The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer: His Second Most Famous Painting


Jan Vermeer’s ‘The Milkmaid’ romanticizes the simplicity of life on the canvas. The painting realistically portrays a dull and minimally arranged room where a woman is pouring milk from a jug into a bigger utensil. Minimalism is felt in every aspect of this masterpiece. From the simple terracotta earthenware to the blandness of the milk, the painting’s simplicity is almost overwhelming.

Vermeer and The Milkmaid

A pioneering artist of the Dutch realist movement, Johannes Vermeer’s most chosen theme for his artworks revolves around the fragments of ordinary life. His art is usually set in the quiet interiors of Dutch houses that reflect his eye for detail.

Vermeer’s most renowned work ‘The Milkmaid ‘(De Melkmeid or Het Melkmeisje), is an oil on canvas composition, executed between the years 1657 and 1658. The exact year of the painting’s composition is unknown.

Where is The Milkmaid now?

Early in the 19th century, ‘the Milkmaid’ was acquired by the Six Collection, which eventually became part of the Rijksmuseum in 1908. As one of the greatest genre paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, this work explains why Vermeer is regarded as one of the best genre painters of the 17th century. Now housed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the painting is regarded as a highlight of the museum.

The Subject of the Painting

The Milkmaid
The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

Vermeer’s Milkmaid, in contrast with most of his paintings, shows a straightforward depiction of a ‘kitchen maid’ performing a simple household chore in a modest kitchen setting. During the 19th century, it was widely regarded as a symbol of domestic virtue that echoed Dutch ethics.

Despite its deceptively simple appearance, this painting depicts the essence of homely virtue and the critics of the nineteenth century were essentially correct in their assessment. Virtues such as temperance, hard work, and purity are reflected in this work.

As the name of the painting suggests, the figure of the Milkmaid is Vermeer’s subject in this piece of work. The artist used several techniques to enhance and emphasize the importance and tangibility of his subject. Keeping a low vantage point for the viewers, the Milkmaid’s position has been made monumental. You can see a small indentation just above the woman’s right hand. This is a pinhole that Vermeer used to depict a one-point perspective and mark the vanishing point.

The subject is not just the woman, it is also the chore in which the woman seems engrossed. An ordinary gesture, considered to be a milkmaid’s responsibility but described in an imaginative way.

The Details

The second subject is the action that the milkmaid is performing. The act of pouring and her eyes set on the milk automatically nudges us to look at what she is doing. The dynamic nature of the flowing milk on a static background of the various elements in the room further concentrates the audience’s attention on the jug.

Research suggests that the painting had two more elements before its final version. A large map on the back wall and a basket of clothes were removed by Vermeer to make the painting more minimalistic and draw our attention to what matters.

A basket of bread, a light-blue fabric, a vase, a terracotta container, ceramic tiles, and stains on the wall are all details that make the scene look realistic. The high amount of details hints toward the fact that there may be a deeper meaning behind this conventional scene of everyday life.

The Source of Light

Vermeer’s paintings usually have a single source of light. Similarly in the Milkmaid, light enters through a small window on the left wall of the room. The reason for choosing a single source of light is probably its capacity to enhance the depth and volume of the various elements in the picture. The rays of light fall strongly on the most important elements and are more diffused around the non-essential details. However, in The Milkmaid, the light guides our eyes differently.

At first, we tend to glance over the brightest spots, the woman’s face, her strong shoulders the bread on the table, and the yellowish wall. But what holds our attention is the darkest speck on the painting, the insides of the jug where the light doesn’t enter. The deep black insides make it look as if the woman is pouring from a bottomless jug. Soon our eyes are led to the narrow rivulet of the milk. Even though the light doesn’t hit the milk as strongly, the white color makes it the brightest part of the painting.

The Elements of the Painting

Looking at the rivulet closely, we can observe the delicate twists in the milk as it is being poured. These small details are what enable the viewer to not just look at the picture but also hear it. The thin stream of milk makes a familiar echo in the large terracotta bowl that it is being poured into. With the help of textures that were common in most households at the time, the audience can touch and feel the picture.

The realism of the picture complete with the accuracy of colors and shadows gives it a strong tactile quality. The smallness of the room and the muscular arms of the milkmaid can be felt with a single glance.

The Color Palette

Mellow shades of white, yellow, and blue comprise Vermeer’s color scheme, in keeping with the dull, worn-down clothes of his subject, whose silhouette stands out against a bare white kitchen wall illuminated by light falling through the window. Vermeer’s masterful pointillist painting technique is evident in the flecks of light that adorn the vessels, bread in the basket, and the pieces of bread on the table. The impasto style of painting gives it a thick and granulated texture adding to the depth of the dimensions in the picture.  

The color palette of the painting The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer
The color palette of the painting The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

The single light source creates a beautiful interplay between light and shadow. Vermeer was more subtle in his depiction of light and shadow than the chiaroscuro technique used by many other old masters. The white wall was painted by Vermeer with umber, charcoal black, and white lead. As the light fades into shadow, some light colors are scrambled on top. This draws our attention towards the rough texture of the wall. Vermeer also added subtle details such as the nail at the top, cracks, and holes.

Values of the Milkmaid

Vermeer appears to be celebrating the virtues of temperance, purity, and hard work through the iconography of the painting. A woman pouring a liquid from one vessel to another represents temperance in traditional symbolic imagery.

As a traditional symbol of purity, Vermeer’s highly polished copper pot hanging on the wall suggests purity. This is reminiscent of similar shining metal containers in early Netherlandish Annunciation paintings.

The painting expresses the virtue of hard work through its roughness. A working environment with rough walls, coarse-textured bread, bare wood, coarse baskets, and a maid with blunt features, rough hands, and forearms, is depicted as a diligent taskmaster. She appears to be recycling leftovers into something that might be more useful later on.

The Cupid Tile

Another detail is the figure of Cupid on the tile behind the Milkmaid between her skirt and the foot warmer. This cupid design was a common theme of seventeenth-century Dutch tiles made in almost the exact design as the painting. 

This tile may have been put near the foot warmer on purpose. The foot warmer is a wooden box containing a ceramic bowl full of hot coal. A foot warmer has been used as a symbol of attention given to ladies by men trying to woo them.  One such painting is the “Mignon des Dames” (Servant of Ladies) from Visscher’s Sinne-poppen.

The Milkmaid, however, is completely absorbed in her work, an exemplar of domestic virtue without a hint of amorous intent. Yet cupid is a mischievous messenger of love, breaking into our lives when least expected. That is why his understated presence here may work perfectly. The household work was often set against more pleasurable activities for both servants and mistresses. Thus, Vermeer makes an attempt to show the contrast between pleasure and virtue through the presence of a simple tile. 

Vermeer’s masterpiece

It is clear that the painter’s attention to detail makes ‘The Milkmaid’ marvelous. Together with the light and color transforms it into a masterpiece. Vermeer represents with great detail and realism the conservativeness and determination with which a domestic kitchen maid performs one of her most ordinary duties of the day. It is not the references to female sexuality that give this painting its beauty or empathetic tone. It is the depiction of innocent, hard work being romantic in itself. The Milkmaid elevates the dullness of repetitive work and service to virtuous levels.

These articles might interest you: