Sunday, November 1st, 2009

The Visitor: Vermeer’s Milkmaid at the Met

Topical Pick, December 2010: This essay, first published at artcritical in November 2009, features in Bill Berkson’s new book from BlazeVOX [books], “For the Ordinary Artist: Short Reviews, Occasional Pieces & More.”  The collection, which carries short reviews from Art in America, Artforum and other publications from 1980-2008, various lectures and essays, also includes Berkson’s report for artcritical from the 2009 Venice Biennale.

Vermeer’s Masterpiece: The Milkmaid
September 10 to November 29, 2009
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York City, 212-879-5500

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid (about 1657–58). Oil on canvas, 17-7/8 x 16-1/8 inches. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Purchase, 1908, with aid from the Rembrandt Society
Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid (about 1657–58). Oil on canvas, 17-7/8 x 16-1/8 inches. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Purchase, 1908, with aid from the Rembrandt Society

Vermeer’s painting of a maidservant pouring milk, on loan to the Met from the Rijksmuseum is a work of extraordinary fullness in every respect. This feeling of uncanny amplitude is partly the result of how in the way Vermeer made his own sunlight coursing through a window  (a “cool graced light,” in Frank’s O’Hara’s phrase, if ever there was one) acts on bits of earthly surface, affording a kind of extreme visibility to each thing exposed in its path. Light in Vermeer is such a fact of aesthetic experience, so intrinsic to everyone’s appreciation of his art, that it may have blinded us to a great deal else that shows up in the pictures.

Neither signed nor dated, on a near-square canvas nearly a foot and a half in either dimension, the picture, for all its grandeur, seems a hinge work of Vermeer’s early maturity. Better known nowadays as The Milkmaid, it’s an anomaly within his output generally, its worked-up surface and culinary subject matter stated comparatively coarsely, a less delicate image overall than the preternatural refinements soon to come. The Met curator and scholar of Dutch art Walter Liedtke places it historically in the company of other paintings, some of them, like the Cavalier and Young Woman in the Frick, in similarly compact formats done around 1657-58, when Vermeer was in his mid-twenties. *

Leaning gently into her task, this astonishing barrel of a woman shifts her weight away from the splendid, though nowise pristine, white wall, lips slightly parted in a smile as the earthenware pitcher releases a white skein from its rim. That smile holds its secret, murmuring, at one with the abundant presence it seems key to. Liedtke says the woman’s brawn and the vertically fluted folds of her skirt render her “like a caryatid,” although caryatids don’t bend or lean — but it’s true that, in terms of construction, the maid keeps Vermeer’s pictorial architecture aloft. The whole scene centers, subtly teetering, on her waist, and radiates. Hers is a type of big, blunt form we know in different guises and moods from the peasant women of Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Piero della Francesca’sSinigallia Madonna and Mary Magdalen to Manet’s barmaid at the Folies-Bergère and de Kooning’sWoman I. No doubt encouraged by Northern-realist modes extending from Vermeer’s great precursor Jan van Eyck, Piero’s Sinigallia panel bears a special relation, with its slice of sun on bare wall and, in the forward chamber, (Piero’s only domestic scene) the hugely commanding frontal mass of mother and child.

Vermeer’s maid appears in the middle distance in the guise of some sort of lunar blessing. She is strength and help, appetite and caution, warmth and removal, modesty and intercession, decorum, daydream and delight, calm and a subtle shade of perturbation. (In no way is she about careless sex – no matter how many corollaries to that effect women of her station may have in the iconography of her time.)  It isn’t much of a stretch to align her activity as a mirror to the painter’s own, as he deposits colors onto a surface that then erupts with otherworldly incandescence.

It’s fascinating how at ease with one another, formally and then some, the maid and the little kitchen, with all its material life, can be, and at the same time how much implied motion the painting holds. Varieties of shape — domes, globs, granules, cylinders, perpendiculars and slots — refract one another, all of them spread at levels on or above a simple reddish brown floor. The hanging basket takes its angle from the maid, the pail from her pitcher; the two geometric flats of window and picture frame are elaborated in the foot warmer’s perforated box and the tabletop’s odd rhomboid.  There sly Mozartean touches, tricks like trompe-l’oeil nails and vacant nail holes, the popcorn-like pointillé breadcrumbs, the vaguely messy floor, and the incongruity of the line of tiles that forms a kind of predella – Cupid and bow, a traveler with his staff and two others less legible, like animation figures. The milk pour and a rectangular bit of unfiltered glare where a segment of window glass is missing — equivalents in plain whiteness — sustain and refresh. A third major white makes the sunlit sections of the linen cap, veering back in the air like a prow, while the far wall blushes with shadows, variegated. White calls out the song, and other brightnesses  respond in the artist’s preferred lead-tin yellow range. As ever, Vermeer’s infusion of sunlight galvanizes an atmosphere charged with implied, recombinant meanings. (“Deeds of light” said Goethe, perhaps with Vermeer in mind; and Liedtke himself ventures the thought that, beyond the visible fact, it is “as if meaning not milk were being poured from one vessel to another.”)

