Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Milkmaid

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has loaned to The Metropolitan Museum of Art one of its most popular paintings, Johannes Vermeer's The Milkmaid. Painted from about 1657-8, it is truly one of the best examples of Dutch painting. I'm not an expert on the Dutch masters, but I can say that Vermeer is one of my favorite painters. Then again, who wouldn't like Vermeer? His handling of light and color with such simple subject matter reveals the hand of a master at work. The painting itself it actually much brighter than the digital image you see here (this is a detail of the painting and the cover of the small exhibition catalogue). In the painting, the colors pop from the canvas and you get the sense that you've approached the milkmaid at a particular moment when the sunlight coming through a window has illuminated her. It creates a sensual, luminous effect that is difficult to find elsewhere in the history of painting. The small exhibition has been curated by Walter Liedtke, a noted expert on Dutch painters from Vermeer to Rembrandt, and includes paintings, drawings, prints, and decorative art from the Met's collection to complement and contextualize Vermeer's picture. Perhaps most interesting is the theme on which Vermeer borrowed: that of the milkmaid's "reputation for amorous predispositions," according to the exhibition's website, which means that there is a tradition in Dutch painting of busty milkmaids being seen as sexual objects. (Hm...that Christmas song where 'maids-a-milking' are followed by 'lords-a-leaping' now suddenly makes sense...) What Liedtke is arguing then is that this picture has subtle hints that suggest a conscious romantic theme beyond a genre scene. In later art, certainly the sexuality-labor theme runs true to form. In her groundbreaking essay on Morisot's painting of her daughter and wet nurse, Linda Nochlin has written about the visual associations of mothers and breastfeeding with animals and labor. In the essay, she cites Segantini's painting The Two Mothers, 1889, which shows the pairing of a human mother and a cow both with their newborns, as an example of this conjunction of women's role as animalistic laborer. It is a picture that can be seen as sentimental, but it also demonstrates the perception of women as beasts of burden and, by implication, their social status beneath men, as it was understood at that time. Indeed, if you think about it, the theme of the milkmaid has direct connections with cows and the production of milk, both as a form of labor and in women's biological construct as a mother or wet nurse, so Nochlin's 19th-century example certainly has historical precedents in Dutch genre scenes such as this Vermeer painting. If you're in NYC this fall season, make a point to see the exhibition, as you'll be rewarded by the painting's beauty. If you're interested in learning more about Vermeer, check out the website Essential Vermeer that my friend PR just happened to pass along to me the other day. Also, if you haven't seen the film The Girl with a Pearl Earring, starring Scarlett Johannson and Colin Firth, I recommend it as an art film that captures the essence of light and simplistic beauty that makes Vermeer's paintings so exquisite.

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