Daniverg’s Blog

mayo 15, 2010

The Milkmaid (story)

Filed under: Vermeer — Daniel Vergara @ 11:56 am

I have always known how to make bread pudding. I learned it from my mother when I was a child. She was a house maid like I am and she was as hard-working and honest as any other. When my father died at the hands of some merciless Spaniard in the terrible Eighty Years War, my mother fell into depression and the only thing that cheered her up was cooking.

One of my first memories came to me when I was five years old.  I was playing in the backyard of the house with my older sister Kathie and other children. We were playing knucklebones with the leftovers of the Vermeer family’s previous day dinner. Although, Kathie was seven years older than me and was much better at that game than I was, she always let me win. I loved her with all my heart and soul. As we played a sweet essence came into our noses and my sister suggested we went into the kitchen to see the delicious dessert that was being cooked. We entered the kitchen and we saw mom carefully pouring milk into stoneware while he hummed a tune. As we got nearer she told us: “I’m cooking bread pudding, your father loved it, she used to have it for breakfast every Saturday”. We sat there and silently watched her moisten the pieces of bread into the milk with the restraint and dedication of a physician. When she had moistened all the bread pieces, she took a pair of fresh eggs and cracked them into an earthenware bowl, beat them hastily and finally took the pieces of bread out of the milk and put them into the bowl. Then, she bake them in the oven.  When the bread pudding was finished, she took a branch out of a copper container; it had a sweet, penetrating and pleasant perfume. She told us that she had bought it at the market on a whim, with the little money she had and that it was her secret ingredient to the recipe – later I discovered that the precious branch was nothing less than cinnamon, a spice that had been taken from India to Europe by traders—Then, she smashed the branch and sprinkled it along with some sugar over the bread pudding.  Before serving it to her master she let us taste that delightful pudding. We ate anxiously and with great appetite in order for not to be caught by our mistress and get my mom into big trouble. That dessert tasted like heaven! It melted in our mouths like the snow melts in the roofs of Delft in a winter afternoon. That was also one of the last memories I have of my mother for she died one year after.

One night she left the house while I was sleeping. She talked to my sister and told her to take care of me. Her eyes filled with tears, no matter how hard she begged her not to go, mom had already taken a decision. She departed for the sake of her daughters and the family that so kindly had taken her in. We never saw her again. Some years later, the reasons why my mother had left were revealed to me by my sister. She died victim to the plague of the Black Death, that had taken away so many lives in the city of Delft. Numerous times I sat looking at the empty street from my window of the attic and thought about my mother’s end, feeling helpless and sad. Wondering where she died, if she suffered or if she died alone. I tried to ease the pain imagining that my mother had not died and was living in a far away land married to a handsome and rich count or prince. But inside of me I knew that mom had an awful dead. She probably died in a sick house along with other victims of the plague, suffering terrible pain due to his internal hemorrhages, her corpse being later burned in a pile.

Once, my sister told me to accompany her to the ‘markt’ something I did with great pleasure for most of the time I was locked at home helping with the housework or reading to the light of a candle. When we reached the square, we saw men with pieces of cloth covering their mouths and noses, picking corpses from the ground and throwing them into a big pile along with other dead bodies to burn. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the hand of one of the corpses move. I grabbed my sister’s hand and exclaimed in astonishment: “Kathie, that man is still alive I’ve seen his hand move! We have to do something”.  My sister pulled me close to her side and replied “Death people can’t move, you know that Tanneke…” We never talked about it again. I know what I saw; some of them were burnt alive!

After mom’s death the Vermeer family gave Kathie the chance to take over the housework, becoming their new maid. As I grew older I started to take more and more responsibilities in the house’s daily tasks. One day as I was doing the washing up in the banks of the Schie river, my sister – who now was twenty-two years of age– arrived at home from the butcher’s totally emaciated, her garments torn and ripped, nervous as she was, trembling and staggering. I noticed by looking at her face that she had been crying.

