Vermeer has been on the minds of many these days following his spectacular recent exhibit (ending June 2023) at the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam The online presentation of the exhibit is staggeringly beautiful.
This is the first part of a two-part series. The second part (available after July 4, 2023) is "Winslow Homer's Women at Work and the History of Aprons."
One of my favorite paintings by Vermeer, is "The Milkmaid," (1657-1658).
The oil painting features a young woman, obviously a worker in the household but probably not a milkmaid, pouring milk into a bowl on a table. It is conjectured that she may be making bread pudding, since there is torn bread and other bread on the table, too.
The shallow crockery bowl she is pouring into, is a Dutch oven with a lid. It is usually intended for a slow, long baking—which would be appropriate for bread pudding to make sure that you don't curdle the custard with heat that is too high.
I'm not convinced she's making bread pudding. Not to draw too fine a point on this interpretation, but bread pudding typically requires eggs too, as mentioned above in the custard reference. If she were really making bread pudding, it would make sense to have the chalky surfaced eggs in the composition. Eggs being oval-shaped would have added another sensuous component to the arrangement, too. Vermeer could have used the soft light from the window to cast rough-edged crescent shadows over the surfaces.
And, I wonder what color eggs he would have included?
Instead of bread pudding, she may have been preparing her vessel for cooking a tough cut of meat in the milk. Meat has historically been simmered or boiled in milk to tenderize it.
Or, she may have been preparing to cook the milk to create a soft-curd cheese solution to be drained in cheesecloth, for yoghurt or a ricotta type of dairy product.
Although, as shown below, ricotta was typically created in a larger vessel.
We have to keep in mind that Vermeer wasn't memorializing the actual process of creating something edible in the kitchen.
He was creating a painting of an interior room bathed in light and shadow. He strove to capture an intimate, solitary moment of a kitchen maid engaged in work with dignity. Hard work was a virtue celebrated in Delft in 17th C. and although this was the only painting he did featuring a maid or working class house servant, the tribute to honorable domestic work is understood.
I think this painting was simply a compelling, composition of noble work no matter what recipe she is acting out.
Vermeer arranged familiar objects to take advantage of filtered light from the window panes. The imperfections of the window panes, with a waviness to their surfaces and the lack of transparency, cast a subdued light which helps amplify the richness of the saturated colors, such as the blue of her apron.
Vermeer's magnificent mastery emanated from his ability to see and convey the effects of light on a range of textures and objects. Notice the shininess of the rims of the pottery vessels as opposed to the soft, gentle folds of the fabric on her blue apron.
Notice the highlights on the top edges of the reeds in the baskets.
Notice the smeariness of the paint to convey the softness of the flesh of her arms. The paint is used in a completely different brush stroke to get the authentic effect of the changing color from her rough tanned hands to the more fragile untanned skin near her elbow.
The Task of Arranging a Still Life
Arranging a still life for a painting such as this, is a surprisingly tedious project.
The selection of the items and placing them can literally take hours. When arranging the items, your point of view is completely different from that when you are actually painting. So you need to set things up, step back to where you will be painting, analyze what needs to be done, and walk up to the set-up again and again, attempting to perfect the eye-level point of view.
It is also tricky because the light at the time you paint the still-life may be completely different from the time of day or the intensity of the light when you created the set-up.
ARGH!! Just thinking about setting up a still life makes me impatient. :-)
The capabilities of your model come into play too. She may have stood there for hours while you are correcting the set-up. Then possibly standing there for days holding an empty milk jug. No milk would be flowing until the time when Vermeer needed to visualize that stream of milk. It appears the milk jug may be resting on the back edge of the Dutch oven, which would have helped immensely in allowing her to hold the pose.
In terms of her attire, she has on a leather bodice that is hooked up the front. The green sleeves she has pushed up on her arms are called morsemouwen, meaning "mess sleeves." Usually they are worn flat to the arm, to protect the fabric underneath. In this case, they are shoved up to get both the morsemouwen and her long under-sleeves out of the way.
You can watch more about the discussion of the painting and the textile description on YouTube at: Great Art Explained video: The Milkmaid. 2022.
The Milkmaid's Apron of Ultramarine Blue
The MIlkmaid's apron is another garment of interest. We will be talking more about aprons in my next e-letter (Part 2 of this e-letter).
Aprons often signaled the status of the wearer, as well as the prosperity of the home they were employed in.
This is a fairly basic style of apron, possibly folded over a belt or over cording at her waist. Or possibly with the cording passing through a channel and tied in back.
What is unusual to me about this apron is that it is not of a common fabric. This fabric has some softness and weight to it.
And frequently kitchen maids and cooks wore white aprons. Yet, Vermeer painted this apron in an ultramarine blue.
Ultramarine blue at this time was formulated from the ground powder of lapis lazuli. Its grinding, washing, sifting and formulation made the natural pigment valuable—"roughly ten times more expensive than the stone it comes from and as expensive as gold." Frequently, in religious paintings of this era, this blue was used exclusively for the Holy Family.
This intensely beautiful, expensive blue was used for the apron of a common kitchen maid: What is the meaning of that? I don't know; it fascinates me.
The Milkmaid painting and her apron caused me to think about the depiction of aprons in other art. They are ubiquitous throughout history and across the world.
What are the cultural and symbolic meanings that may have been intended by the artist who painted them or created them, and the craftsperson or worker who wore them. Historically, as today, apron wearing included men and women.
As a teaser to my next e-letter, I am including a couple of other women featured in functional aprons. The two below are painted in watercolor by Winslow Homer.
A Sick Chicken
A young woman is holding a chicken who apparently is not doing well. She wears a utilitarian frock with a very basic piece of cloth, tied at the waist to serve as an apron as she collects eggs, and cares for the chickens and the coop.
The young woman is standing at a blackboard holding a pointer. She is dressed in a sage-green dress with multiple sections of ruffles. On top she wears a pinafore-style apron to protect the more valuable garment underneath.
Let me know: do you wear aprons? What tasks do you do when you always reach for your apron? Tell me about your favorite apron and I might contact you to use a photo in my next blog post! (Use the link at the bottom of this page to send me a message.)