Monday, November 23, 2009
We went to see Vermeer's painting The Milkmaid yesterday, which is currently featured at the MET. Vermeer is a remarkable painter and so many of his works are strikingly beautiful, but perhaps the Milkmaid stands out as one of a handful of undeniable masterpieces. What makes it so great?
Well, of course, it goes without saying that I have no authority whatsoever to make a claim for its greatness. Still, for me it is rather fun to try to make a case for it just by looking. And like so many others, what I find especially arresting about Vermeer and this painting, in particular, is his unmatched ability to paint light shining through a window and to capture how it reflects on the milkmaid's forehead and the wall behind her, and especially how it plays so brilliantly on the bread and the pitcher before her, as well as the milk that she herself is pouring. Indeed, you could argue that the subject of this painting is how the objects in a room that is flooded with light are transformed by that very light. Particularly fascinating is how that light brings the blue of the cloth on the table to life, or how it seems to enliven each seed of the bread in the foreground. Could it be that this painting is, in fact, about the things that give life itself? The sun, the bread, the milk, the milkmaid in all of her youth and female robustness. Even the discarded foot warmer on the floor at the bottom right of the painting is a contributor to the theme of what gives life.
What perhaps undercuts this theme is the look on the milkmaid's face, quiet, serious, unenthusiastic. A look that could be the product of many things, though the story goes that she more than once protected Vermeer's wife from being physically abused by her brother. She is thus a woman who can take care of herself but is also utterly lacking in naivete. She knows how cruel people can be to each other, how much we tend to diminish each other, and she is prepared to do what she can to prevent this from happening to those she cares for. She goes on, but she also seems to be acutely aware of how hard it can be to go on when so many things prevent us from being our best selves.