An Untold Saga of A Dutch Housemaid: The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

A painting from the magnificent Dutch Golden Age that became popular amongst art enthusiasts within days of its production.

The Milkmaid is an illustrious artwork exhibiting Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s artistic legacy. 

It was produced by Vermeer in his hometown, Delft, in 1657. Currently, it sits in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and is available for the world to idolize.

Being an artwork from the mid 17th century, it also testifies the Dutch Baroque period. 

Being one of the most famous Baroque painters, Johannes Vermeer painted elements of domicile work very often. His admiration for domiciliary women is clearly evident in his paintings. 

The Milkmaid is one of the exemplary Johannes Vermeer paintings which revolves around a central figure accomplishing some household work.

Vermeer has portrayed the characteristics of a housemaid with multiple layers of contemplation.  

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This oil on canvas painting is a subtle representation of pretty much every Dutch housemaid from the 17th century. It contains elements from different Dutch ideologies and axioms. 

After getting a slight idea about the Milkmaid, let’s dive a little deeper to understand this Dutch masterpiece in detail and decode the inspirations behind it. 

History and Significance 

Having a legacy is the most certain thing for a painting more than 350 years old. The Milkmaid became a topic of discussion amongst Dutch contemporaries who talked about the backdrop of the painting. 

Every painting carries a historical baggage along with it. So does the Milkmaid painting. It surely has some background stories and narratives that might come out as a bit more astonishing than usual. 

History Behind Dutch Housemaids 

For ages, the societal structure of the Netherlands did not have the concept of a housemaid. With the rise of the 15th century, rural Dutch women started working in stables. 

They were termed as maids for the maiden time. These women used to prepare staple items using cow milk such as butter and cheese.

Apart from cooking, these women had responsibilities to keep the livestock and its surroundings clean. 

Performing such multidisciplinary tasks, these women used to get skilled in what they did. These instances started becoming popular amongst the developing rich class of Dutch cities. 

The Beginning of the Dutch Golden Age marked an era of financial flourishment in the 16th century. The rich people of Dutch cities started hiring them for their household tasks. 

The consolidated motive behind hiring a woman who worked in a stable was her multiskilled attributes. Instead of hiring numerous maids, they believed in hiring a single multiskilled woman as a housemaid.

How Significant is The Milkmaid Amongst Dutch People?

After getting familiar with the backdrop of the Dutch housemaids, it becomes clear that Vermeer knew everything about them. He already had different axioms in his mind. 

The way he presented his thoughts on the canvas is really commendable. The Milkmaid is most certainly a portrait with a niche subject. Apart from Vermeer, not many artists found inspiration in subjects like these. 

This fact establishes a point of significance for the painting. Being a subtle portrayal of a peculiar subject makes the Milkmaid an essential part of Dutch culturalism.  

Theories Surrounding The Milkmaid 

Every popular masterpiece is encircled by a few conjectures from different diasporas. The Milkmaid also revolves around some popular as well as unpopular theories. 

What Is The Maid Preparing? 

There are a few speculations about what is being cooked/prepared by the Milkmaid. At a glance, a pitcher of milk, a vessel in which milk is being poured from the pitcher and a basket full of broken bread pieces can be seen. 

These visuals suggest pre-preparations of a Dutch delicacy. A famous Dutch pudding is being cooked by the Milkmaid. This pudding is very famous amongst Dutch people and happens to be a distinguished delicacy. 

This theory evolved around some real facts presented in the Milkmaid painting. Ingredients used by the Milkmaid match the actual set of ingredients of the pudding.

The process shown in the painting also appears to be genuine. 

However, absence of some ingredients like eggs and sugar divert this point to a different direction. 

The Empty Wall Behind The Milkmaid

Johannes Vermeer is known for immaculate use of elements in his paintings. The complementary nature of his elements made him famous all over the world. 

Most of his artworks include a variety of components. He’s not famous for leaving voids in his artworks.

Whether he had to deal with empty walls or barren floorings, Vermeer never hesitated in placing objects to avoid empty spaces. 

Well, there are exceptions! This painting contains an empty wall behind the Milkmaid. Many people spoke about this feature of the Milkmaid. However, there isn’t any specific reason behind it. 

Themes and Symbolism in The Milkmaid

Themes and symbols in the Milkmaid by Vermeer.
Image Source: Wikipedia

As far as the subject of symbolism goes, Baroque paintings became quintessential with time. Most of them consisted of a subtle symbolistic element.

Nevertheless, it contrasted the existence of other significant elements in the painting. 

Let’s talk about a few nuances of the Milkmaid that make it stand out for its peculiar theme and symbolism. 

