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Johannes Vermeer | The Milkmaid /La Lattaia, 1657-1658

The Milkmai was painted by Johannes Vermeer in about 1657-58. The small picture (18 x 16 1/8 in., or 45.5 x 41 cm) could be described as one of the last works of the Delft artist’s formative years (ca. 1654-58), during which he adopted various subjects and styles from other painters and at the same time introduced effects based on direct observation and an exceptionally refined artistic sensibility.
Influenced by the detailed realism of Gerrit Dou (1613-1675) and his followers in Leiden, Vermeer created his most illusionistic image in The Milkmaid (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-2344).

To modern viewers, the painting may seem almost photographic in its realism. However, the composition was very carefully designed. This is evident from several revisions made in the course of execution, and from the finished work’s subtle relationships of light and shadow, color, contours, and shapes. As in the Woman with a Water Pitcher, of about 1662, Vermeer restricted his palette mainly to the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow, and he favored geometric shapes (in The Milkmaid, the right triangle formed by the figure and the table are balanced within the rectangle of the picture field). A low vantage point and a pyramidal buildup of forms from the left foreground to the woman’s head lend the figure monumentality and perhaps a sense of dignity. Indeed, several authors have speculated about the activity and character of the "milkmaid" (who is actually a kitchen maid pouring milk) in terms that would be more appropriate for a saint or an ancient heroine.
The steady performance of domestic chores was often praised in Dutch literature and pictures of the period. It has been suggested plausibly that Vermeer’s kitchen maid is making bread porridge, which puts stale bread-there is an unusual amount of bread on the table-to good use by combining it with milk and a few other ingredients to make a filling mash or meal. And yet, like milkmaids and kitchen maids in earlier Netherlandish art, and like other young women in Vermeer’s oeuvre, his kitchen maid was meant to encourage the male viewer’s amorous musings, and to have her own thoughts of romance.

To the lower right is a Delft tile depicting Cupid brandishing his bow. The box on the floor is a foot warmer with a pot of coals inside; foot warmers frequently suggest feminine desire in Dutch genre paintings (because they would heat not only feet but everything under a woman’s long skirt). To the right of the foot warmer is a Delft tile decorated with the image of a traveling man, to judge from his walking stick and knapsack. This may suggest that the woman is thinking of an absent lover. (The image on the Delft tile to the far right appears to be deliberately indecipherable). Finally, in earlier Dutch and Flemish paintings of cooks and kitchen maids, including comparatively understated works by Dou, a pitcher tilted forward (as here) or held in some suggestive way refers to female anatomy.

Vermeer may or may not have intended his pitcher as such an erotic allusion, but he certainly meant for the sophisticated viewer to recall earlier paintings of comely milkmaids and kitchen maids, and the reputation of milkmaids in particular for sexual availability. In real life, their impromptu suitors were often "proper" gentleman, not social equals, and of course the intended viewer of this painting (and those by Dou) was not a servant but a man of society and a connoisseur. Compared with the sort of ideal women we see in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and other mature works by Vermeer, his "milkmaid" exudes a very earthy appeal, with her pushed-up sleeves (revealing pale skin normally covered), her ample form (similar to that of women in slightly earlier works by Rubens), and her faint smile. For a male viewer of the time (in this case, Vermeer’s patron Pieter van Ruijven), the hints of sexuality would have given the painting an element of fantasy as subtle as the shadows on the whitewashed walls.

In terms of style, The Milkmaid stands on the threshold between Vermeer’s early work and his mature style. In his earliest known paintings, Vermeer reviews various subjects and styles in Dutch art, as if considering alternative paths he might pursue. In Diana and Her Companions, of 1653-54 (Mauritshuis, The Hague), Vermeer, as might be expected of a young artist in Delft, treats a mythological subject in a manner favored at the nearby court in the Hague. Tales of Diana and her virginal band were popular with members of the Prince of Orange’s circle, partly because they enjoyed hunting and partly for the spectacle of nudes in nature. However, unlike court favorites like Gerrit van Honthorst and Jacob van Loo, Vermeer presents the goddess as chaste, her companions as loyal and serious, and the pregnant Callisto in the right background as ashamed.

