Saturday, March 22, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - The Milkmaid (Vermeer)

As you may notice, many of the paintings I've chosen for this 40-Day series are these vast, multi-figure paintings, but today I'm slowing things down a bit.  It is a lazy Saturday afterall.  Nearly all of the figurative paintings that I do myself are single-figure paintings.  I love the quiet simplicity of them, and Vermeer's "Milkmaid" is one of my inspirations in that sense.  We see in this painting a very simple scene of domestic life in 17th century Delft.  As far as the stereotypical markers of Baroque painting, this piece contains none of them.  There aren't any overly dramatic figures floating and flying around with drapery flowing perfectly cloud-like around them.  There is no elaborate architecture depicted, and the lighting is perfectly natural.  The colors are quite toned down as well.  Everything looks natural and normal.
I actually love this type of genre painting - the depiction of the common life of common people.  I can imagine paintings such as this one being an inspiration for later 19th century works of the same theme.  Servants at work, common folk sitting at a table, or having a drink in a tavern.  The depiction of real life was something rare and difficult to pull of when your commissions came from the rich and powerful members of society. 
In my own work, this type of scene is exactly what I like going for.  Not that I couldn't do a large multifigure painting filled with activity and noise, but it's really the quiet, introverted and contemplative figures that appeal to me since it's such a reflection of my own personality.  I enjoy looking at paintings that make me wonder what the figure is thinking in that moment.  "The Milkmaid" is one of those paintings.  I also love how the still life in the piece gives us something tangible to contemplate.  What does the milk and the bread taste like?  What does the room smell like? 
So often we see paintings, particularly from the Renaissance and Baroque that show these very elaborate scenes that are usually too celestial and ethereal-looking for us to be close enough to.  We can't picture ourselves in those scenes, and we have no concept of what the environment feels like with angels and putti flying around us, and divine light shining in our faces that is brighter than the sun, and yet doesn't blind us.  It's beautiful and we enjoy looking at these pieces, but their subjects are so other-worldly and beyond our understanding as common people in (name your town).  "The Milkmaid" is an example of the type of painting that allows common people to have conversations about the piece.  We are able to look at the milkmaid herself and say things like, "She reminds me of..." or "Hey, remember that waitress we had at that one restaurant?  Doesn't she look just like her?"  We can look at the still life in the painting and say that we had pieces of pottery, or a basket that looked just like that.  Some of the best art does that.  It gives us a moment to slow down and to stop thinking about the stresses of life, and the problems of the world that are too big for us to solve... just so we can look at a picture and be reminded of something simple.

The Milkmaid
oil on canvas
c. 1658

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