Elements in The Backdrop 


While producing a masterpiece, some artists prefer to fill the voids of the painting by implanting some elements in the backdrop. They do it in such a subtle way, it almost gets harmonized with the setting of the scene. 

One such example is the footwarmer kept in the bottom right corner of the room. It looks a bit old and rusted by the appearance. However, it’s painted parallelly in accordance with the milkmaid’s appearance. 

The presence of footwarmer symbolizes or indicates about the time of the year when the Milkmaid was produced. The city of Delft usually experiences an average temperature of 48℉. 

This kind of weather does not require the use of footwarmers. So we can say that the Milkmaid was produced in the season of winter. 

The Tiles 

Another unusual element that Vermeer kept in the Milkmaid painting is a set of tiles on the bottom corner of the room.

With an imprint of a cupid and a man together, these tiles signify about the religious beliefs of the house owner. 

Being a Catholic himself, Vermeer attempted to display a subtle portrayal of his religious convictions in this painting. However, the majority of the Dutch population followed Christianity at that time. 

Cupid is a representation of desire and love. Vermeer being an admirer of domiciliary women, this might be a secret untold story that needs to be unfolded. 

Composition and Analysis 

An artwork like the Milkmaid is created once in several centuries. It requires a lot of passionate compositing and detailed work to achieve its prime.

Artists like Johannes Vermeer kept on creating new heights with paintings like these. 

The Milkmaid painting is an example of sheer dedication and in depth compositing. It inculcates many features that are to be admired for centuries. 

Vermeer was known for his character development and artful portrayal of complementary elements. But his geometrical excellence went ignored for a long period of time. 

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The Triangle Effect 

The triangle effect in the Milkmaid by Vermeer.
Image Source: Wikipedia

Different  famous paintings  in the world include different optical visualization techniques. Some focus on the highlighted portrayal of the central subject and many of them display a more scattered view to the observers. 

The Milkmaid exemplifies a glimpse of three dimensional compositing in a very tangible way by displaying the triangle effect.

The positioning of the central subject in this painting is one of the elements responsible for creation of the triangle effect

At a glance, this painting seems very normal to a layman, but use of a Motif makes it special.

Vermeer has put every significant element of this painting within the boundaries of a triangle. 

It’s pretty evident that Vermeer knew how to utilize object distancing without creating chaos. He was absolutely aware about managing overlapping objects with great finishing. 

Three Dimensional Perspective 

Another hidden gem of the Milkmaid happens to be the use of 3-D perspective. Vermeer encompassed both the walls in a perpendicular way so that the depth of the room could be witnessed easily. 

This feature of the Milkmaid painting is very transient, yet it gets ignored by many observers. It highlights the expertise of the painter to an ultimate extent. 

Both the walls contrast each other and create a deep view of the painting. It also justifies the hanging basket and lantern completely. 

Depth and Object Distancing 

Depth in the Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer.
Image Source: Wikipedia

Being an expert of Baroque art, Vermeer focused on including various techniques in his paintings. His finishing in creating the Milkmaid is immaculate. 

Vermeer used an element of depth in order to justify the distance between objects. It’s not easy to determine this feature at a glance, I have highlighted the shadow casted by both the objects to make it observable. 

This kind of detailing is a distinctive feature of classical European art. Many famous Italian artists showcased this technique in their works. 

Use of Light

Baroque paintings were known for immaculate use of natural light. Artists used optimum sunlight to highlight major objects and subjects in the paintings. 

The Milkmaid is an illustration of the same. The sunlight falling on the subject’s face gives a very spotlighted view. Light illuminating the milkmaid’s forehead exemplifies the use of light by Vermeer perfectly. 

The source of light in the Milkmaid painting comes from the window painted on the extreme left corner of the painting. Rays of light falling on the objects lying on the table also give a shimmering effect. 

The table cloth, the basket, the bread and the maid’s apron give an impression of optimal inculcation of natural light. Another example where the natural light is used to pinpoint objects is the Arnolfini portrait

Coloring Scheme 

Color Scheme of the Milkmaid.
Image Source: Wikipedia

The Dutch Golden Age witnessed a classy yet vibrant color scheme in various artworks. Most importantly, the use of colors in a perfect contrast had to be considered. 

Johannes Vermeer included various coloring techniques in a perfect blend together. Some of them are identified as:

  • Complimentary Color Scheme: This color scheme refers to use of two colors from the opposite sides of the color wheel together. 
  • Split-complementary Scheme: From One base color, two colors of opposite nature are generated and used to paint in the same plan. 
  • Impasto Technique: An ancient painting technique which involves the use of a knife for spreading the color evenly on the surface. Vermeer is speculated to use this technique while painting the flat objects such as walls and tables in his paintings. 
  • Scumbling Technique: This style of painting involves use of dry brush with paint for applying a layer of paint with a loose hand on the canvas. 

