure of the milkmaid as an agent of sexuality and allure.
Yet the sensitivity and the humility with which Vermeer depicted his subject is a departure from the typical leering imagery employed in depicting apparently promiscuous servants. The artist’s theme is of the utmost simplicity. A young woman pours milk into a ceramic bowl. The crisp vitality of the depiction seems to evade any implicit or explicit sexualization and raises her instead as a symbol of timeless virtue. Common in the seventeenth century, the image of a milkmaid pouring from a can was an ode to voyeurism, lust, and eroticism. The flowing milk was an unambiguous symbol for female fertility and sexuality. In the seventeenth century milkmaids had a reputation for being ‘sexually available’, yet Vermeer clothes the woman in the rough and durable appendages of a domestic worker, one for whom work is merely a small part of the day. The symbolic resonance of the decorated tiles gives life to the idea that this woman had a life outside of her employment and her stereotype.
Surrounding Vermeer’s subject is the domestic tools and gadgets of a servant’s task. Arrayed like a still life, the milkmaid stands before the products of her craft and toil, yet prominent in the image is an object of personal comfort; a foot-warmer. This surprising addition to the composition demands the viewer consider the experiential reality of Vermeer’s milkmaid. Hers is a body that tires, gets cold, and requires warmth, and thus refutes the stereotyping of her profession and restores her to the status of an individual once again.