The Milkmaid by Jan Vermeer
Interpretation of Dutch Realist Genre Painting

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The Milkmaid by Jan Vermeer
The Milkmaid (c.1658)
By Jan Vermeer.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever,
and a masterpiece of
Protestant Reformation Art.

The Milkmaid (c.1658)


Interpretation/Meaning of The Milkmaid
Analysis of Other Works by Vermeer


Artist: Jan Vermeer (1632-75)
Medium: Oil painting
Type: Genre painting
Movement: Dutch Realism
Museum: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

For the meaning of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Education
To appreciate Dutch Realist
artists like Jan Vermeer,
see our educational essays:
Art Evaluation:
How to Appreciate Art

and also:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Interpretation of The Milkmaid

This work by Jan Vermeer, one of the great examples of Dutch Realist genre painting, and a long time favourite of both artists and critics, was described in the important Vermeer sale of 1696 as "a maid pouring milk, exceptionally well painted." It was certainly greatly admired since only the larger View of Delft (c.1660, Mauritshuis, The Hague) fetched a higher price (200 guilders) than the 175 guilders paid for The Milkmaid. Evidently some special virtue was attached to both the content and the execution of this oil painting, which remained in the public eye through several sales during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, unlike most other Vermeers. It was referred to, for instance, by the eminent English portraitist, Sir Joshua Reynolds, when recording his reactions during a 1781 journey to Flanders and Holland. Although somewhat confused about the artist's name, Reynolds was quite clear about the excellent quality of this picture, to which he called special attention. During the early part of the 19th century, the work was acquired by the Six Collection (the family of the great 17th century Dutch Baroque patron Jan Six), before eventually becoming part of the Rijksmuseum in 1908. Today it is seen as one of the greatest genre paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, and explains why Vermeer is regarded as one of the best genre painters in 17th century Dutch painting.



Portrays Homely Virtue

Unlike most of Vermeer's paintings, which depict elegantly dressed people in well appointed surroundings, The Milkmaid (De Melkmeid or Het Melkmeisje) is Vermeer's tender rendering of a sturdy 'kitchen maid' (milkmaids milked cows) performing a simple household chore in a simple kitchen setting. The work's great popularity during the 19th century - when it was perceived as a symbol of domestic virtue - arose due to the coincidence of Victorian morality and 17th century Dutch ethics. Nineteenth century critics were essentially correct about the meaning of this deceptively simple picture which portrays the very essence of homely virtue.

Kitchen Piece

The Milkmaid is in fact a "kitchen piece", a traditional type of Netherlandish art which combines both genre and still life painting. Pioneered a century before by the Antwerp painter Pieter Aertsen (1509-75) and his nephew and pupil Joachim Bueckelaer (1535-74), the tradition lost popularity in the 17th century, except in Vermeer's home town of Delft, where it endured at the hands of painters like Cornelis Delff and Pieter van Rijck. Nonetheless, Vermeer's picture is quite different from those of his forerunners. His attention is focused on a single sturdy figure, painted using a robust technique, in line with the overall image that he wants to project. The maid is standing in a plain scullery-type room carefully pouring milk into an earthenware container sitting on a small table next to a still life arrangement of stale bread pieces and a full bread basket. (The consensus is that she is using left-overs to make bread pudding.) She is depicted as a young, well built girl in a traditional outfit of white linen cap, yellow tunic, and blue apron. The sleeves of her tunic are rolled up, revealing thick forearms. A foot warmer is visible on the floor behind her.

Meaning of The Milkmaid

Studying the iconography of the painting, it seems to be Vermeer's way of paying tribute to the virtues of temperance, purity and hard work. (For a similarly-themed work, see The Lacemaker c.1669, Louvre.) Temperance is indicated through the traditional symbolic image of a female figure pouring a liquid from one vessel to another. Followers of Caravaggio in the Utrecht School, such as Dirck van Baburen (1595-1624) and Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588-1629), often included such "temperance" warnings disguised as genre figures in their paintings. Purity is indicated by Vermeer's stunning rendering of the highly polished copper pot hanging on the wall, reminiscent of similar shining metal containers in early Netherlandish Annunciation pictures, since a super-clean vessel was a traditional symbol of purity. Hard work is expressed throughout the composition, which - unlike other paintings by Vermeer, makes absolutely no concession to appearance or comfort. Instead, we are presented with a working environment featuring rough walls, roughly textured bread, bare wood, coarse baskets, and a maid with blunt features, rough hands and forearms, dilligently focused on the task of re-cycling of stale foods to make an appetising dish for the household. (For a work promoting chastity, see Girl with a Pearl Earring (Head of a Girl With a Turban) (1664-6, Mauritshuis, The Hague).

