December 2009

The Curator Says It's About Sex

Walter Liedtke on the Meaning of Vermeer's Milkmaid

by Louis Torres

"Don't say that the curator says it's about sex," the curator, Walter Liedtke, cautioned the art critics and journalists gathered around him at the press preview for the exhibition "Vermeer's Masterpiece: The Milkmaid" [close-up ], which closed on November 29. It's about "attraction and restraint, and a subtle form of voyeurism."[1] In other words, it's about sex. Liedtke--who is a curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan and the Museum's specialist for Dutch and Flemish paintings--was expressing in brief his controversial interpretation of Vermeer's work. First proposed in 2001, it colored much of the exhibition and will no doubt be debated for years to come.

Visitors to the exhibition were greeted by an oversize reproduction of the painting (visible in the YouTube video cited below), followed by this unsigned wall text by Liedtke:

[T]he figure [possesses] monumentality and perhaps a sense of dignity. And yet, like milkmaids and kitchen maids in earlier Netherlandish art, and like other young women in Vermeer's oeuvre, this figure was meant to attract the male viewer and to have her own thoughts of romance.

Perhaps a sense of dignity? Liedtke is not so hesitant when it comes to reading Vermeer's mind, however. The gist of his statement regarding Vermeer's intention is clear: despite his caveat, the painting is "about sex" after all.

Throughout the run of the exhibition, most visitors no doubt immediately searched out the actual painting they had come to see--not necessarily, I hasten to add, spurred on by the wall text, though its understated message no doubt piqued the curiosity of more than a few. Close-up, however, The Milkmaid does not readily suggest the "titillating" theme alluded to Liedtke--to borrow the apt characterization by radio talk show host Leonard Lopate in an interview with the curator. But the obligatory label close by (unduly intrusive in my view) called attention to relevant details of the painting and provided further thematic interpretation:

. . . the playful image of Cupid [on the tile] [close-up ] next to the foot warmer--which can also be a symbol of amorous thoughts--suggests that the robust young woman may be daydreaming about a man. For a male viewer of the period (in this case, Vermeer's patron Pieter van Ruijven), the hints of sexuality would have given the painting an element of fantasy as subtle as the shadows on the whitewashed walls.

Museum visitors, who tend to read labels after glancing fleetingly at paintings, no doubt returned to The Milkmaid for a closer look with the curator's interpretation fresh in mind, thus vitiating what ought to have been, initially at first, a purely personal experience.

The alleged significance of the tile (an enlarged reproduction of which had been placed adjacent to the introductory wall text, without comment) was now clear, even if stated in tentative terms. But the symbolism of the foot warmer would be more fully explained in a wall text entitled "The 'Milkmaid' Theme" that accompanied a reproduction of the unabashedly explicit Kitchen Scene [more]--by Peter Wtewael, an earlier Dutch painter--hanging just a few steps away (the much larger original was relegated to a wall in the small gift shop at the end of the exhibition).

For at least two centuries before Vermeer's time, milkmaids and kitchen maids had (or were assigned) a reputation for amorous predispositions. Netherlandish artists adopted this theme in works ranging in tone from coarsely erotic to slyly suggestive. . . . In Kitchen Scene . . . an eager farmhand offers his wares and services to a receptive cook. The dangling bird and the chicken jammed onto a spit refer to male and female anatomy, signs made more explicit by the encounter of the youth's extended finger with an open jug.

Later artists were less explicit. But, as the wall text points out:

In The Milkmaid, Vermeer characteristically goes further in the direction of understatement. The image of Cupid on a Delft tile next to the foot warmer--which can imply arousal of the fairer sex--would appear to intimate that the woman has feelings as well as obligations.

In remarks relating the two paintings in the exhibition catalogue, Liedtke further observes:

[In Wtewael's scene] a country boy with a big basket of eggs (testifying to his virility) offers his bird to a comely cook. She responds by jamming a chicken onto a spit, one of several signs in the picture of carnal knowledge and intercourse. What is most interesting for Vermeer's painting of a kitchen maid . . . is the jug held open in the young man's hand and his extended middle finger. . . . [A] jug presented in a certain way--open, tipped forward . . . --was a well-known reference to distaff anatomy.

In a related observation in the Met's online Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Liedtke notes that

Vermeer idealized a domestic world occupied (if not animated) mostly by women, whose postures, behavior, and in some cases expressions suggest close study and sympathy (in this the artist resembles Gerard ter Borch, whose work he knew). He often suggests some connection between a figure and the viewer, subtly casting the latter in the role of a spellbound voyeur.

In Liedtke's view, that "spellbound voyeur (or "peeping Tom," to use a more plain-spoken term) presumably includes you, dear reader (especially if you are male), and me--not just Vermeer's contemporaries. And we are cast in that role with regard to other paintings by him as well. Even in the context of Liedtke's broader interpretation of The Milkmaid, however, the notion that Vermeer envisioned the viewer (even his Delft patron) as "spellbound voyeur" is utterly absurd.

Further explanation regarding the amorous connotations of the foot warmer is reserved for Liedtke's scholarly catalogue essay. "Foot warmers do not heat rooms," he notes, "they heat feet and, under a long skirt (as in Van Loo's Wooing), more private parts." But the foot warmer in that particular painting is clearly under the lady's dainty left foot, not under the ample skirt of her dress. A careless oversight on Liedtke's part perhaps. The remark preceding it is troublesome, however. According to Liedtke, "by inserting a foot warmer and, next to it, a Delft tile depicting Cupid, Vermeer intimates that love and desire, as well as work, are burdens the maid must bear." Yet he cites nothing in the painting itself suggesting that this milkmaid feels "burdened"[2] by anything at all. Not even by love or desire, if indeed she is feeling these at all. Her calm absorption in the task at hand, moreover, suggests quite the opposite.

