Among the special exhibitions currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one is a small and intimate look at several Dutch paintings in the Met's collection, gathered to highlight and provide context for Vermeer's painting The Milkmaid, loaned by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Henry Hudson. The painting is very beautiful, with brightly vivid color (I assume it has been recently cleaned) and sparkling light.
What was surprising to me about this work is how realistic it is: looking at the flesh of the face and arms, we see precise rendering of form, with details like a color change from the woman's hands to her forearms, which would have been shielded from sun. The musculature is evident; if we instead look at the Woman with a Water Pitcher below, the forms of the arms are simplified, as is the face. It's as though the Milkmaid is a particular woman, while the woman in the white headdress is Woman.
The part of the painting that most interested me was, believe it or not, the wall. The plaster wall was painted with such attention that the paint became wall; it seemed as though my hand could pass over the surface and feel its irregularities. The wall's color changes from warm to cool, giving a sense of seeing something that is true.
Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, 1662, 18 x 16 inches
The Vermeers from the Met's collection are all much more subdued in color than The Milkmaid. Now I wonder if they were painted differently, or if cleaning would make them brighter. I tend to think that it is likely that Vermeer, in making his paintings less realistic in form, decided to make the color less intense. Instead he makes a world that feels solid, yet transcendent. Although the scenes he presents are everyday ones, they are also timeless.
I remember seeing a large show of Dutch painting at the Met several years ago which included several Vermeers. They stood out from what were many wonderful paintings in their powerful weighty presence, in their transformation of ordinary life into something extraordinary.
Gerard ter Borch, A Young Woman at Her Toilet, 1650-51, 19 x 14 inches
We can see something of this when we compare the Vermeer paintings to this lovely ter Borch and to the Metsu below. Ter Borch specialized in painting shiny silken fabrics, and they do glisten; the velvet chair covering looks soft and inviting to the touch. But the painting remains a charming depiction of a moment.
Gabriel Metsu, A Woman Seated at a Window, 1660, 11 x 9 inches
Rather than a woman at her toilet, in the Metsu painting we have a woman with what might be symbols––a book, a bunch of grapes, a piece of fruit––pointing towards a meaning that could be more than mundane. Yet for me, the painting, in its specificity of form, doesn't rise above a portrait of a woman in a window.
A very different painting, Vermeer's Study of a Young Woman, below, is emotionally moving; her direct gaze invites and questions. In looking at this work, we can feel ourselves not only in conversation with her, but understanding something more of the human spirit, of beauty, and of art.
Vermeer, Study of a Young Woman, 1665-67, 17 x 15 inches