Most Vermeers have some forward, liminal impedence, a bulwark like a table, curtain or chair, to keep us at some remove, discretely parallel to the world his people occupy. Here, to preserve the discretion of the figure’s placement, it is the lead edge of the table, its coverings piled with still-life elements, leaving, in this instance, the whole of the woman’s frame still half open to view. As usual, too, in this pageant of particulars, the paint inspected up close is gruesome. The maid’s head looks uncomfortably mottled, the plumb line of milk a gloppy paste. At only a little distance, though, such details resolve: the head resumes its formal dignity and the milk streams (viz., James Schuyler’s line “Trembling, milk is coming into its own”) like the average sacrament it is assumed to be.

Piero della Francesca, Virgin with Child Giving His Blessing and Two Angels  (The Senigallia Madonna) c. 1470. Wood panel. Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino, Italy
Piero della Francesca, Virgin with Child Giving His Blessing and Two Angels (The Senigallia Madonna) c. 1470. Wood panel. Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino, Italy

As she tends to these things, the maid and her effects are revealed as elements in the mythology Vermeer contrived for himself, out of what urgency we haven’t a clue. (The seventeenth century produced flurries of such wanton mythmaking – Poussin’s landscape allegories, among them.) So many details and their gists are left meaningfully uncertain. Does the maid, as old songs go, wear her apron high?  (Probably not.) What is that winged reflection in the shiny pail? (It’s hard not to see it as a sampling of Carel Fabritius’s Goldfinch, itself long taken as a prime source for Vermeer’s technique.) For his part, Liedtke, who also wrote the most recent monograph on Vermeer, means to keep our understanding of Vermeer’s genius (he concedes it is such) and its topicalities well within what he calls “the Dutch field.” Understanding Vermeer means primarily understanding how he developed his mode of precision painting amidst the givens of art and life in the southern Netherlands of his time. Set on rescuing Vermeer from a century and half of esthetic flightiness of the sort generated by interloping enthusiasts, most of them writers from outside Holland, Liedtke wants him safely back in the professional culture that great Vermeers leave far behind. This is fine as long as it doesn’t exclude other, perhaps less demonstrable but no less real, forces at work in the pictures.

Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère1882.  Oil on canvas, Courtauld Institute of Art
Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère1882. Oil on canvas, Courtauld Institute of Art

Liedtke limits his account of Vermeer’s milieu to that of the painters: no changeable Dutch microclimates (from whence the unreliable, by turns clouded-over, then suddenly amazing effects of the sun); no literature beside the lewd tavern rhymes (meaning no Descartes, whose “natural light of the mind” seems ever applicable, or Spinoza, who once remarked on the monstrous look of a woman’s beautiful hand when viewed under a lens); no furtive Catholic liturgy or Neo-Platonist whispers. Of course Vermeer was well grounded, and so are his pictures, which is literally the basis of their sublimities. And yes, anything one says in trying to account for the ultimate Vermeer experience is likely to be too much, but not to try is just as vain, because ultimately it is the only thing worth saying. The Met’s wall texts would have us see each of The Milkmaid’s attributes as a sign limited to one intensely local connotation, a Dutch in-joke projected by the doggerel, riddles and other oddments for which, everything else about him insists, Vermeer would have had little patience except that he saw how to transmute them, as his elevated patronage may have demanded, into the idiom of the spheres.

Vermeer was something of a visitor. It could be said that, sincerely devout as he may well have been, he envisioned humankind as specially designed to enter heaven, and made a kind of heaven analogous to that insight within the method of his art. How he raised the stakes of the painting culture he was given to work with can be explained, as Liedtke is wont to do, by itemizing his modifications of the various motifs and technical devices of other artists around him. But accounting for the impact of what he did is something else. He surmounted the low-style specificity of genre painting and Northern realism’s tendency to over-describe and stop the flow of paint and pictorial fluency altogether. Vermeer styled his interior views as purposefully as Rembrandt, but without the stagey folderol, inclined as he was (and Rembrandt wasn’t) toward an extra dose of idealization. Virtuosity is the least of him. Together with memory and invention (and with or without mechanical aids), direct observation of models arranged in a room went into sketching out a rudimentary image. This is realism based on immersion in the contemporary world but heightened beyond the burghers’ commonplace envisioning. More importantly, the pictures argue for an understanding of the sacred and profane as facing terms, converging, as one looks, with such intensity that each becomes more fully illuminated.

* Aside from wall texts accompanying the exhibition, Watler Liedtke’s recent writings on Vermeer include The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009, and Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, Ludion, 2008