The first room of the new exhibition Vermeer's Masterpiece, The Milkmaid at the Metropolitan Museum of Art reminds you how precious this masterpiece is with a simple device: the wall is covered with a grid of 36 images of paintings. They represent all that has survived of 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer's oeuvre of 40 or so paintings. Of those 36, The Milkmaid stands out like a jewel. The Metropolitan has The Milkmaid on loan from the Rijksmusem through November 29, and has created a small exhibition around it.
You might think in the Met's collection of over two million objects is full of "jewels," and you would be right. Yet even among master painters, Johannes Vermeer has gained a critical and popular reputation for beautiful renderings of illusionistic color and light. The Milkmaid is a small oil featuring a humble woman going about her daily routine–and it is stunning.
Vermeer created many charming interior scenes of young woman, yet none have quite the earthy immediacy of his Milkmaid. She is not actually a milkmaid, but rather a kitchenmaid pouring milk. It seems a simple composition of great immediacy, much like a photograph to a modern viewer. However, as the exhibition catalog notes, the painting was carefully composed to give the figure of the maid a greater monumentality by placing the viewer's gaze below. Similarly there is an altering of light and dark, nearness and depth to create the illusion of heft. Also note the chip in the glass of the window, showing the strong outdoor light. The composition was artfully arranged, and the photograph-like quality was to 17th century Dutch eyes a distinct style. What stands out when seeing The Milkmaid in the flesh, so to speak, is the richness of the coloring. The light is carefully picked out in white spots that create texture and sparkle. The colors are as vibrant and clear as enamel, hammering home the metaphor of a jewel.
The rest of this intimate exhibition provides a context for Vermeer's masterpiece. To that end it displays similarly-themed scenes from other Dutch painters as well as the Met's other Vermeers, which might be called masterpieces in their own right. A selection of drawings and engravings illustrate the trope of Vermeer's time that milkmaids and kitchenmaids were objects of lust. His depiction, however, deviates from the stereotype. He treats her with the grace and dignity of the ladies in his other domestic scenes, despite the earthiness of her broad body doing useful work and surrounded by household implements. Although a small exhibition, this one gives the viewer a lot to soak up.
The exhibition comes on the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson finding the island of Manhattan, which inspired the Rijksmuseum's loan of this important piece. It is the second time The Milkmaid has been to America; the only other time was for the 1939 World's Fair. So this is a rare chance to see a rare painting by a master of color and light. If this exhibition doesn't satisfy your lust for beauty, walk down Fifth Avenue to the Frick Collection, which houses another three Vermeers. You'll have seen a quarter of Vermeer's oeuvre in an afternoon. Not a bad day's work.