Vermeer, The Milkmaid
Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1658-60
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It’s time I wrote some words about the Seventeenth Century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer. I have been involved with Vermeer’s paintings for many years because of his paint application and his way of making a composition. Vermeer is a dry painter, waiting for certain areas of color to dry, then working over those areas. The Milkmaid has a painted wall behind her that makes the painting worth seeing again and again, something that the mind seeks to experience because of the way that it stains the senses. It is good for the eyes to see the maid’s shape identify the wall. Visually it works both ways. There is the clarity of the maid figure itself, then the dominating aggression of the white pocked wall. The same white application is used by Vermeer in The Little Street in Delft over and around the doorways. The white is applied last as a painting sequence goes, and applied after all the paint in the picture is dry. The play and rub of this type of surface is toyed with again and again without any plan of finishing, so calm and apt that there is no doubt of its visual importance.
Every seeing eye identifies with this illusion. Every eye knows a wall, every wall is different and some walls are more memorable than others, but we, all of us, are involved with walls, and in The Milkmaid a wall is captured, prepared, and asks to be seen.
The next use of white in this painting is the white linen headdress. Some of the magic in illusion making is the poetry of conviction. This headdress and the under color showing beneath the maid’s chin looks like linen mostly because that is where linen should be. The white is the same white that is on the wall behind her but the strokes forming the linen go another way. This application of white has been an inspiration to Robert Ryman and we are able to see Ryman’s paint-clogged canvases because they use this information.
The white linen headdress is made from white applied again and again, and, because we know it to be linen, it is linen. Seeing the white applied again and again one sees that texture has been applied again and again to make this small painting scabbed with simple color and lots of paint. This build-up of paint is also used in The Little Street in Delft (c. 1660-61). This is a period of paint resolution that Vermeer went through and it should be noticed as one of the key qualifications in seeing how a Vermeer painting is made.
The standing maid with thick white paint on her head that turns into linen has both arms forward to show the complicated pile-up of textures in front of her. Here there is one more white pouring out of a milk jug. It is a stingy white deposit which can almost be heard trickling into the earthen pot.
Everything else in this painting is as logical as grammar: the diagonal table that doesn’t make perspective sense yet recedes in the correct way, the dirty basement window that pushes the eye into the room, the complicated still life on the table that is so over worked. Vermeer is not a true genre painter. His attempt at still life is usually cluttered, and the arrangement is often difficult for the eye to identify. This inhibited his clarity. Vermeer painted one thing at a time so when he met some fill-in subject matter he often neglected the finish.
In my study of Vermeer I have closely copied The Milkmaid many times and sometimes feel like an antique dealer with a soft brush cleaning out the tiny crevices in some precious textured object. I feel I have taken my brush and touched all of the areas of this painting time and time again, getting involved enough that the lesson learned by me from Vermeer is time. Time in painting for Vermeer is everything. Not only the timing of when the paint was dry enough to work over, but time to peer at the work in progress without the least urge to move, only look, watch, allowing what was there to tell him the next areas to approach.
Notebook titled “Begun May 11, 1996”