Vermeer’s Masterpiece “The Milkmaid”

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through November 29.

There are many reasons to find Thomas Kinkade annoying, but top on the list for me is his trademark of “Painter of Light” as a nickname for himself. The term is hopelessly cheesy, of course, but even setting that aside, it’s offensively presumptuous. If anyone deserves such an exalted sobriquet, surely it’s someone like Johannes Vermeer.

That, at least, is what I was raised to believe. Vermeer is one of my father’s favorite artists, and I have a vivid childhood memory of Dad showing me reproductions of Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and Girl with a Pearl Earring and teaching me how to follow the sources of light in the paintings and recognize how Vermeer captured the way light reflected differently on different surfaces. It’s one of those little moments that, for whatever reason, really stuck with me. I always seek out the Dutch master’s works when I have the opportunity, and when Mom and Dad happened to visit New York while the Met had a special Vermeer exhibit on display, of course there was no question that we would go.

In his relatively short life, Vermeer produced only a few dozen paintings, just over thirty of which survived to the present day. Inevitably, then, exhibits on his work are quite spare. The Met used the loan of a single painting, The Milkmaid, as an excuse to highlight its own handful of Vermeers as well as the works on some of the artist’s contemporaries. The whole thing fills just three small rooms.

The temptation, of course, is to breeze past the minor Dutch works, straight for the iconic Vermeers, but that would be a mistake. Hendrick van Vliet’s precise representation of the interior of a Protestant church has a stark beauty and an impeccable sense of perspective, and Nicolaes Maes’s Young Woman Peeling Apples turned out to be one of my favorites in the whole exhibition. The notes on many other paintings pointed out their latent erotic themes (apparently milkmaids had a reputation for “sexual availability”), which soon started to make everything look like some kind of visual double entendre, so the simple innocence of Peeling Apples was rather refreshing and sweet. That—along with the gentle light and delicate balance of the composition—made Maes’s painting stand out.

That said, the superiority of Vermeer’s paintings was hard to miss. Reproductions and computer images don’t do them justice: they’re so much more vivid in person. The depictions of tapestries and clothing are exquisitely detailed and textured—they look as though you could reach in and stroke the soft material—yet the detail never overwhelms, never feels busy. The composition is too refined for that—so refined, in fact, that the paintings look not realistic but idealistic. They have an air of perfection about them, a quiet peace, as though an impossibly flawless moment had frozen in time and somehow grown even more beautiful in the stillness.

I stood for a long while in front of Woman with a Lute. The painting has darkened and been damaged with age, but the light still shines through the window on the woman’s expectant face as she absently plucks the lute’s strings, waiting, one imagines, for a suitor. The image is radiant not just with light but also with the hope that light suggests. It’s lovely. It’s luminous. And as I gazed at it, I couldn’t help but think, Dad was right. This is what a painting of light looks like.