On Vermeer’s Milkmaid – 1

The crowd hurried to meet the most famouos milkmaid in the world
The crowd hurried to meet the most famous milkmaid in the world

A Special Among The Rare

There are Dutch painters, and then there is Vermeer. Metropolitan Museum of Art is always crowded on weekend days, but in the galleries of the special exhibition featuring Vermeer’s Milkmaid, I wish I could be  seven feet tall to have an unobstructed view. Like a British unconsciously standing up when overhearing the word of  Queen, visitors oohed and aahed. They were not to vote or judge or to reconcile their mundane modern world with that of Vermeer equally mundane, but seemingly more beautiful.  In case visitors do not know how rare these species are, the Met made the point by printing all 35 pictures in possible chronological order on the wall greeting everyone: 15 of them are proudly housed in the US although the Milkmaid belongs to her native land. The question, is not whether one such Vermeer would justify his revered status, it is the opposite: Would people perceive Vermeer the same if his catalogue raisonné were as thick as that of Picasso?

Of course, such an idea would be absurd. There are only 35 such things in the world labeled as Johannes Vermeer, including the one that was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. Thus it is hard to look at his pictures without consciousness of its rarity. I wonder: among the crowd, how many are exercising the aesthetic judgment with a coolness of independence, and how many are, merely coming in just to admire or be there?

The Milkmaid is special among the rare. For New Yorkers who tend to think the world ends on either side of  Manhattan, the picture has only been in  the US once, more than six decades ago. Thus it is ok to take the pride and regard being there with the treasure is historically significant in one’s intellectual life. Photo taking is strictly prohibited, still many tried. Even Warren Buffett cannot have a Vermeer. It is not to blame the fault of human memory that after a while, only the title and the name matter while the rest detail of the picture fades like a myth. Plenty of high-resolution pictures exist online, and postcards can be bought for one dollar fifty. The way that people secretly snap the pictures through a dozen heads and the scolding voices of the security guards is a human nature of owning things: A record on camera (and your own camera) before eyes gives a more tangible form and a sense of possession to something prestigious and unpossessable.

On the left, next to the Milkmaid hangs another Vermeer – “Study of a Young Woman,” with a haunting stare at a non-existing crowd. After I was pushed to the side of the Milkmaid crowd, I enjoyed a more private ownership of this painting instead.

Study of a Young Woman by Vermeer
Study of a Young Woman by Vermeer

It is an intriguing image. The softness of the facial form in contrast with the more painterly sharp-edged clothes is strikingly incongruent yet pleasing. Seldom do I see a painted face well lit under diffused light projecting such a convincing roundness that you could almost feel her breadth. Then as I reciprocated her gaze, there surfaced a deeper psychological peculiarity. Unlike the milkmaid, she is shown without context or surroundings. Nothing will distract the viewer from her face: that smooth tender face without eyebrows. She is not beautiful, at least in my mind. But she emerged from the dark background with her neck turned and eyes staring to the left, radiating the kind of candor and unpretentiousness idealized in the Dutch culture. At the same time, she retreats into her own world. Her face seems to dissolve into an intangible softness so that she looks curious and enigmatic. The anatomical rendering of the neck gives her somehow a peculiar reluctance as if she refused to be fully read. And to read I tried.

The two images cannot be more different. One is, as written on the label, the most sculptural modeling of all Vermeer’s works; the other, reduced both the sense of space and the form (in particular of the fabric). One is narrative and momentary, but tranquilized into a state of timelessness; the other is plain and still, yet exudes a sense of communicative quality.

This pushed me back to think of the question I have asked at the beginning: Few painters can achieve such a universal claim through less than three dozens pictures. Such an aura, however, has one-dimensionlized a painter who was evolving and developing through his career. We ooh and aah the fascinating light, the ideal womanhood and symbolism, but under the Vermeerian spell, we hardly challenge our mind and  instead surrender ourselves into the label readers, audio-tour listeners and simply one of those heads in front of THE picture.

Read the second part here:

On Vermeer’s Milkmaid – 2

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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