Johannes (Jan) Vermeer of Delft, 1632-1675, The Milkmaid, 1658-1660,

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Holland



 "The Milkmaid" is a monumental, majestic painting despite its small size, 17 7/8 x 16, because of its immense beauty, superior artistry and profundity of meaning and expression.  This famous and extraordinary work depicts a maid pouring milk in a rather bare room enriched by her massively solid figure, the glorious still-life on the table and the symbolism that resonates throughout the painting.


 Perhaps the major question posed by the picture is...why is the maid so deeply saddened?  Surely, the apparently simple task of beginning to pour milk from a pitcher into a bowl does not call for such profound sadness.  And, who is this maid so filled with sorrow?


 Vermeer, as in so many of his paintings, combines allegory with the superb depiction of the reality of forms.  It must be considered whether the artist has subtly, but relatively explicitly, transposed the milkmaid into the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ.  The milk she pours appears to symbolize, like wine, the blood of Christ; the bread on the table, the body of Christ.  The dark opening and concavity of the pitcher from which the thin strand of milk flows, seems the essential mystery of existence, the unknown source from which life comes.  The luminosity of the milk speaks of the holiness of life...the light-filled, life-filled character of being.  The thinness of the stream tells of life's precious precariousness, and in the specific symbolism relating to Christ, the brevity of His life.  The brokenness of some of the bread, the jaggedness of its shards, symbolically speak of the destruction of His body on the cross.


 "Mary's" bodice is the yellow of the sun, of holiness; her apron or over-skirt the deep blue of heaven traditionally assigned as her color; her lower dress a wine red that anchors her in the blood of life and the bottom of the painting; her white cap and collar as suggestive of virginal purity as the subtly radiant off-white wall behind her.


 The wall is pitted here and there with nail holes.  Two nails protrude from the wall, insistent reminders of her Son nailed to the cross.  It is unclear whether Jesus has already been crucified, or His mother has fore-knowledge of the event.  In the pouring of milk from the mystic pitcher of life, she engages in the ritual act of both reclaiming Him from death, and giving her Son to the world...the common bowl below.


 The unfathomable depth of sorrow in her face is explained by the suffering she experiences because of Jesus' death.  Her eyes look down upon the milk and bread as we look down upon her lowered eyelids that seem weighed down by the lead of her sorrow.  Her forehead is a massive, protruding dome of bone beneath the impasto cap so brilliantly painted and convincingly set upon it; her nose, cheeks, lips, chin of equally solid substance.  Her torso is sculpturally solid, constructed of the simplest, elemental form with few details, set off by the exquisitely delineated, wrinkled folds of rolled-up sleeves that bracket her body.


 Vermeer's use of paint is magical in the creation of form and light.  Granular impasto nuggets create the golden texture of the bread and the sense of its extraordinary beauty and worth.  The scene is thoroughly real, yet there is a feeling and subtle luminosity that tell of the divinity of ordinary objects and the simplest acts of life, whether or not we accept the painting as a symbolic statement of the life and death of Christ.  The window is light without being radiant.  The thread of milk, Mary's cap and collar, even her untanned upper forearms are brighter than the window, which finds its equivalent value in the wall of the starkly simple room.  The relative lack of light in the window, and a partially broken pane, seem to speak of the imperfection of a world which ordains that its gods must suffer and die for crass humanity.


 In terms of composition, the figure is slightly off-center to the right, the major drama of objects taking place to Mary's right on the left side of the painting.  The perspective angles of the window frame and its multiple panes converge on Mary, as three objects hanging next to it on the wall...a black frame, square wicker basket and gleaming copper pot... create a cascading movement that flows down through her hand to the pitcher, echoing the pouring movement of the milk itself.  The table holds a richness of objects as beautifully painted and glowing as if the most precious treasure...or blood and body of Christ.


 To digress a moment...even though Vermeer is one of the great artists of history, he nonetheless sometimes exhibits flaws in his handling of anatomy.  In his "The Astronomer," the arms of the searcher of the heavens appear to be too short for his body.  Yes, they are bent and foreshortened, but the foreshortening seems not convincingly achieved.  In "The Milkmaid," her right arm appears too small for her body and in comparison with her left arm.  If viewers do not force themselves to ignore it, it can become a deformity that, as in real life, one strives out of politeness not to stare at in a fellow human being, but which, like a magnet, can draw our attention.


 But, the painting is far too beautiful and profound to be minimized by this detail.  An element in the painting which declares the underlying tragedy that is the essence of the work, is what appears to be the ominous darkness of the small, square picture frame (if that is what it is) at the very top left of the painting, opposite the highest nail in the back wall.  It seems an outright declaration, adjacent to the dimly unenthusiastic window, of the presence of death.  And, if we can accept the Christian premise being explored, a reminder of the death of Christ.


 The frame's darkness seems to equate with the dark interior of the pitcher, as if they represent the dark, devouring maw of creation, containing both eternal life and endless death.  But, where the exterior form of the pitcher is painted with some redeeming light, as well as the luminous thread of the milk itself, the frame is moodily resonant with darkness unredeemed by anything but dark, brooding, melancholy and death without hope of life or resurrection.  


 If, as has been said elsewhere, the boxlike foot-warmer on the floor at the lower right of the picture, is a symbol of human love and faithfulness, then it appears to try to counteract...while failing to do so...the dark frame at the upper left.  It also serves a more mundane design function as one end of a generally diagonal movement of forms from upper left to lower right, and vice-versa.


 The milkmaid's white head-dress forms a near-equilateral triangle with the nail on her right almost hidden just above the straw-colored wicker basket, and the main nail near the top of the painting at the apex of the triangle, clearly linking her awareness, as "Mary", to the crucifixion destiny of her Son.  There is a somewhat strange, reverse analogy of dark nails on light wall to stars shining in the darkness of the night sky.


 If Christian symbolism does not accurately express the essence of "The Milkmaid", the painting's depth of meaning and  feeling are such that it seems clear that it is exploring and expressing the very root and core of life's mystery, whatever the specific interpretation.


 In a seemingly ordinary, everyday setting, the overall feeling of the painting, compositionally, emotionally and symbolically, is one of profound suffering within a context of monumental order and stability, resignation, clarity and presence, beauty and the ultimate mysteries of life.  For, the milkmaid...Virgin ultimately resigned to her fate and the simple activity so revelatory of who she is and who her Son is, and the implacable, long-ordained destiny that is theirs.  But hers is the deepest possible sorrow, her face appearing nearly to be seared by grief, as if burned by flame.



Jan Vermeer's "Milkmaid," may be seen at the web address:, and many other sites on the internet.


Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms