Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Milkmaid

Johannes Vermeer, (Delft 1632 - Delft 1675)
(De Melkmeid
c. 1658-1661
Oil on canvas
17 7/8 x 16 1/8 in. (45.5 x 41 cm.)
The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Milkmaid is concentrating hard as she pours the milk or cream from the jug into the container. She is a servant in the household. Her dress is simple. The blue skirt is tucked up to save it from getting dirty. She wears green over-sleeves which partly protect her yellow bodice. On her head she wears a starched cap. She is completely focused on her work and does not seem to realise that she is being painted.

The viewer comes upon her in the midst of her household tasks. The object of her attention - the act of pouring the flowing milk- is the sole object of her attention. The woman`s right wrist just above the jug and the flowing milk is the intersection of the two main diagonals within the painting. Our attention, like that of the Milkmaid, is directed to the act of pouring the milk. The impression is one of quiet harmonious activity in the daily round.

Yet she stands out.

Her clothes are colourful: yellow, blue and red. The sun highlights the white of her cap and collar. The wall in the background is relatively neutral. There are no maps or paintings on the wall to distract attention.

Her features and limbs fall within both light and shade which are adjacent. The right hand side of her face is covered with sunshine; the left hand side is in the shade. The tops of her hands and arms are bathed in light; the bottom sides are in shadow. Light and shade in the painting form interesting and striking effects.

The contour of the woman's back and dress is emphasised with a thin white line. This device separates her from the background.

The artist has painted her from a low viewpoint. This lends a certain weight and dignity to the subject of the painting.

This is no anorexic beauty who simpers into the camera. This woman is sturdy, with big hips, arms and shoulders. She may not conform to some present ideas of what constitutes feminine beauty, but one cannot deny that she has beauty and grace.

Her face betrays no hint of make up or design. The lips curve upwards, giving a suggestion of a smile, or at least happiness. The brow is unlined. She has no cares. She looks down at the milk with a beautiful abstraction, perhaps thinking about other matters. Perhaps she is in love ? Perhaps she is just content.

The lighting in the picture is subtle. Light falls from the left through the window. Beneath and beside the window it is somewhat shadowy, but the woman is standing in the light. Tiny points of light are scattered over all of the painting: on the various parts of the flowing milk, on the edges of the jug and the bowl, the fastening of her yellow dress, and on the bread in the basket.

The attention to detail in the painting is immense but does not overwhelm. The details unite in a harmonious unity. There are tiny rough patches into the texture of the white plasterwork. Note the nail set high in the white wall, and the light entering through a cracked windowpane. The structure of various objects is expertly rendered: gleaming brass, the two wicker baskets (one on the wall, the other on the table), the metal object on the wall with refracted light and reflections, crumbly bread, the tiles with the small cupids and the foot stove.

For more about the painting, the website The Essential Vermeer is a must.

Lowell was one of the twentieth century's esteemed American poets. As a manic depressive who experienced alternating bouts of depression and mania, he was also one of its most tormented. By the time Lowell died at age sixty, he had been married and separated three times, had renounced his Protestant roots for what turned out to be a temporary obsession with Catholicism, and had spent much of his adult life in and out of mental hospitals. During his manic spells, he was overtaken by surges of larger-than-life emotion that ended up reflected in his poetry.


Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme--
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter's vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All's misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

Robert Lowell
(1917 - 1977 )