Maid of Honor

John Haber
in New York City

Jan Vermeer: The Milkmaid

Once again, The Milkmaid took me by surprise. Jan Vermeer does that. He paints what look like sudden glimpses of life that have been there forever. It has led people to imagine entire lives for his women—and yet to call him a modernist before his time, a pure painter.

For its loan to New York, the Met plays up the biography. It finds an allegory of lust and love in a scene of extraordinary silence. I have my doubts, but it gets one thinking about what counts as meaning when Vermeer transforms a Dutch interior. Along with the Met's own holdings and nothing else, it also shows how much a single painting can do. Jan Vermeer's The Milkmaid (Rijksmuseum, c. 1658)

Could the Met's thesis seem a sacrilege—or a travesty? Could art in the Netherlands get awfully raunchy? With a diorama of Dutch landscape the year before, art history descends into a brawl, and the pretend art historians fully intend the travesty. The Chadwicks make only for minor comedy, but they leave one hungering for the real thing. As a postscript, I pay my respects to the late Walter Liedtke, the Met's curator of European paintings. Thanks to him, The Milkmaid, at least, still holds surprises.

Bulking up

Its size alone took me by surprise. It measures less than eighteen inches high, smaller than The Lacemaker by Nicolaes Maes across the room. Delft genre painting is like that, too, even when it looms large, and the Met displays The Milkmaid along with its own five Vermeers and other Dutch art. Add in the Frick, and New York City has quite a collection. An almost comical wall at the Met reproduces every known Vermeer, unframed and on precisely the same scale. (You decide whether a tricky attribution, Young Woman Seated at the Virginals, belongs.)

Of course, it looks smaller still walled off by the crowds. For additional irony, photographs of museum visitors by Thomas Struth once exhibited in the same rooms. I could have been back then, looking at the same people looking. Admirers got off easy at the 1996 Jan Vermeer retrospective in Washington, much less at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Henry Hudson's sailing into New York in 1609 occasions a Dutch return visit. If that sounds like a lame excuse, the celebration is real.

It takes patience to draw closer, and doing so only renews the surprise. No wonder I remember this painting as larger, for it has a way of growing again before your eyes. Even from a distance, its colors outshine anything else in the room. What explains its sense of scale? Maybe one should ask instead why other art looks so small.

Women in most genre scenes shrink into their interior and their work. Maes's lacemaker does. It has to do with her role as an emblem of household virtue, infant at her side. It has to do with the artist's attention to detail, to sustain the illusion. Like Pieter de Hooch, Maes also immerses his figures in half-glimpsed larger spaces, with multiple doors and sources of light. A middle-class household then had its public rooms, private quarters, back stairs, and an intricate social structure to match. Vermeer overlooks all that to focus on a woman alone—or does he?

His milkmaid sure bulks up. Her rounded form combines the art of modeling flesh, an almost Renaissance dignity, and seventeenth-century peasant stock. Cutting off her feet only accentuates her breadth. Even without her feet, she stands more than four-fifths the painting's height. She also has nowhere to hide.

Instead of dwarfed by intricate interiors, she has only a white wall behind her. It pulls her and the art toward the picture plane. Morning sunlight bulks her up as well. It picks out her white bonnet and its loose flap. It envelops her chest and shoulders. One almost draws back from her left elbow angled forward into the sun.

Descending to allegory

Not that one could touch her in the imagined room. To give her more weight, Vermeer places her behind her worktable. The eye reaches her by stages along its perspective. One lingers over its still life, broken halfway through by a blue cloth hanging over the edge. Its diagonal places her atop a pyramid, with a foot warmer behind her as its other base. A line running the other way, to the market basket and window, puts her that much more on center stage.

Sunlight sweeps across her chest and the wall. It isolates the poured milk as if its stream will never stop. Loaves on the table glisten with points of light. She is probably preparing the ingredients for a bread pudding, but everything here is an end in itself. Quite aside from her, the painting holds mountains. She is simply its highest peak.