Months passed slowly like the memories of leaf floating in the wind. My sister’s belly was increasingly growing bigger each month, until it reached a day when the old corset, could not bear the protuberance in her stomach anymore. My sister was clever though, and carried the creature in her inside with honor and secret proud. She started to wear loose dresses and the wicked rumor that “she had given in to the pleasures of drinking and eating” were spread by other maids across the neighborhood. Some of them even stated that they had seen Kathie frequenting the local tavern.

My sister broke waters one Monday afternoon as we were hanging the clothes of the Vermeer family in the backyard. She gave me a sweet kiss on my cheek, put me in charge of the house and left in a rush heading to the midwife’s house. It was the last time I saw my sister. Both, my sister and the baby died while she gave birth. According to the midwife, my sister arrived at her home exhausted and weak. In addition to that, the baby was facing in the wrong way and consequently, she lost a great amount of blood during labor. I felt overwhelmed by the devastating news. I cried and I cried and wished it was I and not her, the one that passed away.

Ten years had passed since Kathie’s death. I am now the maid of the Vermeer family and I eventually help Master Vermeer with the cleaning and polishing of his studio. I must confess that it is something that releases me from the pressures of the house’s tasks and the requirements of my mistress and her daughters. Apart from that, I can sometimes have a glimpse at some of Master Vermeer’s paintings.

One evening I was cleaning the dust from one of the tables of Vermeer’s studio, it was really late, but that had been an extremely busy day at the house and I had many work to catch up on. Suddenly, Master Vermeer entered the room and watched me work from a distance, silently. Finally he spoke and with no noticeable movement on his face he said abruptly: “I want you to be the model of a new project I’m working on at the moment, I’ll pay you”. I must admit that at first I felt overwhelmed and scared by his proposal for I knew the reputation that models usually had; but as he explained his ideas so clearly and with such enthusiasm, I felt incapable of refusing his proposal. His aim was to capture the essence and beauty of an everyday task that I enjoyed. Suddenly, the image of my mom cooking bread pudding came to my mind.

Now as I am steadily holding this pitcher of milk I feel happy for I leave myself to the judicious good hands of Master Vermeer whose aim is to depict an honest and hard working maid performing his everyday labor. But it fills me with pride and satisfaction to know that not only am I perpetuating a family tradition, but a linage of women who fought and worked for their beloved. Like my mother and my sister did before me and that is invaluable.

mayo 2, 2010

Johannes Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid”: an article by Daniel Vergara.

Filed under: Uncategorized,Vermeer — Daniel Vergara @ 6:57 pm

A piece of art is not only a mere painting in which certain imagery is represented. It is also a way of representing reality, capturing the painter’s personality in every brushstroke and even, reflecting the mentality and concerns of a particular period. Therefore, as a means of understanding both, the artist and the painting and what is beyond it, I am going to dig deep into this particular piece of art and scrutinize its hidden mysteries and motives.

The Milkmaid is an oil on canvas painting of 45.5 x 41 cm by the famous Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. In it the artist captures, with great detail and accurateness I must say,  the frugality and determination with which a domestic kitchen maid performs one of her most ordinary duties: the pouring of milk into a stoneware. The picture is held in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Although the exact year of the painting’s completion is unknown, experts determine that it was painted between the years 1657-1661.

“The Milkmaid” was painted in a time of great wealth and power in the Netherlands, in which trade, art and science developed so much as to be among the most acclaimed in the world. In 1568 The Seven Provinces that signed the Union of Utretcht started a rebellion against Phillip II of Spain which eventually led to the Eighty Years’ War. Before Spain started to   reconquer the Low Countries again, England declared war to Spain, thus, forcing the Spanish troops to halt their advances. The Eighty Years’ War finally ended with The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, where the peace settlement was signed by Spain and the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. The Dutch East India Company settled a Dutch monopoly on Asian trade which prevailed for two centuries. The Dutch also dominated the trade between European countries, by the year 1680 an average of nearly 1000 Dutch ships crossed the Baltic Sea each year.