With a spot-on blend of these color schemes, Vermeer made sure to embed an essence of subtleness in the Milkmaid painting. 

Vermeer used different color palettes to paint the Milkmaid’s body. For instance, a tint of white is visible on her hands to justify the illumination of light and an essence of tanning on her body. 

Use of accurate color schemes can make any artwork illustrious and realistic to an optimum extent. The Milkmaid is one of the best examples to look upon in this case. 

Reception Amongst People

When a civilization steps into the transient phase, cultural revolution becomes a very certain thing.

Similarly, many instances became evident to the Dutch Golden Age. From political to personal it gave birth to an ample of significant moments.

In accordance to the transitions that were taking place, perspectives of the public were ought to change with time. And it became apparent how people reacted to Vermeer’s The Milkmaid painting. 

Graceful portrayal of a house maid was an unpopular theme for a painting. Still it received a mixture of feedback from the critics.

Many rejected the central theme and many even admired Vermeer for his courage of performing something subjective. 

However, The Milkmaid became more popular in the 19th century and caught the eye of many famous art critics.

Later on, it ended up becoming a Dutch sensation and is still considered as one of the most graceful paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. 

Milkmaid’s Influence Amongst People

“An artwork that embodies contemporary scenes from domestic life, tends to inspire a lot of people through its journey”. Milkmaid is an epitome of nuance. It kept on galvanizing medieval as well as new age artists. 

The depiction of a domestic maid performing her work with determination. A scene like this has the audacity to embolden and uplift new age painters to cover peculiar subjects like these more often. 

Some incidents in the past give evidence of this painting’s influence amongst international audiences. 

  • During World War II, The Milkmaid was displayed in different American cities including Detroit and New York. 
  • In 1872 it became a part of the “Old Masters” exhibition in Amsterdam. It grew in terms of popularity in Western Europe after this incident. 
  • The Royal Academy of Arts in London displayed The Milkmaid in 1929. 

After these exhibitions, this artwork by Vermeer got its due credit. It was termed as a historic voyage by art enthusiasts. 

Johannes Vermeer’s Appeal in The Pop Culture

The girl with a pearl earring poster.
Image Source: Wikipedia

Unlike other classical artists who are complex to understand, Vermeer was very receptive amongst the new age artists. His artworks acted as underdrawings for some filmmakers.

One of the most popular Johannes Vermeer paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring, was made into a feature film in 2003. It introduced Vermeer’s masterclass amongst the later audiences. 

Apart from the cinema, Johannes Vermeer’s popularity rolled out of many different books, art case studies as well as exhibitions. His works outshined other fellow artists in every exhibition. 


A painting with a legacy spanning over 400 years, The Milkmaid contributed a lot toward the Dutch Golden Age. With its provocative thought scheme and astonishing art, this painting made it through the sand of time. 

Artist Johannes Vermeer portrayed Dutch house maids for the world to testify their dedication and innocence. This depiction couldn’t have asked for more. 

Apart from the artistic brilliance, the thoughtfulness behind an artwork like this should be well applauded and celebrated. 

The Milkmaid isn’t just a painting, it’s an untold Saga of an innocent Dutch woman!

Authors Note

Hello Readers! 

I thank you all for staying till the end and consuming this piece in entirety! 

I hope my blog does justice to your time and quenches your thirst about The Milkmaid.

We at PortraitFlip, keep on producing fresh and informative content like this. Keep following us on Instagram and Subscribe to our YouTube channel for frequent updates!

Having an illustrious artwork like Milkmaid hung on the wall of your kitchen is a total killer though!

Trust me, We can make it happen for a few hundred bucks!


1. What was the price of The Milkmaid when it was produced?

The Milkmaid’s price was quoted at 175 guilders ( Roughly $100) in the 17th century. However, after calculating the inflation rate, it converts to $650 approximately.

2. In which regions did The Milkmaid was displayed in the 19th and the 20th century respectively?

The Milkmaid was showcased in the western Europe in 1870’s and in North America during the 1930’s.

3. Did Johannes Vermeer use natural pigments to paint The Milkmaid?

Being an expert of the pigments, Vermeer created a smooth blend of natural and synthetic pigments to create a masterpiece like The Milkmaid.

4. What is the stand out point of The Milkmaid?

The color scheme and brush techniques of The Milkmaid make it special and unique amongst the creative Dutch diaspora.

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