Essay Non-Fiction posted February 20, 2015

This work has reached the exceptional level
by Dutch master, Vermeer

The Milk Maid

by mfowler

A Picture Paints A Thousand Words Contest Winner 

When I was a young teenager I fell in love with The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Milkmaid.  Our art teacher in Yr 9 had just introduced us to Johannes Vermeer.

The realism of Vermeer was a feature of the Dutch Golden Age. From my modern eye's perspective, these paintings appear to be photographs of a people, of a time so long ago, that it's taken great art to help me comprehend its atmosphere, its culture and its spirit.
The Milkmaid depicts a kitchen servant in a normal domestic situation, probably within  a middle class Dutch household of the 17th century.

She is pouring milk from a sizable brown milk jug into a large bowl on a small table. So skilfully rendered is this action, that the milk appears to continually flow as you peer at it.

The bowl sits on a small table which occupies most of the bottom left quarter of the painting. The table is covered by a faded blue cloth, while a darker blue cloth, perhaps a cleaning tool, is lazily drooped over its front edge.

A close examination of the table reveals a range of foods, staple produce of a farm and typical of what might be grown on local farms at the time. A  roughly woven, wicker basket  holds an enticing loaf of wholegrain bread which looks almost good enough to slice and enjoy. Surrounding the bread are a variety of foods, the only one of which that's clear, being corn, still on the cob and wearing its sheaves.

I remember my teacher suggesting that this arrangement was in preparation for a food such as bread porridge, a favourite of the times. This strange sounding food was made by mixing stale bread with milk and whatever was available in the kitchen. After mixing, it is then boiled and stirred over a slow flame. Maybe, next year I'll try that, as my new vegetarian diet will allow such a concoction.

To complete the table ensemble is large blue and yellow porcelain receptacle. It fills the table and completes the next most important section of the painting, after the milkmaid.

Vermeer was a wonderful technician and this painting is one of those used by the art world to illustrate the geometrical structures that underpinned much of European realism painting of the time. This painting uses triangular formations to create its sense of balance.

A straight line drawn from the bottom left corner to the top of the milkmaid's bonnet and then down to the floor along her right side, encompasses the majority of the painting's main features. These include the table, its contents and the maid. It forms almost a perfect right-angled triangle with the floor-line. Similarly, a line drawn from the top of the lit window on the painting's left, and taken to the base of the maid's dress, reveals another right-angled triangle if the left edge and the floor-line are added. This shape is juxtaposed to the one described earlier. This triangle focuses light from the window onto the table arrangement.

Deconstructing a painting into such shapes serves to reveal the quality of the technique, but Vermeer's skill was such, that the painting works wonderfully as a whole.

The light from the window was a favourite technique of the time for creating contrasts of light and shade, and for illuminating colours and shapes. The window is set in a solid wall on the upper left side. Light, soft and subtle, invades the picture by stealth. It alights on objects and colours with beautiful effect. Yellows and blues are carefully blended throughout the painting. These are beautifully complementary hues, and subtle shifts between objects and illumined by sunlight, give a viewer a sense of peace within the scene.

The subject of the picture dominates the central imagery. The milkmaid is a solidly built, comely looking young woman of her time and class. She's smartly attired in a daffodil yellow bodice, a royal blue apron, and a rustic red skirt which can been partly seen. On her head she wears a white bonnet which is folded back at the rim and falls away down her back. Her face is concentrated on the pouring action. It is rounded with regular features; not a rare beauty, but a realistic vision of a young working class servant.

Some suggestions have been made about how the central vision of the maid pouring milk, forms an inverted V shape of the jug's mouth. They say that this is a subtle sexual innuendo connected to the reputation of milkmaids for being easy with their morals, particularly with their employers. The milk pouring somehow lends further evidence to this erotica.

Whether Vermeer meant to titillate or merely record life in the times, is part of the fun of speculating about art.

The picture is completed on the right and above the setting by a softly yellow coloured kitchen wall. To ensure these large sections aren't devoid of interest, Vermeer has added objects such as a foot warmer, a lantern and a woven basket.

I love the mood of this painting. It is both a beautiful technical study and a rich history in one. To contemplate it, is to be there in that moment.


Writing Prompt
Write a descriptive essay describing a picture of your choice

Must be a 1,000 words or less

A picture you "strongly like" should be used

A Picture Paints A Thousand Words
Contest Winner


With thanks: Wikipedia

'The Milkmaid', sometimes called The Kitchen Maid, is an oil-on-canvas painting of a "milkmaid", in fact a domestic kitchen maid, by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer.
Artist: Johannes Vermeer
Location: Rijksmuseum
Dimensions: 46 cm x 41 cm
Created: 1657�¢??1658
Period: Dutch Golden Age
Media: Oil paint
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