Experts have discovered new hidden objects in Vermeer’s ‘The Milkmaid’ painting. The painter had covered them, painting over them.
Advanced scanning techniques revealed that beneath the plain white wall that makes the milkmaid’s bright yellow and blue clothes stand out, Vermeer had originally painted additional detail.
“It reveals an unexpected new Vermeer, it’s stunning,” Gregor Weber, head of fine arts at the Rijksmuseum, told a news conference. These changes mean that the iconic figure of the milkmaid, seen in the painting pouring a trickle of milk from an earthenware jug, “stands before us in a much more monumental way”, he notes.
The researchers knew, thanks to X-rays carried out a decade ago, that there were things hidden under the layers of paint of “The Milkmaid”, without knowing which ones.
” Too loaded ”
One of the most important findings is that the artist had sketched a wooden pitcher rack on the wall just behind the milkmaid’s head.
They had previously thought it might be a fireplace. But a new technique, called “short-wavelength infrared reflectance,” clearly showed the details of the jugs and wooden frame. Usually used for industrial inspections and for military purposes, the technique produces “false color” images that show the sketch in blue, when in reality it was in black paint.
The museum has used similar methods to uncover the creative process behind Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” and “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Vermeer, a painter of whom no drawings or studies survive.
“What we discovered with La Laitière was that initially, she didn’t have a very nice white wall behind her. No, there was a hanging shelf with jugs,” Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum, told AFP.
After reflection, Vermeer said to himself: “That’s too busy a composition, I’m going to paint it over,” says Dibbits.
“Less is more”
Experts have made another key discovery: a previously spotted shaded outline can now be thought of as a willow-woven “fire basket,” once used to air clothes.
The researchers further found a thick line of black paint “hastily applied” under the milkmaid’s left arm, showing that Vermeer had apparently made a quick initial sketch.
All objects and details have been covered with paint by Vermeer in his quest for perfection. The pitcher rack was later replaced with the crisp white wall, while the basket became a much smaller foot warmer.
The changes he made would be crucial for his later works, painted in simplicity with blocks of color and a play of light and shadow. They can be found in particular in his emblematic work “The Girl with a Pearl Earring”, which will also be part of the flagship exhibition, said the experts.
“He learned that less is more,” Weber said.
The exhibition scheduled from February 10 to June 4, 2023, will bring together 27 of the painter’s 35 works, from museums around the world. Little is known about Vermeer (1632-1675), who lived a modest life in the city of Delft during the “golden age” of Dutch painting.