The Impeccable Puzzle of Vermeer’s Milkmaid
It looks like a simple scene. A woman stands pouring milk from a clay jug. Before her on a small table is a loaf of bread in a wicker basket, along with several other tufts of old loaf. She may be preparing bread pudding, soaking the ingredients before baking.
The mood is quiet, concentrated on the woman in her occupation. With a little imagination, it’s possible to hear the trickle of the milk as it falls from the jug’s spout.
Johannes Vermeer is an artist known for the utmost care he took over the placement of elements in his paintings. This image is no different. Through the clarity of the composition and the lingering sense of solitude, the painting seems to propose an impeccable puzzle. Can it be solved?
The Milkmaid is a type of painting known as a “genre” work, a style popular in Dutch art at the time, one that celebrated the lives of ordinary people engaged in everyday occupations or pastimes.
The theme also offered artists the chance to infuse their paintings with delicate hints of a deeper meaning.
In this painting, Vermeer does just that.
The activity of light and surface textures across the painting encourages us to take a prolonged, invested look.
Notice, for instance, how the paint has a slightly coarse quality, with the highlights of the bread and the pottery painted with fairly thick dabs of paint, a technique known as pointillés. The activity of blue and white highlights on the surface of the redware pot, for instance, alerts us to its clay texture and suggests a glazed sheen. Meanwhile, the same technique brilliantly establishes the grainy quality of the bread crusts.