Bucking the Trend

Ever since the outset of the Netherlandish Renaissance, around 1400, the traditional iconographic meaning of milkmaids and kitchen maids was based on their reputation as amorous individuals, a meaning often expressed in pictures of kitchen and market scenes by Antwerp painters like Bueckelaer, Aertsen and Frans Snyders (1579–1657), the Utrecht painter Joachim Uytewael (1566–1638) and his son, Peter Uytewael (1596–1660). Other painters who contributed to this approach included the Leiden artist Gerrit Dou (1613–1675) who painted good-looking maids alongside various erotic symbols such as onions (reputed to have aphrodisical properties), wide-mouthed jugs (suggestive of the female anatomy), or involved in various erotic actions like inserting cooking spits into chickens. A case in point is Dou's composition Girl Chopping Onions (1646, British Royal Collection). Thus, in both fine art and literature of the 17th century, maids were portrayed as a threat to domestic security, although some Dutch painters - like Pieter de Hooch (1629-84) and Michael Sweerts (1618-64) - were beginning to depict them in a less inflammatory way.

In Praise of Domestic Virtue

Vermeer's painting of The Milkmaid bucks this overall negative trend and is a rare example of a female servant being treated with appreciation and dignity. Indeed, some art historians associate some aspects of the work (notably the bread basket) with his earlier Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (c.1654, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh): they think that Vermeer's virtous, dutiful maid may represent the role if not the person of Martha the housekeeper (and patron of housewives). The apparently casual placement of the foot-warmer on the floor can also be taken as a token of female virtue. The popular emblem book of Roemer Visscher presented this simple device as a favourite of Dutch women, more valued than a man. Moreover, since foot warmers were commonly used by women when seated, its discarded appearance may symbolize the standing maid's industrious nature. Further support for this moral reading of Vermeer can be found in the related use of simple household objects in the frontispiece of the book Emblems of the Christian Struggle (1619) by Jacob Cats.

Quite a bit of attention has been paid to the maid's so-called Mona Lisa-type smile. Except that with half her face in shadow it is almost impossible to be sure whether she is day-dreaming wistfully, or simply concentrating on not spilling the milk.

For other sphinx-like figures of Vermeer, see: Woman Holding a Balance (c.1662, National Gallery, Washington DC), and Woman with a Pearl Necklace (c.1662), Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin).

Painterly Technique

Vermeer's palette features a toned down colour scheme of white, yellow, and blue, consistent with the worn clothes of his subject, whose silhouette stands out against a bare white kitchen wall illuminated by light falling in from the window on the left. The vessels, the bread in the basket, and the pieces of bread on the table, are flecked with shimmering points of light exemplifying Vermeer's masterful pointillist painting technique. The paint iself is thick and granular, applied with heavy impasto.

Although superficial aspects of the subject matter of this canvas can be related to the works of various of his contemporaries, it is clear that Vermeer's painting technique is unique in the seventeenth century. The small dots of colour, or pointilles, which first appeared in the Soldier and a Laughing Girl (c.1657-8, Frick Collection), have here taken on an added importance. In his earlier experiments with the camera obscura Vermeer was at first content to use these pointilles only to help describe what he saw through the lens of the optical device. With his growing confidence in his new technique, as in this canvas, these shimmering points of light - or at least the paint which describes them - begin to take on a life almost independent of the objects they describe, thus contributing to the modern impact made by this picture and many of his mature works.


The Milkmaid has several compositional features worth noting. Overall, there is a strong tactile quality to the picture — you can feel the dampness of the room, and almost touch the maid's sturdy, rounded shoulders. She is no delicate beauty, no idealized abstraction, but a real person who is totally focused on her domestic work. Compare, for instance, the young housewife in Young Woman with a Water Jug/Pitcher (c.1662). Vermeer used several techniques to create this overall impression. First, he chose a relatively low vantage point in order to emphasize the monumental nature and solidity of his subject. Second, he structured the picture along two diagonal lines: from the bread basket in the left foreground to the maid's head, and from the left background to the bottom of the table's right leg. Both lines intersect at the girl's right wrist, which concentrates the viewer's attention on the jug of milk, thus connecting (1) the dynamic nature of the pouring of the milk with (2) the static nature of the room and the still life laid out on the table. Third, Vermeer ruthlessly removed anything which might deflect attention from his sculptured servant. According to X-ray research, the painting originally contained two objects - a large wall map and a clothes basket, both situated behind the maid - which were subsequently erased.



Analysis of Other Paintings by Vermeer

Little Street (1658) Rijksmuseum
Woman Holding a Balance (c.1662) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Girl with a Red Hat (c.1666) National Gallery, Washington DC
The Art of Painting: An Allegory (Artist in his Studio) (c.1666-1673)

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