An Eternal Now

Vermeer at the Met

Is there anyone who cares for painting and does not love Johannes Vermeer (1632-75)? The light of days long gone streaming through casement windows into intimate interiors where the radiant faces of young women make us wonder what they may be feeling or thinking or dreaming of. Their gleaming yellow bodices, sometimes decorated with fur, their brilliant blue skirts, their combed-back hair and gentle gestures, the stillness that surrounds them and seems almost to sing. Some, of course, give hints—writing or reading a letter (but to or from whom?), holding a lute with a viola da gamba nearby (is the young suitor just departed or due to arrive?), taking a glass of wine from a young soldier (it is unlikely to be merely a toast).

There are also earlier paintings such as Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, and cityscapes such as the grand view of his hometown of Delft or the endearing Small Street. Symbolic figures are found in The Astronomer and The Geographer, and allegories that range from the luminous manifesto The Art of Painting to the doctrinally intense Allegory of the Catholic Faith. But there are not a great many more.

Some of the paintings once thought to be by Vermeer have since been attributed to other Dutch artists of the period. Vermeer’s work disappeared from view after his death and was little known until the second half of the nineteenth century, when the French critic Théophile Thoré visited the Royal Picture Gallery (now more commonly called the Mauritshuis) in The Hague and was stunned by A View of Delft. Thoré later spent two decades searching for Vermeers, and by the end of the century, prices for Vermeer had soared. Even now, though, a scant thirty-six canvases are securely attributed to him. (They are marvelously reproduced and discussed in Walter Liedtke’s Vermeer: The Complete Paintings.)

The rarity seems only to add to the public’s delight. When Arthur Wheelock gathered a full twenty-two Vermeers for his show at the National Gallery in Washington in the winter of 1995-96, visitors left the galleries with stars in their eyes. In 2001, when Liedtke organized “Vermeer and the Delft School” for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the galleries could scarcely hold the crowds. No matter how much taste may change and fashion prove fickle, it is hard to believe that the Delft master will ever be forgotten again.

Now, to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon arriving in New York Harbor and sailing up what was then called the North River, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has lent the Met Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (until November 29), a work mesmerizing on its own but also highly instructive as a bridge between the artist’s formative years and his mature style. Shown together with the Met’s own five Vermeers as well as several other contemporary paintings from its collection, five prints and a drawing, the simple girl from across the sea has occasioned the gathering of more of the artist’s work than can be seen anywhere else in the world today. And just down Fifth Avenue, the Frick Collection offers three more of his canvases, including a special favorite for many, Officer and Laughing Girl (c. 1657).

Liedtke, who also organized “The Age of Rembrandt” show at the Met in 2007 and published his grand, two-volume Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art the same year, presents this miniblockbuster as an exercise in contextualism. As visitors enjoy the art, they also learn which other Dutch artists Vermeer learned from, emulated, and surpassed. What current artistic themes did he adopt and reinterpret? How could genre, still life, and portraiture be newly combined? In particular, what was the erotic subtext in many contemporary paintings that Vermeer would interpret in his own understated way? (Here Liedtke’s wall texts are at their witty best.)

Vermeer was born in Delft, but very little is known of his early years and training. Influenced by the Caravaggesque painters of Utrecht and by Carel Fabritius (who may have been his teacher), he also responded to the observational realism and scale of paintings by Leiden artists such as Gerrit Dou and Gabriël Metsu. Fellow Delft artist Pieter de Hooch’s facility with linear perspective and the treatment of daylight was similar enough that de Hooch’s The Visit (c. 1657), in the Met’s collection and part of the show, was once attributed to Vermeer. Apparently admired in his hometown, at twenty-one Vermeer became a master in the local St. Luke’s Guild and was later named its head.

As for the figure of the milkmaid, it had been understood for two centuries to suggest amorous inclinations. Several prints and a fine drawing represent the theme, in particular a superb engraving by Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533) that portrays a hardy lad and lass on either side of the valuable cow that is bringing them together. Just as the act of milking a cow could intimate sexual activity, paintings like Peter Wtewael’s Kitchen Scene, depicting a virile young farmhand and a receptive cook, were replete with sexual symbolism-a hanging bird and a chicken impaled on a skewer, for example.

The Milkmaid (c. 1657-58) is far more reserved, investing its plain kitchen maid with interiority and dignity. As a window to her right pours clear light into the room, the young servant woman pours milk from an earthenware jug into a two-handled bowl. On the same table, we see a dazzling still-life of a jug with blue enamel glaze and a large basket of crusty bread. Wearing a stiff white cap, the woman tilts her head to the left. Since that side of her face is largely in shadow and her eyes are lowered, it is hard to say whether her mood is one of duty or reverie. The sleeves of her yellow jacket are rolled up, showing her strong arms—the flesh subtly paler toward her elbow. Over a red skirt, her brilliantly deep-blue apron (the color echoed by a lighter blue cloth over the table) is done with a pigment made from lapis lazuli, an extravagance made possible by Vermeer’s Delft patron Pieter van Ruijven (who at his death owned twenty-one works by the artist).

The detailed, almost photographic realism (or illusionism) of the painting immediately commands your attention. But gradually you also realize how remarkable the composition is, with a pyramidal mounting of forms from the table and lower part of the girl’s body up to her head. Meanwhile, the bare, whitewashed wall behind her gives the scene both depth and solidity: light, not line, profiles the girl’s figure for us. The exact detail recalls painters like Dou and Metsu, but the exquisite balance and play of light are entirely Vermeer’s. He makes you feel what you see. He also allows you to wonder what the foot warmer in the lower right corner of the picture might mean. After all, there’s a small tile with the figure of Cupid next to it.

Surrounding the young visitor, the Met’s other Vermeers profit but also suffer by comparison. Painted perhaps a year earlier, A Maid Asleep is less accomplished and also more obvious. An overdressed young woman, drowsy from wine, sits at a table near an open door through which, presumably, a male visitor has just left. (The flash of light on the doorway, though, is not at all obvious and takes your breath away with expectation of the art to come.) Three other canvases are from the early- to mid-1660s and represent the artist’s maturity—among them Woman with a Lute (1662-63) and Young Woman with a Pitcher (c. 1662), the first Vermeer to enter the Met’s collection and generally considered its finest. As I was admiring it on another occasion, I heard one visitor say to another, “I could stand here forever.” Indeed. The radiant rendering of the ideal woman in the ideal household is bathed in light more real than most of us can remember, suggesting an eternal now at once ideal and real.

Allegory of the Catholic Faith, the latest of the Met’s Vermeer paintings (c. 1670-72), invites you to puzzle out its intricate imagery—a woman and a globe, a crucifix, various symbols incorporated into a tapestry, and a chalice—and then move on, unless these prompt further questions about the artist’s own faith. On marrying Catherina Bolnes, with whom he had eleven children, Vermeer converted to Catholicism to share his wife’s faith. It was probably through his mother-in-law, Maria Thins, that he came to have significant dealings with the Jesuits. As far as we know, the “Sphinx of Delft,” as Théophile Thoré admiringly called Vermeer, was not one to be pictorially explicit on religious matters. But see for yourself. The Met is uniquely blessed to have five paintings by the artist (even the Rijksmuseum has only four).

The Milkmaid, on the other hand, once before in New York for the World’s Fair in 1939, is unlikely to come again soon. I plan to visit her often. I half expect that one day she will stop pouring the milk you can almost hear and look up to see me there.

Published in the 2009-10-23 issue: 


Leo J. O’Donovan, SJ, is President Emeritus, Georgetown University, and Director of Mission, Jesuit Refugee Service USA. 

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