Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt (1908)

The Milkmaid

Johannes Vermeer, ca. 1660
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Milkmaid is among Vermeer’s most famous works. Acclaimed from the first for its outstanding quality, this genre-painting is an icon of Dutch art. We look into a simple kitchen in which a maid is preparing a milk dish. The strong colors of the tablecloth and her clothes, made of coarse fabrics, contrast with the bare wall. Depicting a milkmaid alone in an interior is unique in Dutch art, and Vermeer seems to have broken with the tradition of depicting milkmaids as objects of male desire [fig. 1]. She is turning her back on the symbols of love and licentiousness (the foot warmer and the Delft wall tile decorated with Cupid drawing his bow).

In this relatively early work, Vermeer demonstrated his virtuoso handling of light. The pearl-like effect of the still life in the foreground is unique in Dutch art, bearing witness to Vermeer’s familiarity with camera obscura effects, which he used for his illusionistic brushwork. His contemporaries associated milkmaids with licentiousness, but today we are fascinated by the immediacy of this every-day scene. Museum visitors are forever attracted by this invitation to interact with this maid with an unfathomable gaze.

Sabine Pénot, Curator of Netherlandish and Dutch Paintings, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

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