In composition and to some extent in palette and execution, the mythological painting recalls Van Loo, but in Christ and the House of Mary and Martha, of about 1654-55 (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), Vermeer emulated more famous masters: Hendrick ter Brugghen, the Caravaggesque master from Utrecht; and the internationally successful Fleming Anthony van Dyck. The white daylight and the sculptural figure of Mary in the foreground recall the Dutch painter, while the fluid folds, agitated contours, and elegant pose of Christ recall Van Dyck. Again, feminine virtue comes into question: the fussy hostess Martha as opposed to the deeply thoughtful Mary, of whom Christ gently approves.

The Procuress, dated 1656 (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden), looks back to bordello scenes that Van Honthorst painted in the 1620s, which were well known in Delft. But in the play of light, textures of cloth, still-life details, and especially in the figure on the left (a likely self-portrait), Vermeer’s interest in direct observation has become more intense. The same may be said for A Maid Asleep, of about 1656-57, where Vermeer’s point of departure-in subject, the warm palette, the rich shadows, and the rectilinear design-was Nicolaes Maes, the former Rembrandt pupil who in the mid-1650s painted popular genre scenes in Dordrecht (somewhat south of Delft). Finally, in The Letter Reader, of about 1657 (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden), the exquisite young lady and her reflection are inspired by Gerard ter Borch, the Younger, the most refined Dutch genre painter of the day. The illusionistic setting recalls Leiden masters such as Dou and Frans van Mieris, although the large scale of the canvas and the curtain in the foreground are typical of Delft (Hendrick van Vliet’s views of Delft church interiors often feature a curtain in the foreground, as if covering the painting itself).

In the pictures of about 1657, one senses Vermeer’s growing independence, although various artistic sources may still be named. The arrangement of the figures at a table and the receding window in the Cavalier and Young Woman (Frick Collection, New York) are ideas shared with Pieter de Hooch in Delft, while Dou and the Leiden master Gabriël Metsu (who had a strong interest in naturalistic effects of light) come to mind in The Milkmaid. But in these illusionistic works, Vermeer reveals a new confidence: the compositions become simpler and more effective; the space recedes naturalistically, without any props at the picture plane; and the attention to effects of natural light are remarkably convincing. In The Milkmaid, tactile and optical sensations coexist: nowhere else in Vermeer’s oeuvre does one find such a sculptural figure and such seemingly tangible objects, and yet the future painter of luminous interiors has already arrived. As if conforming to the play between optical and tactile qualities throughout the picture, the pointillß pattern of bright dots on the bread and basket, Vermeer’s most effusive use of the scheme, suggests scintillating daylight and rough textures at the same time.

In later works, Vermeer would minimize the sensation of textures, volumes, and receding space (although there are a few conspicuous displays of linear perspective). The Museum’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and the slightly later Woman with a Lute describe figures and interiors largely in terms of light and shadow; frontal forms are carefully balanced, to tranquil and contemplative effect. In a sense, it becomes more obvious that Vermeer creates idealized visions of reality, like dreams of what the next day would bring. But such a vision-close at hand and forever out of reach-is already seen in The Milkmaid.

The painting was probably purchased from the artist by his Delft patron Pieter Claesz van Ruijven (1624-1674), who at his death appears to have owned twenty-one works by Vermeer. When these pictures were sold from the estate of Van Ruijven’s son-in-law Jacob Dissius, in 1696, The Milkmaid was described as "exceptionally good" and brought the second highest price in the sale (Vermeer’s celebrated cityscape, A View of Delft, was slightly more expensive).
"The famous milkmaid, by Vermeer of Delft, artful", was auctioned in 1719 and then went through at least five Amsterdam collections to one of the great woman collectors of Dutch art, Lucretia Johanna van Winter (1785-1845). In 1822, she married into the Six family of collectors and it was from the heirs of Lucretia’s two sons that the Rijksmuseum, in 1908, purchased The Milkmaid, with support from the Dutch government and the Rembrandt Society. | © Walter Liedtke, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of European Paintings

