In our tumultuous world today, when I crave tranquility, I enjoy paintings like this one. A maid pours milk from a pitcher into a bowl. She looks down, focused intently, performing this simple task as if it’s the most important thing in the world. Vermeer has captured a quiet moment in Holland.
As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.
In Vermeer’s day, maids were generally portrayed as luscious objects of desire surrounded by mouthwatering foods. Though Vermeer keeps some of that conventional symbolism — cupids in the baseboard tiles, uterine jugs, erotic milk-pouring, and a heat-of-passion foot warmer — the overall effect here is quite the opposite. Rather than a Venus, this is a blue-collar maid, a down-to-earth working girl…working. She’s broad-shouldered and thick, balanced on a sturdy base. Because of the painting’s lines of perspective, we the viewers are literally looking up at her. Vermeer’s maid embodies that most-prized of Dutch virtues: the dignity of hard work.
While the painting’s subject is ordinary, you could look for hours at the tiny details: the crunchy crust of the loaves of bread, the broken window pane, the shiny brass basket, even the rusty nail in the wall with its tiny shadow.
Vermeer frames off a little world in itself. Then he fills that space with objects for our perusal. Vermeer silences the busy world, so that every sound, every motion is noticed. It’s so quiet you can practically hear the thick milk hitting the bowl. You can feel the rough crust of the bread, the raised seams of her blouse, and the thick material of her apron.
Vermeer (1632–1675), from the picturesque town of Delft, was only 25 when he painted this, but it set the tone for his signature style: interiors of Dutch homes, where Dutch women engage in everyday activities, side-lit by a window. While Vermeer’s Baroque contemporaries painted Greek gods and idealized Madonnas, he specialized in the daily actions of regular people.
Like many Vermeer paintings, there’s an element of quiet mystery. Is the faint smile of this “Dutch Mona Lisa” happy or sad? The portrayal subtly implies a more complicated story than we’ll ever know.
Vermeer was a master of light. His luminous paintings radiate with a diffuse lighting, with minimal shadows. He makes simple objects glow. He could capture reflected light with an artistry that would make the Impressionists jealous two centuries later.
Vermeer presses the pause button on daily life and gives us the time to really see it. He invites you to slow down, probe deep into the canvas, and immerse yourself in his world. Through Vermeer, we can learn to appreciate the beauty of everyday things.
In all, only 37 Vermeer paintings survive — each is a small jewel worth lingering over.
This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book, “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces,” by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find clips related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Vermeer.