The lady in question is one of the most influential ever bestowed to us by the history of art.
Nobody has painted anything more touching or arguably more beautiful since.
As of 1659, this woman from a humble background, in a dress cut from a coarse cloth which can be closely observed in all its hyper-realist details, has been tirelessly pouring milk, an appetising milk.
Her face, lit sublimely from the left, wears an expression of concentration but also serenity. All the elements surrounding her, the heater placed on the floor, the pitcher, indicate that she works as a servant in a wealthy house.
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), a legend even among the greatest legends of painting, portrayed a simple milkmaid as a real queen. He makes her a kind of Mary, dedicated to the cause of domestic service, a sublime creature immortalised in her everyday chores.
The painting normally hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. On a rare outing, it will be shown at the Louvre until 22 May (though not in Dublin or Washington, where the exhibition will also be travelling) in the company of 11 other canvases by an artist who died at the age of 43.
The occasion is an exhibition of 70 ‘genre paintings’, works depicting scenes from everyday life.
The result is exceptional, set alight by the presence of the master from Delft.
The Dutch Century was one of the most fertile periods of artistic endeavour.
It’s said that 5 million paintings were produced in the Dutch Republic during the 17thcentury.
Alongside the large, dramatic canvases of extraordinary impact which were destined for the kings of the period, these intimist works were meant for erudite audiences.
The genre scene is to chamber music what court paintings are to opera.
These freeze frames evoke serenity or drama, and solitude too.
Vermeer did not invent the genre but he invented a style that surpassed everyone. His peers and often his predecessors demonstrate signs of clumsiness – the neck is too long or the face is simian- whereas the master is in total harmony.
According to the curator of the exhibition, Blaise Ducos, ‘There are 36 known works by Vermeer.
‘A third of his works are assembled here.’
He explains what discoveries can be learned about this painting legend:
One of the most interesting aspects of this exhibition, on an intellectual level, is the echo effect between the subjects chosen by the specialists of genre painting. It prompts the curator to affirm that Vermeer travelled across Holland, contrary to the image of the sedentary artist which has prevailed until now.
It prompts the curator to affirm that Vermeer travelled across Holland, contrary to the image of the sedentary artist which has prevailed until now.
The only Vermeer painting originating from a private collection, ‘Young Woman Seated at a Virginal’, is from Thomas Kaplan’s Leiden Collection, which we wrote about in January. (https://judithbenhamouhuet.com/report/thomas-kaplan-the-worlds-largest-private-collector-of-rembrandts-refuses-to-have-any-at-home)
The work has been the subject of doubts over its authenticity. Blaise Ducos clears up the mystery with two important points: the yellow shawl wrapped around her is not by his hand, even if the addition is old; and the canvas used for the work was cut from the same bolt as the famous ‘Lacemaker’ in the Louvre.
While we’re on the subject, close to ‘The Milkmaid’ is ‘The Lacemaker’, a women from high society this time around, silently bent over her work.
The very best that painting can produce on the emotions is brought together on this wall until 22 May.
The exhibition was five years in the making.