The Milkmaid

From the autumn of 2009 through the end of last year, I helped Peter Georgescu, a retired CEO, write a book about his extraordinary life. The job required me to fly to Manhattan at regular intervals and stay there for as long as a week at a time.

Here’s the thing. This project, which was rewarding in and of itself, also gave me enough free time to wander around Manhattan to see some impressive exhibitions. There is nowhere like New York City for an education in the visual arts—it’s astonishing what you can learn simply wandering around for a few days. I saw a selection of William Blake’s watercolors at the Morgan Library, including many he did for his version of The Book of Job. The older I get, the more I admire and marvel at Blake’s achievement, though I have almost nothing in common with his visionary aims. I love his work in a personal way partly because J.D. Salinger claimed to love it, which made me curious about the poet in college, and partly because I took a graduate seminar devoted exclusively to his poetry while at the University of Rochester. His Gnostic vision lodged itself in me in a way I’ve never been able to shake. (When I got to London earlier this year, it was a joy to see how the Tate Britain gives props to crazy eccentric Billy Blake, alongside Turner and Constable and all the rest.) On this same visit to New York, I saw a tiny El Greco at the Onassis Cultural Center, The Coronation of the Virgin, which showcased his astonishing facility with oil paint. It was a mere study, and the three faces couldn’t have measured more than an inch from chin to hairline, yet their expressions were incredibly complex and full of emotion—conveying three distinct and recognizable states of mind. We’re talking about faces the size of pocket change. The craftsmanship required to convey this profound depth of feeling through such tiny profiles doesn’t seem humanly possible. I stood in front of that image, silently, for a long, long while. El Greco’s spirituality seemed to find expression as much in the way he handled paint as in any of the religious scenarios he was using it to represent. Seeing that small painting enabled me to understand why the contemporary Chinese installation artist, Chi Guo Chiang is obsessed with El Greco.

At the Rubin Museum of Art, I saw Carl Jung’s Red Book, enclosed in glass, whose contents make Blake’s poetry and illuminations seem as accessible, by comparison, as A Child’s Garden of Verses.  I climbed through the big Kandinsky show at the Guggenheim. I saw the O’Keefe at the Whitney–and realized how she brought an incredible level of care to every square inch of paint on her canvases, which is never evident in reproductions. And then, a little later, the Burchfield retrospective, also at the Whitney—possibly the most comprehensive and revealing exhibition ever mounted on Burchfield, which gave me an “ah-hah” moment about how indebted this great original American was to classic Chinese landscape painting. I’d had no idea, and it made perfect sense, once I recognized it—and it has changed the way I look at his greatest work. And then there was the show of Tim Burton drawings at MoMA, which had me scratching my head. They were excellent sketches, all right, but it looked as if a doting mother had emptied an entire wing of her mansion, where she’d stored all of her precocious son’s work from the third grade into adulthood. Ah, the revenue that show had to have brought in—it was packed with fans—yet some of the walls were so laden with Burton’s drawings the joint felt less like MoMA and more like Gertrude Stein’s apartment in Paris.

All of these shows, except Burton, refined my sense of how personal and powerful it can be to simply to look at the actual work of another artist, rather than simply reproductions—and clarified, more and more, why painting is primarily about just looking at something, anything, without any agenda. None of these shows illuminated this better than the one that came first, for me, late in 2009. I made a point to walk to the Metropolitan Museum to see only one painting, Vermeer’s Milkmaid, because the museum had built a little show entirely around this single work. You were invited to see the Milkmaid and also get a glimpse of some supportive paintings which would give you a better idea of the context in which Vermeer had been painting. The other work has all slipped my mind. But my memory of gazing at the Milkmaid is vivid and dramatic. The Milkmaid might be the greatest painting I’ve seen in decades of attending hundreds of exhibitions. More than any other single work, and I’ve looked at thousands, this genre scene expresses for me what painting is primarily about—and it’s something so easily lost while trying to paddle rapidly through the whitewater of the contemporary art scene.

First of all, let me get something out of the way. You can attach all sorts of commentary, and meanings, to Vermeer’s painting, if you like. It struck me this morning—a year and a half after I saw Vermeer’s painting—that it’s almost a secular version of the Madonna and Child. Someone must have called attention to this already, but everything about the painting radiates that quiet sense of luminous devotion which one artist after another has brought to the figures of mother and child in Christian iconography. She doesn’t hold the pitcher in her arms, but almost. She pours the milk in a mundane, middle class setting, and her tough complexion looks almost sun-burned on one cheekbone, yet her expression glows with serenity and love. She gazes down at that pitcher with great care, and cradles it with one hand as delicately as a baby. And she’s pouring milk, no less. She isn’t simply a classic maternal figure, she’s a stand-in for everyone’s mother—including the viewer’s. There’s no question that Vermeer was trying to convey, with his art, an overwhelming sense of the love and beauty inherent in the most commonplace moments of the most routine life of domestic service.

Yet you can put all that aside. It’s the purely formal qualities of the work, his handling of light and color, the way he conveys the complex topography of a basket or a loaf of bread with tiny, discreet globes of light—the feeling he gets from his yellows and blues—that give this interior, and most of his other interiors, a quality of transcendence. This is why Vermeer is so venerated. He’s a fellow who lived in the same building as an inn and raised eleven children, which is probably partly why he left behind only 36 paintings. He invested a world, an entire vision of life, into each one. He depicted moments most people, in reality, wouldn’t pause to watch, or even remember noticing, in their own lives. And yet because of the way he painted these moments, they offer the viewer a sense of rare privilege, as if you’re seeing something for the first time. Which you are, if you’re standing in front of Milkmaid, as I did, without ever seeing the painting before—you’re seeing the operation of a unique genius at the height of his talent. But mostly your sense of awe derives from the way in which you seem to glimpse something eternal shining through the temporal accidents of this woman’s daily work. Everything looks real enough to touch, with no distortion other than what the physics of oil paint and brush unavoidably bring to the canvas—which are the record of the thousands choices Vermeer made as he brought forth his lights and darks, his yellows and blues. Somehow, because you are looking at this facsimile of a woman pouring milk—rather than the actual woman—you see something deeply significant and beautiful that inheres within every moment of a person’s life. And nothing has really been added here, no consciously stylistic flourishes or expressions of Vermeer’s personality. You are gazing at a small rectangular object consisting of nothing but cloth and minerals. The actual scene of a woman pouring milk wouldn’t even catch my eye, as I went about my day, back home, in my own kitchen. My wife pours it every morning. Trust me, I don’t watch. (Though having seen this painting, maybe I should give it a try.)

None of this is news to anyone who pays any attention to painting. The question is: why is this the case? How in the world can a painting, in this case Vermeer’s assiduous effort to represent the way actual life looks—in other words, to show exactly what anyone would see at a glance into a kitchen—the way sunlight falls, the way one pane of the overhead window remains broken, the way the maid’s face isn’t pretty, but weathered and roughened by years of labor, indoors and out, the way all the imperfections of a particular human life emerge in a well-worn working space, you can almost feel her aches and pains—and yet all the viewer sees is universality and perfection. Those are the words that come to mind when you look at a great Vermeer. Other words tend to tag along: eternal, ineffable, radiant. I would all of these perceptions point to the heart of why painting matters–and yet what makes this kind of seeing so powerful and crucial remains, in some essential way, totally mysterious.




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