Vermeer's Naughty Milkmaid

The Dutch master’s most famous painting is on display in the U.S. for the first time since World War II. Alexandra Peers on the portrait’s erotic secrets. VIEW OUR GALLERY.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in big need of a fall blockbuster, is rewriting art history to be just a bit more salacious. Walter Liedtke, the curator of its Vermeer’s Masterpiece: The Milkmaid exhibition, says the painting, long interpreted as a salute to the working classes, is actually a kind of discreet 17th-century paean to voyeurism, desire and sex. One highlight of the controversial new spin: The milkmaid’s famous open milk jug, according to the Met, is representative of “a portion of the female anatomy.”

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Liedtke, the Met’s curator of European paintings, grants that his view is far from the mainstream. The famous circa-1660 painting is usually misread, he says, “as a Madonna of the cow pastures.” Because latter painters such as Jean-Francois Millet glorified the dignity of laborers, we typically see Vermeer’s milkmaid through those noble eyes, he explains. But in the Dutch master’s time, says Liedtke, milkmaids had reputations as “sexually available. It was the old joke of the farmer’s daughter and the traveling salesman.” He stresses that he’s not arguing that the painting is “all about sex,” but that’s certainly a big part of Vermeer’s intention.

Art Beast: The Best of Art, Photography, and DesignAnd what’s Liedtke’s evidence for such a claim? A naked Cupid on one of the Delft tiles and, more tellingly, a foot-warmer in the lower right-hand corner of the painting, he says. Seems simple to us, Liedtke offers, but in the iconography of the day, the item was sexual. “The mistress of the house would put her feet up. It heats everything under the skirt.”

Other art historians beg to differ, including many featured in the Met’s own bookstore. E.H. Gombrich, who has the bestselling art-history text ever, The Story of Art, described The Milkmaid as “ a single figure employed in a simple task.” Rival Vermeer scholar Arthur K. Wheelock, a curator of the National Gallery of Art, lauds “the wholesomeness of her endeavor, the providing of life-saving food.” Even the Rijkmuseum, which has loaned the artwork to the Met and has several pages of discussion of the work on its Web site, makes no such claim of sensuousness. Rijkmuseum director Peter Sigmond declines to weigh in and says the painting’s loan is a “thank you” from Amsterdam to the Met for holding the painting during World War II, when the nation was being bombed.

So, when is a milk jug not a milk jug? Vermeer’s not around to answer, notes Victor Wiener, an appraiser consulted in both the valuation of the Andy Warhol estate and casino owner Steve Wynn’s damaged Picasso. “There are fads in art history. There was the feminist, the Freudian, the Jungian, now the sexual.” Artists aren’t alive to say that a work meant nothing of the kind, and if they did the neo-Freudians would probably say “you were thinking that, it was just your subconscious.”

The exhibition is really as much about the economy, though, as it is about sex. In March of this year, with the economy souring, the Met arranged to hang up the handful of Vermeers it already has in its collection, added several other top-quality paintings and drawings from the same period, arranged one superstar loan from the Netherlands, and got an instant blockbuster. (Throwing sex into the mix doesn't hurt.) The museum is badly in need of a crowd-pleaser. Earlier this year, its endowment dented by the downturn, the Met announced layoffs of more than 250 people, closed 15 museum shops, cut and combined opening parties, and even stopped serving dinner rolls in the Trustee Dining Room.

Liedkte says the analysis, which he first put forth when the painting was shown in London in 2001 (to record crowds) is not about box office or marketing. It “has nothing to do with seducing the public” although some visitors may have been seduced by it, he says.

Well-known Old Masters' paintings dealer Richard Feigen notes, “ The Milkmaid is an extraordinary, incredible picture” but “it’s not what you sell, it’s how you sell it.” The Met could hang a black banner up that says: Caravaggio, Romantic Painter, he says, “Or it could hang one up that says Caravaggio: Murderer and there would be a queue down to 59th Street and Port-o-Sans along the way.”

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