As far as social status is concerned, the Netherlands’ one was largely determined by income. This brought a brand new way of looking at social classes. Aristocracy had sold out most of its privileges to cities, where merchants and their money were dominant. The clergy did not have influence since the Roman Catholic Church had been suppressed in the onset of the Eighty Years’ War. Calvinism was the predominant religious movement of the time, and there are some rumors which connect Vermeer with Calvinist beliefs although it is not clear whether he became a Catholic after marrying his wife. As the article of the Wikipedia points out:

In 1653 Johannes Reijniersz Vermeer married a Catholic girl named Catharina Bolnes. The blessing took place in a nearby and quiet village Schipluiden. For the groom it was a good match. His mother-in-law, Maria Thins, was significantly wealthier than he, and it was probably she who insisted Vermeer convert to Catholicism before the marriage on 5 April. Some scholars doubt that Vermeer became Catholic, but one of his paintings, The Allegory of Catholic Faith, made between 1670 and 1672, reflects the belief in the Eucharist. Liedtke suggests it was made for a Catholic patron, or for a schuilkerk, a hidden church.” Read information in context. (Retrieved from Wikipedia, 04/25/2010 12:25 A.M.)

Due to the strong doctrines of Calvinism, the artists of the time were not allowed to depicted sex in their paintings. However, Vermeer, along with other artist of the time, knew how to circumvent the censors by leaving subtle symbols that evoke lust or female sexuality. The pouring of milk might have lascivious connotations, the Dutch word for milk “melken” might also be defined as “to sexually attract”. The Deft tile in the frieze of the wall behind the milkmaid depicts Cupid: a symbol of love and sexual attraction. At this point, the capricious viewer may turn its attention to the foot warmer on the floor.  The coals gathered inside it might as well symbolize the warmth of lust or the hidden burning passion of a woman for her beloved. The milkmaid’s body becomes eventually the center of attraction. It was not only the thickness of her waist that attracted the viewer of the time, but also the contrast between the rough leather sleeves with the fleshy nudity of her exposed forearm. It seems that Vermeer was well acquainted with the reputation of milkmaids, who were known for their sexual availability. In the end, it is not only the allusions to female sexuality, but also the depiction of an honest and hard working milkmaid that give the picture its romantic or emotional meaning.

To achieve this level of precision, Vermeer used a sophisticated painting technique which was developed and enhanced throughout his life. However, it is not easy to recreate or determine the way Vermeer painted for he constantly experimented with different techniques. At first, in his early works he used a thick impasto paint layer, technique later used by Van Gogh. The color used in the paintings was intense but the lighting in fact tended to be conventional. By using this technique Vermeer puts an emphasis to the materials present in the picture rather than in the characters portrayed. Later he started working with a new technique called pointillé, or little dots of paint applied to a canvas in order to obtain a higher level accuracy and detail. Although it is not very clear, some experts maintain that the use of this specific technique along with other visual peculiarities, suggest that Vermeer might have used the “camera obscura”, a precursor to the modern photographic camera, in some of his works.

Throughout his maturity works Vermeer is identified by the subtle variation in the tonal values rather using the radical and forceful “chiaroscuro”. In paintings like The Milkmaid paint is applied with the utmost economy, his brushstrokes being judicious and almost calligraphic.  The objects and human figures are carefully portrayed and in some areas paint has been applied so thinly that, if one looks at the picture closely, the underlying layers can be seen. Many experts believe that this might have been due to not finishing his paintings completely, however, these are only speculations.

Lest we forget, Vermeer used a few number of pigments if compared to his contemporary color producer and painter Rembrandt who used more than a hundred pigments. However, less than twenty pigments have been detected in Vermeer’s works and ten of those seem to have been of regular usage. As an interesting fact, in Vermeer’s time each pigment was differed from the other in terms of permanence, drying time and workability. The difficulty of painting with these pigments was that many of those were often not compatible with each other and had to be used separately. Although it is unlikely that Vermeer had every pigment in his palette when creating one of his works, it is possible that he had the pigments needed for each part of the painting he was working at. Vermeer commonly employed seven different types: white lead, yellow ochre, vermillion, red madder, green earth, raw umber and ivory black. A remarkable fact would be to say that in order to paint bluish tones in The Milkmaid; Vermeer used a special pigment called ultramarine, which was more expensive and finer than the commonly used azurite.

