Quotidian moment, frozen in time: Vermeer’s Milkmaid

November 13, 2009 at 3:30 am (Art, New York City)


It was the light. I was completely unprepared for it.

The painting seemed to be emitting light.

The colors, especially the blues, are rich and deep. The milkmaid concentrates on her task; she is probably making bread porridge. The prosaic task of pouring the milk is frozen in time forever. The bread looks good enough to eat!

But I kept coming back to the light, which seemed both ordinary and unearthly. The scene depicted in “The Milkmaid” is not ostensibly a religious one; nevertheless, the painting confers a kind of benediction on the viewer. I felt exalted in its presence (as did those on either side of me, judging by the rapt expression on their faces).

Currently mounted at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Vermeer’s Masterpiece the Milkmaid” is a small exhibit. (In “Dutch Touch,” his article in the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl pronounced it “an example for recession-era museum practice.”) Also on view are the Met’s other Vermeers – they own five in all – plus other works by Dutch Genre painters.

What a gift these artists gave us, showing us people going about the business of life at  the height of The Netherlands’ Golden Age. Centuries before the advent of photography, they have captured these quotidian moments for us to see all these many years on.


Art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s piece in the September 21 issue of The New Yorker- unfortunately the full text is not available online – is an odd mixture of masterful writing and puzzling assertions. First, he comments that Vermeer’s “View of Delft “doesn’t do a lot for me….It’s so bizarrely special – a fairyland city persuasively identical to an actual city….”


“View of Delft” – a painting I personally cherish – is not present at this exhibit, but “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” is:

pitcherThis is clearly a painting that Peter Schjeldahl adores. Here he is, waxing rhapsodic – not to mention quixotic – on the subject: “…a little patch of llapis-lazuli-tinted white, describing backlit linen in the head scarf of the Met’s “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher,” would have killed me a long time ago, if paint could.”

This rather disconcerting statement is followed by further (idiosyncratic and hyperbolic) expressions of rapture:

“The entering sunlight sustains all manner of ravishing adventures, throught the picture, but the incidental detail of the head scarf has affected me like a life-changing secret, whispered to me alone. I revel in it each time I see it–having misremembered it, of course, since the last time, helpless to retain the nuance of the color and the velleity of the painter’s touch. ‘Young Woman with a Water Pitcher’ is a Sermon on the Mount of aesthetiic value, in which the meek–or, at least, the humdrum, involving trifles of a prosperous but ordinary household, on an ordinary day–inherit the earth. Beholding it, I feel that my usual ways of looking are torpid to the point of dishonoring the world. At the same time, I know that my emotion is manipulated by deliberate artifice. An artist has contrived to lure me out of myself into aan illusion of reality more fulfilling than any lived reality can be.

Is it just me, or is there a bit too much of  “I” in this piece? Art criticism or psychotherapy? And as for being “manipulated by deliberate artifice” – why, Dude, it’s a painting! It is by definition a work of art – and of artifice, one that is superbly executed. (We agree there.)

As to “The Milkmaid,” Schjeldahl is awed but at the same time ambivalent: “Like ‘Delft,’ ‘The Milkmaid’ exercises more dazzling virtuosity than I quite know what to do with.” What – it’s too good? too close to perfect? Or perhaps a case of too much showy genius in the service of a prosaic subject? I confess, I am well and truly stumped by this statement.

Ah, well – moving right along…

The Met now has a wonderfully rich site that functions as a sort of online art college. Click here to see what is on offer regarding “Vermeer’s Masterpiece: The Milkmaid.”


When I arrived at the museum last Friday, my intention was to proceed directly to this exhibit. In order to do so, you must pass through the Greek and Roman galleries. This I proceeded to do. But before I reached the Vermeers, I was stoppped dead in my tracks by these:

Greek vase3



“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time…

Stay tuned for the further adventures of a passionate art lover, who is thunderstruck for the first time by the “Grecian Urns,” objects she first saw at the age of eight…


  1. Derek McCrea said,

    Vermeer is one of my favorite artists the use of suddle tones and the capture of shadown is so smooth and delicate.

  2. Greek vases « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] a post on my recent sojourn to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I mentioned being stunned by  the Greek vases in the Greek and Roman Art galleries. Since this […]

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