Nothing gets us going like a blockbuster museum exhibition. The Picasso and Braque show a few years back had us carrying around a stack of books for three months to hide the perpetual boner we’d get thinking about those lovely gray-brown forays into cubism. And don’t even get us started about Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci at the National Gallery.
So you can imagine our excitement when we learned that the good folks at the Rijksmuseum in Merry Old Amsterdam had lent the Met The Milkmaid (1658ish), Vermeer’s best known work with the possible exception of The Girl With the Pearl Earring (and that’s only because of ScarJo).
There are a total of 30 known Vermeers, and six of those are currently on view in a little warren of rooms tucked just off the Greek and Roman Galleries. The show is excellent and the Milkmaid is fucking ridiculously good, and appears to have been recently cleaned (look at this image search for the painting—half the returns are yellowed with muck and varnish that’s since been removed). The blue and gold of the maid’s dress are lush and vital. It’s a simple mimetic scene—a young woman pours milk near a window. But then you step right up to the thing and you see that the loaf of bread on the table is rendered as minuscule dots, which makes it glow and radiate. It’s an ethereal trick, but the painting is grounded by the nicks and divots on the wall behind the maid. The whitewash is almost translucent, the blueblack of masonry or underpainting just barely shows through. And the . . . the fucking quality of light and shadow is fantastic, so vivid that you can tell it’s overcast outside, even though you can only see a fraction of a windowpane at an angle.
The show’s well curated, too—also on view are period Delft tiles, nearly identical to the ones seen in the painting, and a tightly edited group of works by Vermeer’s contemporaries. Among our favorites were a pair of canvasses by Van Vilets and De Witte. Each painter shows an the interior of Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk (old church). By 1600, wall text informs, the Netherlands had gone almost totally Protestant, and they converted their Gothic (Catholic) churches into more Romanesque (Protestant) buildings by stripping the “‘popish’ appointments and whitewashing their columns and walls.” Anyway, the paintings show the Oude Kerk as a weird, wonderful palimpsest—the vaulted arches and stone tracery show the church’s gothic pedigree. It’s in the building’s bones, and no whitewash can cover it.
In de Witte’s view, a dog, visually emphasized by a square of daylight, lifts its leg to piss on one of the church’s columns.
Show’s up through November. Get over there.
Highlight: The textures in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1662ish). You can see the “needlework” on the tablecloth and the creases in the woman’s headdress. Remarkable.
Memorable quote: “For at least two centuries before Vermeer’s time, milkmaids and kitchen maids had (or were assigned) a reputation for amorous predispositions.”
Next week: African art, for real this time. We were distracted by Vermeer.