Friday, 15 April 2016

M = Melkmeisje


The Milkmaid is one of Vermeers best known and popular paintings. It can be found in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (in the "honour gallery") and Vermeer painted it around 1658-1661. It's quite small: 45.5 x 41 cm. (17 7/8 x 16 1/8 in.) If you type "Vermeer milkmaid in Google you will find many images with all kinds of strange colours.... This one looks like the original the most, and is from the Rijksmuseum website.


Johannes Vermeer - Het Melkmeisje

 What is she actually doing?

 In order to appreciate the exceptional quality of this canvas which has a remarkable impact on anyone who has the fortune to see it, we must decipher Vermeer's full intentions. Oddly, even though Vermeer's Milkmaid has been scrutinized from head to toe, art historians have generally ignored the question of what she is doing. Obviously, she pours milk and does so in a particularly thoughtful way, but for what reason? Art historian Harry Rand addressed the question in great detail this is his theory:

First of all, the woman Vermeer depicts is not the home's owner, she is a common servant, not to be confused with the other servants called "kamenier" who attended the personal needs of upper-class women and functioned contemporarily as a sort of guardians of their mistress.
Vermeer's unassuming maid is slowly pouring milk into a squat earthenware vessel which is commonly known as a Dutch oven. The deep recessed rim shows the vessel was meant to hold a lid to seal the contents for airtight baking. Dutch ovens characteristically were used for prolonged, slow cooking and were made of iron or in the case of the present painting, of ceramic. Rand posits that the key to the contents are the broken pieces of bread which lays before her in the still life and assumes that she has already made custard in which the bread mixed with egg is now soaking. She now pours milk over the mixture to cover it because if the bread is not simmering in liquid while it is baking, the upper crusts of the bread will turn unappetizingly dry instead of forming the delicious upper surface of the pudding. The maid takes such care in pouring the trickle of milk because it is difficult to rescue bread pudding if the ingredients are not correctly measured and combined.

The foot warmer with its smouldering ember on the floor below, reinforces Rand's hypothesis. The maid's kitchen is not properly heated. In the best well-to-do houses, two kitchens were often found, one "hot" for daily cooking of meats, breads etc., and another "cold" reserved for baking, confectionery, pastries. The cold kitchen did cause the all-important butter to melt and allowed the cook time to fold it in to dough or crusts.
Thus, Vermeer describes not just a visual account of a common scene, but an ethical and social value. He represents the precise moment in which the household maid is attentively working with common cooking ingredients and formerly unusable stale bread transforming them into a new, wholesome and enjoyable product. Her measured demeanour, modest dress and judiciousness in preparing her food conveys eloquently yet unobtrusively one of the strongest values of 17th-century Netherlands, domestic virtue.
The maid, of course, could have been making something far more simpler than Rand's tasty pudding, simple pap for small children made of bread and milk, ingredients present in Vermeer's painting.

Always a Calvinistic warning


Melkmeisje - detail foot warmer
There is always a double layer in Dutch Golden Age paintings. The wall text explains, rather squeamishly, that the act of milking a cow was code for “grabbing a man’s ... attention.”

A barely perceptible Cupid on a Delft tile just behind the foot warmer is the painting’s only concession to amorous distraction.

No Vermeer painting without a constant praise to the intimacy of the civil life, on domesticity and the discreet feminine virtues.








(Sources:
https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/collectie/SK-A-2344
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Milkmaid_%28Vermeer%29
http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/milkmaid.html )

10 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing Harry Rand's explanation, Han. It makes perfect sense. Wow...didn't realize just how small this painting actually is...for some reason, I thought it was a much larger canvas.

    Hugs and blessings...Cat

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    Replies
    1. It's tiny in real life, just like most people find the size of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre very small...

      Thank you for reading, Cat,
      Han

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  2. Really interesting, Han, as always.
    Thanks.

    appy

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    Replies
    1. You are too kind, Appy.

      Thank you for reading,
      Han

      Delete
  3. I hope, I will see this one with My own eayes. I long for it. And then, I will remember all you wrote about this painting and enjoy it so much more.... because if your blog. Isn't it wonderful ?
    Thank you, Han.

    Mona Lisa

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In real life it so pretty... I hope you will have the chance to see it sometime.

      Thank you for your kind words,
      Han

      Delete
  4. This really is such a beautiful painting. Thanks for all the information :)

    Rebel xox

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  5. This is fascinating, thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nice of you to say so, Dale.
      Thank you for your comment,

      Han

      Delete

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