Monday, November 30, 2009

melk meisje

My blog namesake. The famous Vermeer painting portraying the "melk meisje" (milk girl)  or keukenmeid (kitchen maid servant) in the act of making bread pudding. 

I went and saw the original Milkmaid at the Met yesterday. The museum's written commentary about the symbol of the  milkmaid in 17th century Dutch paintings really perturbed me. First, everything is a sexual innuendo. Which wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't really all about the milkmaid being either a subservient or nefarious woman who must give in to the whims of the man or master of the house. It's ridiculously misogynistic. Most of the art critics are men and the few that are women offer very little difference of opinion, all stating that every object in the kitchen signifies the erotic. The jug is a uterine representation. The milk, alludes to the woman's overflowing sexual desires. The mortar and pestle symbolize female and male genitalia. Really?! The list goes on. It's exasperating. 

Secondly, they treat this myth of the milkmaid as a harlot as fact. As though all women who are dutch kitchen servants are waiting to be ogled by a man. Or just daydreaming about a tryst with the master of the house. Maybe she's thinking about mathematics or astronomy or how the hell to get out of this godforsaken kitchen! Of course, sadly, during the golden age in the Netherlands, women of a lower social background did need a man to get her out of an economically difficult situation. The strongest values of 17th century Netherlands that a woman could possess was domestic virtue. Sad. 

I do like, however, one view of Vermeer's works. "In the end, it is not the allusions to female sexuality that give this painting its romance or emotional resonance — it is the depiction of honest, hard work as something romantic in and of itself," states Raquel Laneri in Forbes magazine. The Netherlands was rooted in Calvinist ethics, on hard work and diligence and piety. I might not be so into the piety part, but I do like the calvinist work ethic and the need for more appreciation and acknowledgment of working class heroes, especially ones that make good bread pudding.  


  1. I absolutely love Vermeer! Is this the one painting owned by the Met? You've read Girl with the Pearl Earring, right?

  2. Vermeer, my favorite! Is this the one that's at the Met?

  3. It's being loaned out by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to the Met in honor of this event. But this one was just a replica at the Dutch village.

  4. I just saw your post on the Vermeers that we saw together. Well done! As you know, I second your sentiments, and those of Raquel Laneri in Forbes. I would add that milk--or kitchen--maids were at the mercy of their wealthy employers, whether those men were Calvinists or Catholics (like Vermeer). And history, as taught by men, still mistakenly regards all these women as lusty participants who had no other thought in their heads than having sex with the "master."