Wislawa Szymborska, “Vermeer”

Wislawa Szymborska (tr. Clare Cavanagh & Stanislaw Barańczak)

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.


Johannes Vermeer, "The Milkmaid," composed 1657-1658.
Johannes Vermeer, “The Milkmaid,” composed 1657-1658.

Not even our age, with a supposed concern for rights, a profession to end objectification, has grasped how dehumanizing lust can be. Certainly, it starts with putting people into crude categories, defining them by sexual desirability or availability. Then, it gets worse, sometimes a lot worse in more moralistic circles, which preach against the sins of the flesh. No matter what, anyone with the smallest fragment of conscience would have to question themselves and attempt justification. But when you already live rightly – say, in a severely religious society where women must cover up completely with no regard given for their work – there are no such questions. There is only the way you see things, and lust, which can collapse into the worst neediness for power and control, may be easily confused for love, if it does not replace love altogether. (The Duggars, if you’re keeping score, are only the tip of the iceberg. Ask yourself why that show was so popular, and you’ll find a very uncomfortable truth about the conception of family in America).

So: in Vermeer’s time, depictions of milkmaids or kitchen maids as “willing” abounded. Milk was sexually suggestive, as were jugs and onions and pretty much everything. The elements of such symbolism are in this painting: a wide-mouthed jug, milk, a foot warmer and Cupid on a tile (the last two are in the lower right). But if one declared this painting nothing but sexual innuendo, one would be crazy. Rather, it’s Vermeer’s time that’s oversexed.

The painting does not appeal to a pristine morality, uncorrupted by lewdness, to give its subject dignity. The foot warmer and tile with Cupid are off to the lower right, completely ignored by her. Her focus rests on pouring the milk, which she does very carefully. She matches the table with the blue she wears, and her stance, gaze, and the table itself form a powerful triangle. An intense light from the window brightens the kitchen.

Why does she pour the milk so carefully? One scholar argues that she’s making bread pudding, where broken, stale bread becomes more than useful if the proportions are right. Szymborska’s comment, on that note, makes perfect sense to me. The worst aspects of our desire, where we will put others down for nothing, can be transcended by a willingness to see what is, who we actually are. The everydayness of the scene, the utility of her ongoing work, are given a little extra adornment by the painting, sure. But that the painting itself could be read as turning an entire “tradition” of debauchery on its head – well, that’s the possibility which keeps the world going.

References and Notes

Credit to Wikipedia for most, if not all, of the history and insights in the above discussion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Milkmaid_%28Vermeer%29

The scholar who argues she makes bread pudding is one Harry Rand. Again, thanks to Wikipedia for this.