Using the painting as the center to my analysis, I am going to frame the most important parts of it and analyze them separately (see picture above). Taking the face of the milkmaid as a starting point, it is important to focus on the light coming from the window and reflecting directly upon her face in shadows and pale scales therefore, creating an effect of three-dimensionality. For the face Vermeer used small touches of paint like reddish brown, white, light ocher and brown combined all together in order to paint the shape of her face. The window becomes one of the central themes of the picture, providing the portrait with light and luminosity. Vermeer gives the utmost attention each and every detail in the painting; a common object like the rustic window is meticulously painted paying attention to little details like a broken piece of glass or the irregularity of the window frame. In his later works, as the Essential Vermeer webpage puts it, “the windows become so geometrically stylized that in some cases they seem abstract works of art in themselves”. ( Retrieved from Essential Vermeer, 04/27/2010, 23:15 P.M.)

The basket and the copper pail next to the window are both elements related to the thematic of the painting: the pouring milk. Both being objects used when shopping in the market. The basket is painted using the white, ochre and black, which eventually mingle to adapt to the form of the basket’s wicker. This leads me to the idea that Vermeer also used the three previously mentioned colors repeatedly in the painting. It is likely that he turned his attention to every detail, deliberately placing the objects and choosing the milkmaid’s dressing according to a certain color spectrum and texture pattern. The milkmaid’s dress is said to be a winter dress due to the amount of layers it has. She wears a robust chamois leather top and a blue apron over a heavy red wool skirt. Taking a close look at the milkmaid’s garment one can see that it was painted applying thick and quick dabs of yellow and brown pigments to give it the rough texture required.

The vessel, the irregular shaped jar, the pieces of bread on the table and the extreme care with which pours the milk are elements that give great meaning to the final composition. These elements suggest that the woman was making bread pudding; this might be a possible reason to explain why the milkmaid is pouring the milk with such care. One possibility could be to take the right measures for the recipe, the other might be to avoid dropping the skin formed on top of the milk into the stoneware thus spoiling the recipe. The slightly porous texture of the stoneware and the “pointillés” used for painting the bread, give the picture an extraordinary luminosity and lifelikeness.

Having covered almost all the upper part of the picture I am going to center my analysis on the lower. The decorated tiles in the lower part of the wall behind the milkmaid, served as a skirting that protected the plaster from the daily damage of brooms and were made tiny works of art of the finest porcelain. On one of the tiles a Cupid can be appreciated which leads to two different schools of thought, one supporting the amorous interpretation of it and a more skeptical one, who believes that those Cupid were symbols often used in the Dutch houses of the time. The table painted in the “The Milkmaid” has been an object of controversy to many critics, while some believed that there was an anomaly in the cloth-covered table that the painter might have skipped, other supported the idea that the table might have not been rectangular in shape, but rather octagonal at its top (as seen in the picture bellow).

Finally, as a means of putting an end to this article I am going to include some of the curiosities I found on this particular painting. What concerns people the most, is the identity of the milkmaid, critics have speculated that it was Tanneke Everpoel, Vermer’s family maid. Through some archival documents of 1663 we know about her existence and character (For more information click here to go to the Essential Vermeer webpage and the click on the milkmaid’s face in the photo). It is largely known that many of Vermeer’s paintings, after having been exposed to X-rays, reveal some items which were painted over. The Milkmaid is not an exception; a clothes basket can be found near the bottom of the painting, behind the maid’s red skirt. As a matter of fact, the Milkmaid was the last painting by Vermeer that centered on a working class theme, thus, making it unique and everlasting.

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