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Judging the Milkmaid: A Scholarly Smackdown

Milkmaid.jpg
Johannes Vermeer,
“The Milkmaid,” ca. 1657-58, Rijksmuseum

The podcast for my WNYC “Vermeer” comments is still not posted on the New York Public Radio station’s website at this writing, but you can be sure that I’ll embed it on CultureGrrl, once it’s available. (I’ll also listen to it: I’m not usually an early riser, and missed it on the air!)

Meanwhile, for those of you who DID hear me, let’s probe a little deeper:

Walter Liedtke, curator for the Metropolitan Museum’s “Milkmaid” show, is the first to admit that his provocative take on the character of Vermeer‘s “Milkmaid” is at odds with conventional scholarly wisdom about this painting. He concedes as much in his must-hear podcast on the museum’s own website for the show:

When you look at the painting by Vermeer, you might really object to this line of thought, because it is by no means obvious and I don’t think that’s all there is too it—that the Milkmaid is a kind of sex object….Since probably the early 19th century, the Milkmaid has been seen as a kind of heroine of the people—a working class woman who is extremely diligent, who runs a good household,…who performs hard work on a daily basis….

I think I’m the first scholar of Dutch art to write about the Milkmaid as something romantic. People writing books on Vermeer give it a very different spin. It’s not wrong, but it’s important to know what people thought about the picture in its own day.

The traditional, more wholesome take on the painting can be found in the Director’s Note at the beginning of the exhibition’s catalogue, where Tom Campbell writes:

In “The Milkmaid” we discover Dutch self-reliance and well-being in an individual who appears to have her own thoughts and feelings but also evokes the hard-won peace and prosperity of the Golden Age.

And in the same vein, Liedtke’s catalogue essay quotes “one writer” who “has gone so far as to claim that this household servant ‘conveys a physical and moral presence [emphasis added] unequaled by any other figure in Dutch art.'” By reading the fine print in the footnotes, one learns that “one writer” is none other than Arthur Wheelock, the National Gallery’s distinguished curator for the Washington museum’s celebrated 1995 exhibition devoted to Vermeer.

Wait a minute! Wheelock and Liedtke are scheduled to appear together at the Met on a Nov. 6 panel, Vermeer Art in the Making. (Arthur is not listed by name at the link, but the Met’s press release identifies him as a participant.) The description of the panel says that participants will “discuss Vermeer’s style and techniques, clarifying how the celebrated master actually made his exquisite works of art.

We can only hope that they’ll also be “clarifying” their conflicting views on what the painting actually signifies.

I love it when curators argue!

an ArtsJournal blog