The Milkmaid




This article talks about the question of love in The Milkmaid. This article was written by Rodney Nevitt Jr. and we can find it in The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer 2001, pp.101.102.  

Cupid reappears in Vermeer’s Milkmaid on the tile (lower right) between the maid’s skirt and the foot warmer, preparing to shoot his bow. (Another tile to the right seems to contain a figure with a walking stick.) We can confirm the identity of the Cupid here by comparing it to a seventeenth-century Dutch tile (upper right) that was clearly made from the same design.

The Cupid tile in Vermeer’s painting may be deliberately juxtaposed with the foot warmer, the wooden box containing a ceramic bowl for hot coals. Arthur Wheelock has called attention to a pictura entitled “Mignon des Dames” (Servant of Ladies) from Visscher’s Sinne-poppen in which a foot warmer becomes a symbol of the attention paid by courting men to their ladies. Such metaphoric uses of the foot warmer occur in other genre paintings. An illustration from (Scoperos satyrae ofter Thyrsis’ minnewit (Scopus’s Satire or Thyrsus’ Wit of Love), a vryerijboek published in 1668, shows a young man kneeling to attend to his lady’s foot warmer the accompanying text compares men who are open about their desires to women who cloak them: “The burning of maidens can be hidden,/ The coals exist in the heart …”

Similarly, Vermeer’s Milkmaid is absorbed in her work, a paragon of domestic virtue without any overt amatory meaning. Cupid, however, is the peripatetic messenger of love, mischievously cropping up where one least expects him. Thus his understated presence here may be precisely the point. For both servants and mistresses, household work was often set in opposition to more pleasurable activities. In the popular kluchten (farces), maids regularly seek to evade their chores for amorous pursuits, like Jannetje in Klucht van de koeck-vreyer (Farce of the Cake-Vrijer), who wishes to go out “to the vrijers’s path, to see and be seen.”

This stereotype was grounded in a social reality; in the Dutch Republic, maids were often young women who hoped to marry rather than make a lifelong profession of domestic work. A similar dynamic of work and play obtained for their mistresses. The preface to Delft Cupidoos schighje, addressed to “the Delft song- loving young ladies,” focuses on lacemaking as a duty: “Don’t throw this book away,/ When with your fingers/You weave nice, dense little’ laces.” Put it in your lap, the author suggests, and enjoy it later. We do not know what book lies next to Vermeer’s Lacemaker, but certainly it represents another contemplative pursuit that will occupy her when the lacemaking is done.

Taken from:



The Milkmaid

1.      The kitchen maid

With quiet concentration a woman pours milk into a bowl. With her left hand she supports the can she is pouring from. Around her are various objects: a loaf of bread, stoneware. Stoneware is made of clay that produces a grey or brown colour and is fired at a temperature of around 1250 degrees Celsius. It is exceptionally hard and only slightly porous. Moreover, stoneware does not acquire a taste and is easy to clean. It is therefore an ideal material in which to preserve liquids and from which to drink. Around 1300 stoneware acquired something of a mass market and remained popular until glass and delftware took its place in the 17th century. Sixteenth- and 17th- century stoneware is often decorated with reliefs. One of the centres of stoneware production was the area between Cologne and Aachen in Germany’s Rhineland. jug, a basket and a brass bucket. The woman is standing near the window so she can see what she is doing. The light falls on her hands; her silhouette is dark against the white wall. There is a fascinating play of light and shadow in this painting. This is one of Johannes Vermeer’s genre pieces in which he establishes an intensely intimate atmosphere. Although the artist observes his model from nearby, she continues with her work, totally unperturbed


2.      Subtle lighting

The lighting in Vermeer’s ‘Milkmaid’ is extraordinarily subtle. Light falls from the left through the window. Beneath and beside the window it is somewhat shadowy, but the woman is standing in full brightness. When you look carefully at the painting you see that Vermeer has introduced tiny points of light all over the canvas: on the edges of the jug and the bowl, but also on the fastening of her yellow dress, and on the bread in the basket. Vermeer paid great attention to details. He has painted tiny rough patches into the texture of the white plasterwork. Also, he gives careful thought to a nail set high in the white wall, as well as to the light entering through a cracked windowpane. The structure of various objects is expertly rendered: gleaming brass and crumbly bread.