The descent is easy, but the way back is slow. One crosses four distinct shades of blue—in the cloth, a ceramic pitcher, the bands on the maid's sleeves, and her apron. Vermeer makes one blue richer than the next, with her waist the richest of all. Vermeer isolates her more as heroine than as serving girl. One can look, but one cannot touch. Yet he also makes perception into sensual, tactile experience.

Does that leave her a sex object, and would she care? Teasing out Vermeer's competing narratives is one point of the Met's display. The curator, Walter Liedtke, definitely does not believe in pure painting—or in the milkmaid's purity. The Dutch in their golden age loved allegories of abundance, pleasure, and the temptation to give in to both. They especially liked to ascribe it to the servants, as in a genre scene at the Met. Milkmaids had pride of place in the mythology, perhaps because of the association of milk with breasts.

In some versions of the myth, a foot warmer has associations with caring and cuddling. Liedtke also notes the room's one bit of decoration, baseboard skirting. The tiles look as worn as the bare wall, but Vermeer has sketched two figures on them, and one holds Cupid's arrow. The other, while even less clear, may represent a child's game. While Liedtke does not accuse the milkmaid of depravity, he wonders if her lowered gaze nurtures a dream of love.

She does not yield her secrets easily, and neither does Vermeer. He probably began and ended his career with allegories of faith, and The Allegory of Painting lands smack in the middle. An early painting, The Procuress, shows men inflicting their will on a willing woman. However, his most famous images set the stage for stories while refusing to tell them. Women dream, play music, weigh pearls, and glance upward toward the light. Maps and paintings behind them identify that outside world with men and with love that no one will ever see.

A blemish as a pool of light

The Milkmaid dates from before 1660, not far into Vermeer's middle period. Remarkably, the maid poses in the same room and in the same sunlight as her betters. That is part of her dignity. Yet, unlike women of means, she did not choose her furnishings, including the tiles, and she turns away from the window and toward the table. The wall behind her bears scars rather than art, including a serious dent. She ignores that, too.

Of course, Vermeer uses a single setting because it served him as a studio. He imagines, but as much as anyone before or since he observes—starting with the room always at hand. He surely invented the pockmark. For a moment, though, one could ask what he usually covers up with all those maps. The servant in Girl with Pearl Earring would probably help him hide it.

More to the point is what the milkmaid tunes out. Instead of a dream or introspection, her downcast eye show her just going about her task. And she does so without a hint of self-consciousness—not even the devotion to duty in The Lacemaker. Compared to Vermeer's better-off women or even the flair of Goya's Milkmaid, she is a fact or force of life. In her world, a blemish in the wall becomes a pool of light.

The Met may see signs of an allegory, but allegory takes interpretation. The woman weighing pearls, a Last Judgment on the wall behind her, could stand for vanity or self-reflection. She could be weighed in the balance and found wanting, or she could have the final judgment. Vermeer's sunlight, I have argued before, reprises an Annunciation, like Madonna in a Church by Jan van Eyck. Vermeer's women poise between agent and passive receptacle, as well as between virginity and marriage. So does Vermeer's art.

I have called that stance the death of the symbol. The painting secularizes older morality plays, and it definitely does not show a lower-class stereotype shaking her tail. In the process, it appropriates the sacred and the eternal for the mundane and the living. The white stream of poured milk does not have to mean purity. Men pay for these things and can look on, before the breaking of bread to satisfy their desires. All the same, women and artists have work to do.

A show with exactly one loan sounds restrained. Yet for all the talk surrounding its visit to New York, The Milkmaid surprises. It will not settle down to allegory or even ambiguity. Just when I want the maid poised between pure existence and pure painting, Vermeer gives her a healthy figure. Earthiness and light may enhance or deconstruct one another. Either way, the woman has the last word, and it remains unspoken.

