The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

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The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

Painting NameThe Milkmaid
Painter NameJohannes Vermeer
Completion Date1658
Size45.5 cm × 41 cm (17 7⁄8 in × 16 1⁄8 in)
Current LocationRijksmuseum (Amsterdam Netherlands)

The Milkmaid ranks among Johannes Vermeer’s best known works. It is known for its ample depiction and also for multiple interpretations viewers and critics make, which ranges from pragmatic views to theoretical meanings. The painting origins from the 17th century of Dutch Golden Age.

The Subject

The subject of the painting is a Milkmaid pouring fresh milk in a bowl. Though, in the 17th century Dutch people didn’t have special Milkmaids. They were called “Kitchen maids” or ‘maid of all works’.

Such maids were subject to do all types of works necessary in the kitchen or house. Also, such kitchen maids were also predisposed for love and sex. It wasn’t unapproved in society.

The Milkmaid Analysis

Vermeer has depicted the scene and the woman with realistic approach. It could be said as a genre painting or also as an individual portrait.

The woman is pouring the fresh milk into a bowl. On the table  along with the bowl are placed other things in a manner of still-life settings. At the corner of the room hangs a basket and a metallic object. On the bottom right is a foot-warmer.

Woman’s attire is contemporary of the 17th century Dutch people with highly contrasting colors. Face of the woman, instead of depicting romantically, is more natural, more real and close to the real women instead of the fancy, fictional and beautiful women generally depicted.

Though, it has only one source of light (windows on the left), it doesn’t hold the characteristics of the chiaroscuro technique.


Pentimento means the big changes the painter makes before the painting is complete. They aren’t apparent in the final version but could be perceived when the painting is put under X-ray vision or such modern analyzing techniques.

The current picture has a major pentimento change. Near the feet of the woman, behind her legs was placed a basket of clothes. It appears in X-ray but hasn’t made in the final version.


The milkmaid herself could be interpreted as the symbol of love, lust or sex as the aforementioned fact tells that they were seen as the subject for love and sex by the dominant males of the house.

Another symbolism is related with the foot warner. On the both side of the foot-warmer, on the tiles, are depicted a cupid on the left and a man with a stick on the right. That man is a farmer who is ‘seeding’ with the stick. At the time, a foot-warmer was taken as a symbol of female intimate intentions. Also, the depictions on the tiles suggests same messages. Due to such elements and interpretations, the theme of the painting is called as the ‘allusions of female sexuality.’

Multiple Interpretations

Though, not all the critics agrees the painting to be an erotic depiction. Pragmatic views tells that the presence of foot warmer indicates towards the woman’s hard-working labor and the need of rest in between.

The ‘realistic’ approach of the painting is the indication that the painter wanted the viewer to interpret the painting in more realistic, visual way instead of thinking out the fancy interpretations.

There are many other interpretations as well which tells a whole different story from the painting. Though, most acceptable one is about the female sexuality as the painting holds strong elements to suggest that and also the painter’s time-period derives the similar meanings of the objects included.

Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer earned huge reputation and popularity in the modern times through his art works. Although, Girl with a Pearl Earring tops as his best known work, The Milkmaid isn’t far behind in the race of fame and artistic abilities.


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