La Lattaia è un dipinto a olio su tela (45,4x40,6 cm) di Jan Vermeer, databile al 1657-1658 circa e conservato nel Rijksmuseum di Amsterdam.
  • Storia
L'opera è certamente quella inventariata nell'asta della collezione Dissius ad Amsterdam (16 maggio 1696) come: «una cameriera che travasa il latte, estremamente ben fatto, dello stesso [Vermeer]; fiorini 175.0». L'alta quotazione raggiunta in quella vendita (seconda solo ai 200 fiorini della Veduta di Delft) testimonia come già all'epoca fosse apprezzata l'opera, oggi ritenuta uno dei capolavori dell'artista e dell'arte dei Seicento europeo in generale.
Il dipinto passò per varie collezioni private olandesi, tutte documentate, finché dalla raccolta Six di Amsterdam non fu acquistato dallo Stato nel 1907, arrivando nel museo nel 1908.
Descrizione e stile
Il tema delle scene di cucina ebbe una notevole diffusione nei Paesi Bassi fin dal Cinquecento, con le opere di Pieter Aertsen e Joachim Beuckelaer. In seguito l'interesse verso queste rappresentazioni era scemato, restando però vivo a Delft.
Vermeer rappresentò una donna robusta, probabilmente una cuoca, intenta a versare il latte in un interno domestico spoglio. A differenza dei suoi predecessori, all'artista non interessava rappresentare una pittoresca scena di genere o una natura morta di cibi e pietanze più o meno arricchita dalla presenza di figure umane di contorno: sebbene infatti questi temi siano riecheggiati e in parte sviluppati nel dipinto (soprattutto la bella descrizione degli oggetti), quello che colpisce soprattutto è l'atmosfera rarefatta e silenziosa, carica di un'acuta osservazione psicologica della realtà quotidiana, senza enfasi retorica.
La lattaia è infatti colta mentre fa un gesto quotidiano, eseguito quasi con sacralità silenziosa. Nella stanza, illuminata da una finestra sulla sinistra e caratterizzata da una parete spoglia come sfondo (alla Carel Fabritius), gli oggetti immobili rifrangono la luce svelando le loro diverse caratteristiche materiche: in primo piano, sul tavolo, una brocca con coperchio appare lucida e smaltata, mentre il pane sembra croccante e il cestino di vimini assorbe la luce con maggiore opacità. Questi effetti sono ottenuto variando sapientemente la tecnica pittorica, ora liscia e velata, ora ruvida e fatta di piccoli puntini.
Accanto alla finestra un'attenzione analoga è riposta nella rappresentazione di una gerla appesa e un paiolo d'ottone. In basso, sul pavimento, si vede poi uno scaldino, tra briciole sparse sul pavimento, vicino a una fila di mattonelle di Delft sporche che fanno da battiscopa. Anche la parete è resa vibrante da alcune semplici ma efficaci notazioni realistiche dell'ambiente: alcune macchie, un chiodo a cui non sta appeso niente, i segni dell'intonaco scrostato sul lato più umido, che dà all'esterno. Sullo sfondo, come hanno evidenziato le radiografie, l'artista aveva inizialmente dipinto una cartina geografica, eliminandola però, assieme ad altri pentimenti, poiché non consona all'ambientazione. Ad accrescere il senso di modestia di questo angolo di cucina, un vetro della finestra è rotto.
Protagonista resta comunque la donna, forte e robusta, leggermente inclinata per bilanciare il peso del contenitore e controllare, con espressione concentrata, la sua azione. Il volto appare inondato di luce e incorniciato dalla cuffia bianca. Il suo busto giallo, il grembiule blu, la gonna rossa, assieme ai colori della brocca e del bacile della terracotta, del bianco del latte, del verdognolo della tovaglia e del drappo azzurro sul tavolo, compongono un mirabile concerto cromatico, in cui le varie note sono fuse senza prevalere l'una sull'altra. 
Vermeer ha infatti il dono rarissimo di far nascere la pittura, nello stesso istante, come luce e come colore.
Non è da escludere che l'artista abbia nascosto dei messaggi simbolici attraverso alcuni oggetti: lo scaldino, per il calore che emana, può essere letto come un simbolo amoroso, metafora possibilmente confermata dalla presenza di piccoli cupido sulle piastrelle dello zoccolo. | © Wikipedia