Famous paintings by Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) and Johannes  Vermeer (1632-1675) are perfect reminders that art appreciation is weakened without the foundation of art history.  As with these masterpieces!

For over two hundred years before Vermeer, milk maids and kitchen maids were reputed to be excessively amorous.  As a result, these women were painted frequently (and far more frequently than other household employees).

Pieter de Hooch, A Woman Peeling Apples.  Oil on canvas, c. 1663.  Approximately 28″ x 21″, The Wallace Collection, London.

Among the Dutch painters who portrayed the kitchen help are Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch, Hendrick Sorgh, Gerald ter Borch, and Jan Vermeer.

It is generally accepted that Vermeer created 45 works, of which 36 are presently known (and considered masterpieces).

All but three of these famous paintings are modest interiors with simple possessions; most are strongly illuminated by light streaming in from the left.

In The Milk Maid, as in many of his other famous paintings, Vermeer has captured a quiet moment of household solitude, an unknown state for a man who reportedly had between eleven and fifteen children.

Many art history experts believe Vermeer used a camera obscura,  an optical tool that projects images and renders reflections as small blobs or points of light; these may be seen on the cheese, the pitcher’s rim and the maid’s apron.

As a Dutch naturalist, Vermeer includes typical objects of the bourgeois house such as the hamper and brazier, or box which held burning coals or fire.  Careful inspection of the Delft tile by the footwarmer reveals Cupid, perhaps a nod to the allegedly shady reputation of the milk maid.

Right: The Kitchen Maid, c. 1658-1660.  Oil on canvas,   Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Over 250 years later, Claude Monet was even more mesmerized by light.  After his first art painting was sold when he was middle-aged — handled by the art dealer Theo van Gogh, brother of Vincent –  Monet purchased a country home in Giverny.  There, he painted over 200 versions of its gardens and ponds.  Among these masterpieces are the triptych Water Lilies, described by former French President Georges Clemenceau as a “water meadow covered with flowers and leaves, ignited by the torch of the sun and glittering in the

play of light between the sky and the surface of the water”. Who can top that description?

Left: Oil on canvas.  Left panel of triptych, each panel 6’6″ x 14′.  Mrs. Simmon Guggenheim Fund, Museum of Modern Art. 

Monet intended that the Water Lilies panels be installed abutting each other to form an oval, thereby creating “the illusion of an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank.”

Note: Of the 36 existing Vermeer paintings officially attributed to him, eight are in U.S. art museums.  The Met has five of these masterpieces while The Frick Collection has three Vermeer paintings. With a nod to my former lifetime in the finance world, that is also known as 22%.  Incredible!

Love seeing and reading about famous paintings? Explore Masterpiece Cards’ 250 Masterpieces in Western Painting, art history flash cards of famous paintings.  Covers Renaissance paintings to abstract art paintings, with vital stats and art analysis about each. See a sample Masterpiece Card!


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