Nothing entrances the painting lover like the work of Vermeer. At the time of Vermeer’s early death, at the age of 43, in 1675, the silent Dutchman—silent because he left behind no writing, or even an identifiable self-portrait, and because most of his work is supremely un-rhetorical—had painted more than a dozen all time masterpieces. In New York, we’re especially blessed and besotted. Eight of Vermeer’s canvasses are split between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Frick Collection, an accident of history timed to the artist’s rediscovery in the second half of the 19th century and the rise of a competitive class of art-collecting American plutocrats.
Today, however, there are actually nine in town, thanks to a visit from Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (1657-58) at the Met. The painting comes by way of the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, in part to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s trip to New York. (The lady has been to the city once before, for the 1939 World’s Fair.) The Milkmaid hangs as the centerpiece among the Met’s five other Vermeers and a selection of Dutch paintings and prints from the museum’s permanent collection for an exhibition organized by Walter Liedtke, curator of European paintings. The show runs through Nov. 29.
A half-century of scholarship has aimed at replacing the hidden, personally opaque Vermeer with the historical Vermeer, the man from Delft. “Vermeer and the Delft School,” an epochal, large show organized by Mr. Liedtke in 2001, situated the artist among a hometown cast of artists and the cross hairs of a go-for-broke entrepreneurialism that bankrolled the Dutch Golden Age; bankrupted its best painter, Rembrandt; and left the slow-moving Vermeer to get by, just barely, with loans from his mother-in-law.
As in that earlier exhibition, Mr. Liedtke does us the favor of seeing The Milkmaid in the context of Dutch genre paintings by Gerard ter Borch, Pieter de Hooch and Gabriël Metsu. (For the especially curious, there’s a gallery of prints explaining the role that servant girls played in the private imagination of a Dutch male audience, including a disquisition on the slang meaning of “milking.”)
IN THE MILKMAID, the subject tips a jug of milk into a wide handled bowl. The maid is sturdily built. Her sleeves are rolled up. She is wearing a blue apron and standing in front of a tabletop loaded with a wicker basket and crusty bread. The show authoritatively lays out the cultural currents, themes and emblems of upper-middle-class Dutch life, the whitewashed tidiness but also the peeking feelings of desire, as seen in the tiny figure of Cupid sketched on a wall tile in the background of The Milkmaid. That is the subject of an earlier Vermeer, the wine-soaked A Maid Asleep, circa 1656-57, also in the show.
In an accompanying text, Mr. Liedke notes that The Milkmaid is not really “timeless,” but a genre scene. Really, it’s about a house servant making bread pudding or, possbily, porridge. Mr. Liedtke also notes that the 18 x 16.5 inch painting is one of the last works of the artist’s formative years (Vermeer was all of 25 when he painted it). The young family man was keenly interested in how well similar scenes by other artists, like the supremely gifted ter Borch, living nearby in The Hague, were selling. Still, one comes away with the feeling that history stops short at Vermeer’s feet—at least, it doesn’t come close to accounting for the painting’s sacerdotal stillness, or Vermeer’s talent, which is hard to grasp even today. Really great artists remain alone in the world, and there is nothing to be done about it.
Take, for example, the effects of light in the The Milkmaid, which filters through a glass-paned window on the painting’s far left and settles over the room, glowing like softly focused gold manna. Vermeer paints in ways that continually confound our eyes and sense of form. There is nothing else in art quite like his ability to load liquidly a household object—say, a crust of bread or a string of pearls—with photorealistic details that simultaneously form and break down before the eye into pointillé dots of silver and gold. A visit? Hardly. This was a visitation.