The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer, Painter of Light

In The Milkmaid, one of Johannes Vermeer’s best-known paintings, we see why this mysterious artist is often called the “Painter of Light.” Two hundred years before the Impressionists, Vermeer’s paintings glow with light and color.

Read on to:

  • Find helpful vocabulary
  • Learn a little about Johannes Vermeer and his painting, The Milkmaid
  • Discover activities to help you and your children explore and enjoy The Milkmaid
  • See a cute photo of Molly, the Artsy Corgi

Vocabulary

These words, which will be in bold green the first time they come up, will help you and your children talk more easily about different parts of the painting.

  • Genre art  art that shows everyday events and people
  • Geometric  when used in artsimple shapes showing squares, circles, triangles
  • Impasto  thick paint applied to show texture
  • Texture  how a surface feels–in paintings this might be shown with thick paint or even scratches or spattering
  • Pigment  a color substance mixed with a binder, such as linseed oil or egg to make paint

The Artist

Vermeer (1632-1675) was born and lived all of his short life in the city of Delft in the Netherlands.

View of Delft by Johannes Vermeer, public domain

No one’s sure who Vermeer studied with, but he was admitted as a master to the Guild of St. Luke, which regulated artists, when he was just 21, so he had to have studied and been an apprentice for several years. Some believe he studied with a former student of Rembrandt. But it’s an unsolved mystery.

Vermeer painted slowly and with great detail, only finishing about 2 paintings a year. Today only about 35 of his paintings survive, and it’s possible that’s about all he ever painted. But that’s a mystery, too.

The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer, public domain

There are no portraits that are definitely of Vermeer, so we aren’t sure what he looked like. The above painting is believed to be a view of the artist painting in his studio. But it’s back to, so another mystery!

 At this time, history paintings, which included biblical and mythological scenes, were considered the most important kind of paintings, and Vermeer began his career painting this type of art. Eventually, he switched to quiet, indoor scenes depicting people, often women, involved in everyday tasks, and that’s what he’s most famous for. This type of painting is called genre art.

And that’s just what The Milkmaid is a wonderful example of.

The Painting

The Milkmaid by Johannes, 1660, The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, public domain

In The Milkmaid a woman stands at a table with a window on the left that allows light to flood into the room (a classic Vermeer composition). The maid is absorbed in her task of pouring milk from a jug into the bowl. Though just a maid, Vermeer has given her the dignity of a figure in an historical painting.

Notice the beautiful still life on the table—all the different textures—the rough, brown earthenware, the shiny and nubbly blue jug, a wicker basket, and a loaf and chunks of crusty bread. Hanging on the wall behind is a shiny gold kettle.

Vermeer’s backgrounds are geometric with many horizontal and vertical lines, which help give his paintings a calm mood.

So the scene is quiet. The only movement is the flowing milk.

Light is really the subject. Like the Impressionists in the 1800s, Vermeer was fascinated by light—how it reflected off different surfaces, sparkled on and changed the outlines of objects, and affected colors.

It’s believed that he may have used either a camera obscura (which was a little like a pinpoint camera made from a box) or various lenses to help him study light and help him draw accurately. Another unsolved mystery!

You can’t really see it on reproductions, but Vermeer often applied paint thickly (impasto) to achieve textures and to leave ridges and points that would catch the light and make things shimmer and sparkle more realistically.

When you can look closely at the paintings you see beads of light produced by painted dabs and dots that look a little like the pointillism of 19th century artists like Seurat.

Vermeer loved bright contrast in colors and especially loved yellows and blues. Somehow he afforded the blue pigment made from lapis lazuli, a blue pigment that had to come from Afghanistan. Most artists used the pigment sparingly because it was more expensive than gold, but not Vermeer! Another mystery!

Activities to Help You and Your Children further Explore this Beautiful Painting

Before doing any other activities, ask children to tell what’s going on in the painting and what tells them that. Enhance their observational and verbal skills by rephrasing words and adding new vocabulary.

Ask children what they think will happen next. Have them imagine and describe who will eat the meal the maid is preparing.

The Milkmaid by Johannes, 1660, The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, public domain

There’s so much detail to see in a Vermeer, that a scavenger hunt or I spy of activity would be great to find different colors, textures, and items.

Have them find a color or texture in the painting and then look for it in your house or outside on a walk. All the colors of the rainbow  (especially deep blues!) are in this painting, along with many textures—soft, shiny, rough, nubbly, etc, so they’ll be busy for a while.

Before You Go

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free guide to 5 Ways Art Benefits Children’s Cognitive, Physical, Spiritual, and Social Development, with a Few Fun and Easy Activities for each Benefit

Visit my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages and coloring pages for kids and an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages. Add link

Cute picture of Molly the Artsy CorgiIt’s been so cold lately, that Molly decided enjoy a warm fire surrounded by cuddly, NOT cold, snowpeople!

Molly hopes you enjoy learning about The Milkmaid and will join us next week for a devotion based on Vermeer’s colorful painting. You can sign up to receive these posts above.

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11 thoughts on “The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer, Painter of Light

    1. Kathy The Picture Lady Post author

      Thank you so much, Cindy for giving me the link to the painting now showing cupid behind the woman! (I hadn’t seen the article) What a change to one of Vermeer’s well-known paintings, but although larger than most, he often had paintings or maps on the walls of his paintings, so this actually fits his style even more. especially if he was trying to convey a moral lesson!! Now I need to go online again and see if I can still see that whole exhibit! Thanks again!

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  1. Katherine Pasour

    I enjoyed learning about Vermeer, his life and his work. I’m so grateful that the works of many artists have been preserved over the generations so that we and those who come after us can benefit. Thank you for being the pathway to share these works with us.

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    1. Kathy The Picture Lady Post author

      I’m so glad you enjoyed learning about Vermeer! Yes, while much has been lost over the years, we still have so many to enjoy! Even more of Europe’s great art would have been lost but for the Monuments Men who risked great danger to save and find many works stolen by the Nazis or endangered by battles. Have you ever read the book or seen the movie by that name? It’s fascinating!

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