The Sublime in the Ordinary: Vermeer’s ‘The Milkmaid,’ in the U.S. for the first time in decades, displays his transfigurative gifts.

Vermeer’s ‘The Milkmaid,’ in the U.S. for the first time in decades, displays his transfigurative gifts.

By LANCE ESPLUND / Wall Street Journal

New York

Johannes Vermeer’s extraordinary powers of invention and mastery of light are that much more apparent when his paintings are seen among those of lesser Dutch masters, as are six Vermeer pictures now in a small, contextual exhibition of 25 works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show’s centerpiece—its raison d’être—is Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” (c. 1657-58), which is on loan from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and has not been exhibited in the U.S. since it traveled here for the 1939 World’s Fair. Organized by Walter Liedtke, curator in the Met’s Department of European Paintings, the exhibit also includes the five Vermeers in the Met’s permanent collection, as well as supporting works by other Dutch Golden Age artists.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam  Johannes Vermeer 's "The Milkmaid" (c. 1657-58)

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam Johannes Vermeer 's "The Milkmaid" (c. 1657-58)

One of the greatest pictorial virtues of Vermeer (1632-1675) is that he can imbue ordinary objects with sublime qualities. What makes this feat so astounding is that he never loses his grasp on his subjects’ origins. He paints things—bread, cloth, table and wall; flesh, light, space and air—without pretense. Yet, somewhere along the way, the forms become elevated—transfigured. While lesser painters attempt to give weight to objects and volume to form, to create light and space on the canvas, Vermeer explores extremes—balancing the humble with the mysterious. He raises us to ecstatic heights as he roots us firmly in the soil.

Any grouping of Vermeers will make clear the artist’s subtle control, his imaginative exploration of structure and metaphor, his range of touch. Vermeer can seem to have sculpted his forms out of light—and to have given light a full spectrum of qualities and temperatures. He colors light a wintery, velvety gray-blue in “Woman Holding a Balance” (c. 1664), at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In the Met’s “Woman With a Lute” (c. 1662-63)—in which her blurred head materializes like an apparition, vibrates like a plucked string—the soft-focus light is burnished sunset-bronze, as if warmed by touch, age and patina. Elsewhere, Vermeer’s light can be autumnal and arid or murky and veiled. In the Met’s “Study of a Young Woman” (c. 1665-67) it is glowing, protective and pearlescent. And light can change within a single painting. In “The Milkmaid,” Vermeer’s light is cool, silvery, tingling and crystalline, like that of the day winter transitions into spring. It has the charge of anticipation, the jolt of an Annunciation.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art  Johannes Vermeer, "Study of a Young Woman," probably ca. 1665-67, oil on canvas, 17 1/2 x 15 3/4 in.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Johannes Vermeer, "Study of a Young Woman," probably ca. 1665-67, oil on canvas, 17 1/2 x 15 3/4 in.

Painted for Vermeer’s patron Pieter van Ruijven, “The Milkmaid” is not, by my estimation, the greatest work among the 36 canvases attributed to the artist. But it is still one of his masterpieces. At 18 inches high and roughly 16 inches wide, the picture is the size of a small mirror or window and, as such, rewards one-to-one engagement. At the Met it has been hung too high; its location—chosen, I presume, to accommodate crowds and distance—is that of an altar painting, which encourages (not unwarranted) supplication.

The work depicts a woman pouring milk from a pitcher into a small bowl. She stands alone at a crowded table by a window in a small room and may be a kitchen maid making bread porridge (though not all of the necessary ingredients are visible). As with all of Vermeer’s pictures, however, its subject is not an endgame but a theme to be developed.

Mr. Liedtke, in the catalog and exhibition, makes an ironclad argument for the picture’s erotic content. The milkmaid was a common 17th-century subject suggesting sexual availability. In genre scenes such as these, “maids and mistresses alike are distracted from their daily tasks by dreams or offers of love.” The milkmaid, Mr. Liedtke tells us, “would have brought to mind the slang word melken (to milk), meaning to attract or lure.” He says that “a woman in the act of milking a cow . . . is compared to grabbing a man’s . . . attention.” Furthermore, the painting’s supporting symbols include a wall tile depicting Cupid, as well as a foot warmer, which “heat[s] feet and, under a long skirt . . . more private parts.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art  Johannes Vermeer, "Woman with a Lute," early 1660s, oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 18 in.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Johannes Vermeer, "Woman with a Lute," early 1660s, oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 18 in.

In “The Milkmaid,” erotic undercurrents are present in the tentative dribble of milk released from the pitcher; the mysterious darkness of the pitcher’s cavity; the scintillating light dancing across surfaces; the tactility of glass, starched linen, wool, earthenware and crusty bread; the electric-blue quiver and sway of the woman’s apron; and the bright, milky white void of the plaster wall—a plane that in areas presses forms forward and in others opens into vastness. Yet the eroticism is never overstated, even in the suggestive nudge of a hanging bread basket by a square copper pail; or in the gentle lift of the milkmaid’s apron by the table’s edge.

I would wager, however, that while eroticism is the painting’s allure, Vermeer had bigger aspirations. The floor and lower wall on the right side of the canvas evoke a desert, in which Cupid and another figure wander aimlessly. Vermeer’s milkmaid and table are rooted to the floor and step upward like a ziggurat. Their stature is noble, monumental. Her face feels carved out of wood. And yet, as if weightless, she rises; and she opens, infinitely opens—especially at her sturdy midsection, where her abdomen, rather than convex, is concave. Her upper body turns inward, receding into the wall, as her apron begins to rotate outward and toward the viewer. A jumble of conflicting urges, she corkscrews, turning this way and that. And her white linen cap lifts slightly and spreads, exposing her face, her ear, to the light, just in line with a small break in the window—which suggests that she is ready, like the Virgin, to receive.

The picture’s theme is that of beginnings and expectations. The maid is a flagship—her linen cap and apron billow, as if she is setting sail. Whether she is carried by the winds of eroticism or by those of the spirit; whether she is poised to receive God or a male suitor—whether she is even making bread porridge—is immaterial. Vermeer gives her, and us, wide-enough berth to travel wherever the painting takes us.

—Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Journal.

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