Vermeer: the Milk Maid, 2009
Once every other week or so, in eighth grade at St Frances of Rome school, a woman came to talk to us about art. She wore makeup and had a thick Spanish accent, which made her exotic, and she gave us things, which made her admired. I loved her, because what she gave us were small postcards of famous art works, and then she talked to us about why they were famous, why they were good, what we could see in them when we looked.
My family also proudly owned the World Book Encyclopedia, which was my idea of fun reading. It had pages and pages of full color art plates, and some of those paintings were the same ones the Spanish art teacher had showed us.
One such painting was Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. I must have read and listened hard, because I remember so much of what was said over a space of nearly fifty years. I remember the rough texture of her bodice, how you could tell the cloth was coarse, and how every loaf of bread was distinct in surface and heft. I don’t remember how it was explained to us that the quality of the light was astonishing, but it was, and we could see that. The maid herself was a thick, strong-armed woman with a heavy face: not beautiful in any way. But she was solid and present, as she poured milk.
Yesterday I got to see that painting, in person, as it were, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, loaned by the Dutch to NYC in honor of the 400th anniversay of Hendrick Hudson’s voyage. It is quite small, about 16 x 17 inches, and it is absolutely glowing. The blue of her apron is astonishing, the quality of the light astounding. Pretty far from that dull eighth grade postcard, but simply magical to see, for myself, at last.