On Vermeer’s Milkmaid – 2

The Milkmaid by Vermeer, now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Milkmaid by Vermeer, now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

What Matters?

It is hard to believe that Vermeer was merely a locally famed artist during his life time. For more than a century after his death, he had been mainly forgotten, until Gustav Friedrich Waagen and Thoré Bürger “rediscovered” him in 1866 with 66 attributed works.

In the process of demystification of Vermeer’s magic, scholars have published papers on almost every aspect of the painter. Undaunted by the fact that his preliminary studies or drawing sketches do not exist (in terms of firm attribution), the topics have been mostly focused on the making of the painter: from what kind of family and patrons he had to what kind of pigment he used. And perhaps the most discussed is his possible use of a camera obscura. In the winter of 1995-1996, when 21 Vermeer pictures were exhibited at the National Gallery of Art, a camera obscura was included, like a juried statement from one of the top art institutes.

The scholarly reasoning for the use of a camera obscura can be long and full of jargons. In summary, the diffused ocular effect of the foreground objects, the sparks of the reflection from different surfaces and the special point of view that renders unusual spacial proportion and dimensions have made art historians believe that Vermeer’s meticulous observation was aided with the forerunner of modern cameras. For laymen who don’t analyze pigments or experiment perspective from the ancient cameras, they raise the question that could simply dethrone Vermeer: Is that the secret that make his pictures special?


Our perception of the artistic values of realistic or photorealistic works have been forever distorted by the invention of photography. Once a friend of mine commented that Kehinde Wiley couldn’t draw because he couldn’t draw without photos. For him, drawing from photos is no more competent than doodling and drooping.

We take it for granted that the labored love from the old masters is the manifestation of their powerful imagination and consummate skills. However, a contemporary artwork, equally realistic, will suddenly lose all the charm. Instead of calling them creative, we label them follower at the best or imitative at the worst.

Now assuming the validity that Vermeer did take the advantage of a camera obscura, would this piece of “fact” depreciate his artistic values, or simply put, would it matter?

I have never used a camera obscura, so I dare not say how much one can gain besides the aid in precise positioning of objects. But we know photos “lie”, even those from a 20 Mega-pixel digital SLR. They lose color depths and spacial immensity. To me, photography is essentially an art of reduction, restricted in the world of 2D. On the other hand, paintings, at least those of old masters, create the illusion of three dimensionality.

A camera obscura from Wikipedia
A camera obscura from Wikipedia

Vermeer’s Milkmaid is anything but photographic. We can feel the roundness of her shoulders from years of hardworking. We can also claim that the thick layer of clothes cannot “fool” our eyes and disguise her mature womanhood: that beautiful bosom must be full and soft. And we must refrain ourselves from not thinking of touching the bread with scintillating light. We may also be intrigued by the holes and nails that are painted in trompe-l’œil illusionism.

If a great artwork creates a world of it own, the world of milkmaid is one of the most subtle and intricate. The image demands a close and long inspection, a procedure that reconciles the mundane reality with a world which is more beautiful than one has ever imagined. The light, that renders everything with textures, forms, depths, and most of all colors, is omnipresent in every inch of that world. For the first time, light was captured and objectified with the sense of touch, weight and smell that any viewer can grasp, yet still retaining its fluidity and pervasiveness.

To what extent the images on a camera obscura look close to Vermeer’s paintings, we don’t know. But no matter how great the images look, the real miracle came from the coordination of the hands, eyes and visions of Vermeer. As David Hockny in his book “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters” said: “optics don’t make marks, painters do.”

Back to the moment when I was looking at Vermeer and was surrounded by a dozen other people. It was one of the rare moments that I felt relieved. Of course, I would have preferred if I were the only person in the gallery. But the person next me may have the same thought. It reminded me the exhibition that I mentioned earlier at the National Gallery of Art in 1995. Geo was one of the 327,551 lucky visitors, who all must obtain a pass for the show. At one time during the second government furlough, the exhibition was kept open to the public (while the rest of the galleries remained close) through private funds. The blizzards hit hard in DC that year, but people swarmed in with no fear of severe weather. It is there, in the pictures by Vermeer, one is able to momentarily live in a world in which tranquil light transforms everything into a state of magnificent beauty. Thus, in Vermeer, we transform our sense of being.

Read the first part here:

On Vermeer’s Milkmaid – 1

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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