How have other scholars interpreted Vermeer's painting? Liedtke quotes a few snippets of remarks by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., a noted Vermeer specialist, from the catalogue [more] of the 1995-96 Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Wheelock's meaning is best conveyed by quoting him more fully, however:

As she stands pouring milk into an earthenware bowl in the corner of a simple, unadorned room, the kitchen maid conveys a physical and moral presence unequaled by any other figure in Dutch art. . . . [H]er stature is enhanced by the wholesomeness of her endeavor: the providing of life-sustaining food. . . .

The mood of the painting is "heroic," according to Wheelock.

Regarding the foot warmer in the lower right corner of the painting, Wheelock seems to agree with Liedtke in some measure when he notes that it "had emblematic associations with a lover's desire for constancy and caring." But, he adds,

Rather than being associated with romantic love . . . these elements here relate to the maid's human warmth and evident devotion to her task as she assiduously provides for the nourishment of others.

Both Liedtke and Wheelock note that The Milkmaid is connected to the broad tradition of Dutch genre painting. Wheelock, however, emphasizes that "Vermeer's figure has an iconic character that is unprecedented in Dutch art," and that its roots lie elsewhere, as suggested by Jørgen Wadum, the chief conservator of the Mauritshuis. Wadum, Wheelock reports, proposes that Vermeer based the pose of the maid on an image of Queen Artemesia [more] by the Italian painter Domenico Fiasella (1589-1669). "Beyond the striking similarity in pose," Wheelock adds, "each figure projects enormous moral authority."

Another Vermeer scholar, Lawrence Gowing (Vermeer), is of the same mind as Wheelock regarding the meaning of the painting:

When we turn to the work of his contemporaries . . . it is clear how essentially [Vermeer] was now at variance with convention. And in the difference lies the value of the Maidservant [A Maidservant Pouring Milk]. . . . Her act is simple, customary, unrevealing. Her only life is that which she shares with the matter about her, to receive the light with a passiveness remote from time and personality.
The Maidservant is never repeated: it stands alone. It is Vermeer's single approach to a positive and substantial view of human activity. By the standards of the humane painters it would seem his most considerable work.

Curators at the Rijksmuseum, which owns the painting, confirm what most viewers would acknowledge: that the figure of The Kitchen Maid (as the museum calls it) is possessed of "a certain weight and dignity." Not a word about sex in any of its pages on the painting.

Finally, Rodney Nevitt, Jr., writing in The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer on "Vermeer and the Question of Love" [scroll down for text and tile illustrations] suggests that though the tile "may be deliberately juxtaposed with the foot warmer" and Cupid's "understated presence" in the painting may well carry special significance, the milkmaid is someone "absorbed in her work, a paragon of domestic virtue without any overt amatory meaning." Contrast this with Liedtke's allusion to her (in his podcast) as "a kind of a sex object" (albeit as something more than that).

Liedtke's illustrated catalogue essay develops his thesis regarding the meaning of The Milkmaid at some length and, on occasion, in a manner more purely subjective than one expects in scholarly discourse--as in this troubling passage:

The physical appeal of the "milkmaid" is sensed naturally . . . like the taste of milk or the touch of bread. Rough sleeves reveal bare arms, where the skin (unlike that of the wrists and hands) is rarely exposed to sunlight. The ruddy wrists and face, the woman's generous proportions, and her warmth, softness and approachability are qualities not found in Vermeer's more refined young ladies. They too are alluring, but the kitchen maid is frankly so.

Liedtke does not mince words here. Indeed, so much of his interpretation of the painting is couched in terms alluding to sex that his reference to the "physical appeal" of the milkmaid, whom he envisions as warm and soft, can only be understood in this context. What else does he expect the reader to think when he also characterizes her as approachable--as not only "alluring," but "frankly so," as if his subjective interpretation were a matter of incontrovertible fact? This from the same observer who also somehow detects a "faint smile"--which, he argues, hints at thoughts of you know what.

Is The Milkmaid primarily about sex--as Liedtke seems to believe, his protestations and hedging notwithstanding? The observable qualities of the work itself, not to mention the weight of scholarly opinion, suggest that it is not.

1. Quoted by Lee Rosenbaum in CultureGrrl, her weblog of cultural commentary, September 10, 2009. I missed hearing these particular remarks by Liedtke at the press preview, but the ever-diligent Rosenbaum did not.

2. Burden: "That which is borne with labor or difficulty; that which is grievous, wearisome, or oppressive" (Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913). Compare The Milkmaid in this respect to the following images by Käthe Kolwitz (1867-1945), which depict women truly bearing burdens of one sort or another: Gretchen (1899), The Downtrodden (1900), and an untitled, undated work. Also, to Vincent van Gogh's Old Man in Sorrow (1890). The history of art is full of such examples.

For further reading, viewing, and listening:

Walter Liedtke, The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer, 2009.

Interview with Walter Liedtke, Leonard Lopate Show, WNYC, September 18, 2009.

Michelle Marder Kamhi, Vermeer's Milkmaid: More Than Meets the Eye, Aristos, December 2009.

Alexandra Peers, "Vermeer's Naughty Milkmaid," Daily Beast, October 1, 2009.

Gallery Views of "Vermeer's Masterpiece: The Milkmaid," YouTube, September 15, 2009.