The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

The Milkmaid, by Johannes Vermeer.

I have had a soft spot for Vermeer, the 17th Century Dutch artist, ever since I was compelled to write about him in high school, and I especially like this painting. I think it’s a particularly good example of how his painting of textures makes them seem almost supernaturally pleasing. I wouldn’t usually think of myself as a huge fan of textures. But here—the seed encrusted bread looks so crisp and solid, I can imagine the sound of my hand knocking some seeds off as I pick it up, or the thud of the loaf if I tapped it. The vivid and visceral cloth of her dress and the minuscule lumpiness of its stitching, please me too. The sheen of the basket canes makes me almost feel the knobbly weave of the baskets. Maybe I am just a big texture fan. Or maybe getting the textures right adds a kind of realism that is particularly satisfying. As I write about it, I note that it is often that I have a vivid sense of the physicality of the object, as well as that physicality being somehow especially rich and enlivening. I wonder if this is related to his commonly credited skill with painting glimmering light (hypothesized controversially to have been related to use of an early camera-like device).

It is amazing to remember that before cameras, mankind didn’t have any good way to ‘know’ what things really looked like except to look at them and do their best at recording it on paper. (They knew in the sense that they could see it.) In spite of everyone looking at things all the time, you could make major discoveries about what everyday things looked like, at least into the fifteenth century.

I got the painting from the Rijksmuseum website, which is itself a great thing.