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The painting is known as De Melkmeid, or Het Melkmeisje, or The Milkmaid. It’s often incorrectly referred to as Woman with a Milk Jug or more rarely, The Kitchen Maid, after the series of Dutch women paintings rendered by Johannes Vermeer. Executed between 1658 and 1661, The Milkmaid is an oil on canvas currently housed at The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Lesser known than Girl With a Pearl Earring, it is The Milkmaid that is considered Vermeer’s masterpiece in most art circles. A 2009 New York Times article explores the 18-inch painting a bit more.
And if you should miss not only the illusion of light, but also the subtler references to the cookware, there nearly under the Milmaid’s left foot is a room warmer of the day framed by purposeful cupid tiles on the lower wall curtain. This alludes not only to cozy interiors, but also to the warmth of domestic life, the stability and health of the young woman, and possibly (if some reviews are to be believed), the ebb and flow of restraint and permission. In other words, a return to concentration on rural agrarianism. Simplicity in nature. Even still, we are meant to understand we are voyeurs. Always looking upon that which on the surface appears innocent, for the sole purpose of uncovering and understanding any underlying reality. We must also consider that Vermeer painted what was available to his eye. Those visions surely contained a full-bodied emotional life and this contributes to the many theories about the meaning of the painting.
There is no flattery here: this thick-muscled,
broad-bottomed girl has milked cows at
dawn and carried sloshing pails
hung from a yoke on shoulders
broadened to the task. She kneaded
fat mounds of dough, sinking heavy fists deep
into voluptuous bread, innocent
and sensuous as a child in spring mud.
Evenings she mends and patches
the coarse wool of her bodice, smelling
her own sweat, sweet like grass and dung
in the barn or like warm milk
fresh from the udder.
Her world is grained and gritty, deep-
textured, rough-hewn, earth-toned, solid,
simple and crude. Reed and brass and clay,
wheat and flax and plaster turned to human use
have not come far from the loamy fields
where they were mined and gathered. The things
she handles are round and square, though-
fibered and strong, familiar as flesh to the touch.
The jug rests in her hand like a baby’s
bottom. She bends to her task like a mother
tending her child, hand and eye trained
to this work, heart left to its pondering.
How like tenderness, this look
of complete attention, how like a prayer
that blesses these loaves, this milk
(round like this belly, full like this breast),
given daily into her keeping, this handmaid
on whom the light falls,
haloed in white, hallowed by the gaze
that sees her thus, heavy, thick-lipped,
weathered and earthbound, blessed
and full of grace.
Vermeer’s getting a second look here in the United States as Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (below) is currently on loan and exhibition to The Getty in Los Angeles until March 31, 2013. You can find other Vermeers in permanent collections in the US here. Vermeers throughout the world are found here. A wonderful article on Vermeer’s palette is here. An article I found on Vermeer’s use of light and the break of evening appears below.
“Another cold morning, though not as cold as yesterday. The duck pond is free of ice, but barely; the surface ripples thickly as if it had thought to freeze but hadn’t quite made up its mind before the dawn broke. Now the sun filters weakly golden through the leafless crags of trees like a bit of tarnished jewelry, diffusing around the broken lines of branches, emphasizing their nakedness without clarifying their geometry. At least the world survived another long night. It usually does.
I have often felt that I could tell the difference between sunrise and sunset only by the light, but I have never been able to convince myself rationally that this is so. If I were stuck down in some unknown spot on the globe at one or the other time of day with no compass or geographic bearings and had to guess in an instant whether the sun was coming or going, could I? I think I could, but perhaps that’s only a conceit. The sun would appear the same distance above the horizon, its light falling at the same shallow angle, filtered through the same branches. I can’t think of any physical evidence of its movement without simply waiting to see what happened next.
Then again, a few of the Dutch masters seem to have been able to capture the difference without resorting even to painting the sky, so maybe there is a difference too subtle and complex for words. I’ve always thought that even in this interior scene Vermeer perfectly captured the light of early morning:
This morning, in any case, gives the lie to all that. The orange light filtering through bare trees makes me think of sunset. Too orange, perhaps, or too wistful seeming for dawn. For a moment I can’t be sure. It could be morning with the day still to come and a bit of warming but clouds over the horizon; it could be evening before a long frigid night but stars ready to shine brilliantly and dinner waiting inside. For a moment time hangs in the balance. Then I dump the food in the chickens’ bowl and get on with the day.”
Shauna Lee Lange: The Art Agrarian is a professional artist, thought leader, and arts advisor based in Southwest Florida who is working in the fields of visual thinking and strategies. Since 2006, she’s been immersed in public installation art and independent and major art projects. Currently, her focus is on the intersection of organic art & artistry, natural forms & terrain, and conscious green social change, otherwise known as Art Agrarianism. Lange is the founder and director of Creative Art Consultants International Network, an integrated social media arts think-tank with over 4,500 members. A U.S. Navy Veteran, the artist also exhibits her self-taught art journals, visual diaries, and sketchbooks nationally. Lange was recently awarded eight solo shows under Charlotte County, FL’s Art in Public Places Program where she’ll exhibit her Microcircles series depicting cellular intersections. Ms. Lange participated in the 2013 Florida’s Creative Capital Professional Development Program, designed in part to further promote Florida’s culture economy. A portion of this article is a direct reproduction from David Walbert’s The New Agrarian, with the author’s permission. Insert Detail “The Milkmaid” Image Credit. “The MilkMaid” is an original poem by Marilyn Chandler McIntyre. “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” Image Credit Source.