3.      Simplicity

Clearly, this woman is a servant and no grand lady. Her dress is simple. The blue skirt is tucked up to save it from getting dirty. She wears green over-sleeves which partly protect her yellow bodice. On her head the maid wears a starched cap. She looks strong and sturdy. Vermeer achieves this effect by painting her from a low viewpoint. This lends a certain weight and dignity to this simple and everyday subject – a woman at her work.

The information above has been taken from this web site:


The Milkmaid by Vermeer

I would like to share with you a poem that Anner Broke wrote inspired by Vermeer’s picture; The Milkmaid.


The Milkmaid by Vermeer
It’s the bread I notice first,
gnarled hunks of speckled brown and white
basking in the revelatory glory
from the barred hint of window high up on the left.
In the clear stream of light, each crust looks alive,
something I could reach out to and take.
I want to crumble the earthy softness between my fingers,
releasing the heady scent of yeast into the Summer air,
and taste on my lips the warmth of the Low Country sun;
vibrant, wholesome.Even as I think these things I know
as if someone had spoken the words aloud
that the woman I face would not permit it.
Right now she is pouring the steady froth of milk
from the deep cavern of an earthenware jug,
her strong arms blushed creamy-pink against the blue of her apron.
She looks down, intent on her task
as if it is the only action taking place in the universe.

And for her perhaps it is.
For the sun is her corn-yellow bodice
and the moon a pure cotton covering for her head,
her eyes like stars, unburnished in the day
but at night an epiphany.
Around her, the mesmerising echoes of a life:
a footwarmer; a kettle; a linen basket.

8 responses to “The Milkmaid

  1. The Milkmaid – the iconic representation of aspects dear to Dutch people and their history must not be tarnished. The symbolism, with its warnings and interpretation, Vermeer always countered, in genre painting with the purity of the image. The narration of symbolism, which some deny, is the pearl’s impure beginning. God, too, sometimes needs to cut a man, as the Great Physician, to expose a life for what it is. I don’t pretend to His throne in exposing Vermeer’s intent within this picture, nor wish any Dutch offense by my thoughts. I do not mean that his intent was dishonorable, but that I do not want to discolour, or detract from the paintings bloom by warning of its innate thorns.
    Various objects hang by nails on a wall lit by daylight streaming through a window that has a broken piece missing from it. The opening in this window has the same symbolism as the open casement windows of Vermeer’s and other painters of this genre – outside temptations entering in. The “shopping” basket and coals carrier are in their places to introduce the possibility of a third hanging object(other than the mirror!) The Timeless image begins its timely narrative when it is noticed that the wall has a missing nail to the right of the figure’s head. Below on the floor is the less-than-likely space occupier – the footwarmer. Adjacent to the footwarmer is the splinter of wood that exactly fits the missing piece from the warmer, indicating that it has recently fallen, yet, surprisingly, the redware hot coals container IS inside the warmers foot-rest and is ,further, NOT broken! Both of these facts may seem incongruous, but relevant to our story. Additionally, as we search for the missing nail on the exposed floorspace, it is found to contain, at the edge of the wall, in front of a pictured tile, a small piece of plaster which is of the same size and shape as the walls missing piece above. The tile mentioned is emblazoned with a Cupid figure which holds in both hands before him as he walks a large piece of paper that he is, apparently, reading! This is startling, and an ancient writer used the illustration, in his writings, of Mercury attempting to teach the “wild-child” Cupid to READ as a means of taming him or controlling the amorous entanglements in the lives of those affected by his arrows!
    As far as this speaks to the Milkmaid who holds the the very symbol of Temperance in her hands -the pitcher and the bowl – dressed in the sensually symbolic colours of yellow and a red skirt (relating also to the redware of the footwarmer)it is evident that she is the target of his narration. the foot warmer is known through Cesar Ripa’s EMBLEM to be a symbol of a womans preferrence for men who pay attention to their needs and affections. the redware , unbroken and inside the fallen warmer can only ssymbolize an illigitimate pregnancy as would
    , also, the small missing bit of plaster beside the Cupid who is walking blindly forward! What a master-stroke of creative thought was Vermeer’s inclusion of an out-of-place footwarmer!
    2. Richard A. Smith Says:

    January 6, 2009 at 12:21 am
    On June 25 ‘03 I wrote an analysis of the Milkmaid, which I find is incomplete as I read it now. I meant to indicate that the Maid became pregnant due to her meetings with the lover of her Mistress. As many other paintings by various artists, such as Terborch, would illustrate, the messenger, such as this maid who delivered love-letters became the target of amorous advances by the opportunistic paramour of her Mistress. (Of course, some cases reveal the messenger to be the guilty party in the subterfuge) The fact that maids were uneducated and this one likely illiterate is also alluded to here by the Cupid who was traditionally unable to read. Vermeer painted the Cupid apparently reading, as in the tale about Mercury as his tutor, but as he reads he walks blindly and indicates that the maid has walked blindly into her present quandry.
    3. Richard A. Smith Says:

    May 29, 2009 at 7:29 am
    The tile of the Cupid walking is an actual tile which has been identified. Rather than holding before him a piece of paper or letter, Cupid holds his out-stretched BOW which is pointing at himself. Vermeer’s Cupid is painted with a double line for the bow which still, to me, looks like a sheet of paper. It matters not, because the Cupid with a bow directed at himself is the same meaning as regards the poor maid! In the delivering of the mail, she has been the target for Cupid’s arrow and the advances of the recipient. Can, then the breasts of the Milkmaid be enlarged?

  2. The link below is to a podcast presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art featuring the eminent Vermeer scholar, Walter Liedtke, in which he claims first place among scholars in regards to the expose’ of the “romantic” undercurrent in the painting of the Milkmaid:
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    The painting will be at the MET until late November in honour of the Dutch history of New Amsterdam, and New York City.

  3. I have indicated that the Milkmaid was a messenger that has succumbed to folly , perhaps through the meetings with the recipient of her lady’s love letters. This was alluded to by the Cupid on the tile, who is walking along with his bow directed at himself. The foot warmer, symbollically, refers to her being pregnant, and it’s former position on the wall is indicated by the long splinter broken off, which in itself is a sexual allusion. Most commonly, this is shown in tavern scenes of the time, in the form of long tobacco pipes, that have short pieces broken off which allows another man the opportunity to use the pipe. This, of course, became a joking reference and picture of the prostitution that was also practised there.
    The other hanging objects in the painting show the opportunities that the milkmaid had, over the lady of the house, for movement about the town. Opportunities, which were not afforded to Ladies expected to remain close to the homefront and family cares. Maids had freedom to greet others in the market, as is illustrated by Vermeer, in the hanging basket and brass or copper meat carrier, that they would carry as we might a shopping bag. Love’s missive could easily be hidden in one of these to pass on to her lady’s lover or his maid. Education was the province and priviledge of men in the upper and now middleclass stratas in seventeenth century Dutch society and was even afforded to Ladies of these families. Letter writing books were available to afford help and the love letters were a worrisome new occurrence to Christian men and leaders and even had been physical evidence in courts of law on occassion. Maid’s became confidants to their mistresses; another danger to societal norms. Maids and servants, though, were not blessed with literacy – which is also Cupid’s condition within mythology. Theservants, therefore, were afforded trust and burdened within the web of conspiracy with their Lady or Gentleman. It had its benefits, to be sure.
    What Vermeer paints from pitcher to bowl is milk – symbols of purity. The “milkmaid” name is apropos for this – and another reason. Her enlarged breast presses hard against her vest to form an areole – a circle and symbol of Vermeer’s perfection and the maid’s pregnancy.

  4. I’ve noticed that the wall visible between the jug, her arm and her blue dress is lighter than it would logically be if the figure was removed.

  5. Pingback: Pravah-01 « Know Thyself!·

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