A diorama of art history

Edward Winkleman has written of his admiration for conceptual art with visceral pleasures. The trick is to keep that from meaning physical art that looks better on paper. When competing with Vermeer's contemporaries, the trick is harder still.

I had something of the same ambivalence at his gallery with "The Chadwicks" a year back and in "Otherworldly," a show of dioramas and model art at the Museum of Arts and Design a few years later. It amounts to an elaborate charade in art history, right down to a phony press release. The dealer purports to present at last, after one hundred years, a family's obsession with Dutch masters. It does not take long to see why it has suffered a century of neglect.

Notebook sheets collect scraps of insights and pretend proverbs, as "curated" by J. Blachly and Lytle Shaw. On video, one of the two holds forth in the aftermath of a period drinking scene, in Dutch with English subtitles. And his scholarship quickly becomes part of the action. Already three different centuries have become muddled. His drunken, stumbling outbursts have about the same wit and coherence as the proverbs. I smiled at the incongruity without quite ever finding it funny.

At the very end, the soundtrack gives way to English. As emotions reach a fever pitch, acting gives way to anger, and the cursing becomes real. It is a reminder that even scholars must live in the present. I do not mean just pretend scholars either. And that says something useful about art and its interpretation, even outside Chadwick manor.

Only the exhibition's centerpiece, The Genretron, really immerses the viewer in the present as well. It presents a panoramic Dutch landscape, in 3D and in the round. One ducks to enter—a treat for those who so love Jacob van Ruisdael and his brethren that they have always wanted to move right in. It also covers all the bases. As one turns one's head, a seventeenth-century forest scene blends almost seamlessly into sunny fields and a stormy seascape. Now that is revisionist art history. Could Dutch art have confined itself all along to one continuous, imagined landscape?

I thought again of Vermeer alone in his one room, with sitters and subjects of different classes. Perhaps his parables, too, could erupt in a drunken brawl. If so, I might get so wrapped up in my own desires that I might never notice. Neither, perhaps, would the milkmaid.

A postscript: Walter Liedtke

The painting had come the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where things have so often taken me by surprise, thanks to Walter Liedtke, curator in the department of European paintings. I want to add my own small tribute to Liedtke, who died in a Metro-North train crash north of the city. A driver was crossing the tracks as a train approached and gates closed to prevent cars from entering. Sadly, she responded by getting back behind the wheel and attempting to move forward. She and five train passengers lost their lives. Let me recall instead, though, a glimpse of the past.

In an official statement, the Met's director, Thomas Campbell, called Liedtke "one of the preeminent scholars of Dutch and Flemish painting." The museum also noted his love for Aristotle with a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt and Young Woman with a Water Pitcher by Jan Vermeer, both in the permanent collection. The former came to define European painting for a wider public. And the second, Liedtke observed, was the very first of thirteen Vermeers to enter American collections over thirty years—years in which the Met came to have more even than the Frick. Liedtke being who he was, he did not linger over his role in the shaping the Met's growth and curatorial point of view. It was huge.

Under him the museum expanded its wing for European paintings, even as MoMA's expansion plans keep finding ways to play down its collection. He also served as curator for such exhibitions as "Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt" in 1996, "Vermeer and the Delft School" in 2001, and "The Age of Rembrandt," all of which shed new light on the museum's holdings. He and the museum could drive me crazy with their blockbusters and attributions. The links here go to reviews in which I quarreled with him directly, most notably on Delft painting. As I wrote then, the Met's reliance on long wall labels from a single perspective "stops novices from finding their own meanings." Still, he was the real deal, as educator and scholar, and let me focus, if I may, on what he taught me, with a look back to The Milkmaid.

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Jan Vermeer's "Milkmaid" ran The Metropolitan Museum of Art through November 29, 2009, the Chadwicks at Winkleman through November 8, 2008. Walter Liedtke died February 2, 2015.


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