food in the arts





film and food

Jan (b. 1632, Delft, d. 1675, Delft)

literature and food 

Dutch painter. Among the great Dutch artists of the 17th century, he is now second in renown only to Rembrandt, but he made little mark during his lifetime and then long languished in obscurity. Almost all of the contemporary references to him are in colourless official documents and his career is in many ways enigmatic. Apart from a visit to The Hague in 1672 (to act as an expert witness concerning a group of Italian paintings of disputed authenticity), he is never known to have left his native Delft. He entered the painters’ guild there in 1653 and was twice elected hooftman (headman), but his teacher is not known. His name is often linked with that of Carel Fabritius, but it is doubtful if he can have formally taught Vermeer, and this distinction may belong to Leonaert Bramer, although there is no similarity between their work.

Only about thirty-five to forty paintings by Vermeer are known, and although some early works may have been destroyed in the disastrous Delft magazine explosion of 1654, it is unlikely that the figure was ever much larger; this is because most of the Vermeers mentioned in early sources can be identified with surviving pictures, whilst only a few pictures now attributed to him are not mentioned in these sources – thus there are few loose ends. This small output may be at least partially explained by the fact that he almost certainly earned most of his living by means other than painting. His father kept an inn and was a picture-dealer and Vermeer very likely inherited both businesses. In spite of this he had grave financial troubles (he had a large family to support his wife bore him fifteen children, and she was declared insolvent in the year after his death).

In the central part of his career (into which most of his work falls) Vermeer painted those serene and harmonious images of domestic life that for their beauty of composition, handling, and treatment of light raise him into a different class from any other Dutch genre painter. The majority show one or two figures in a room lit from the onlooker’s left, engaged in domestic or recreational tasks. The predominant colours are yellow, blue, and grey, and the compositions have an abstract simplicity which confers on them an impact out of relation to their small size. In reproduction they can look quite smooth and detailed, but Vermeer often applies the paint broadly, with variations in texture suggesting the play of light with exquisite vibrancy – the critic Jan Veth aptly described his paint surface as looking like ‘crushed pearls melted together’.


music and food

photography and food

L’Ambition de Vermeer –


Das Mädchen mit dem Perlenohrring –




The Milkmaid

c. 1658
Oil on canvas, 45,5 x 41 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam



Signature: Not signed.

Provenance: This picture ranges among the most highly appreciated paintings by Vermeer, since shortly after his demise and also in subsequent years, second only to his View of Delft. It also fetched the second highest price in the Amsterdam sale of 1696, no. 2: "A maid pouring out milk, extremely well done, by ditto, fl 175." The price is reasonable, given the mediocre level at which his paintings traded. The work never left Holland, and its attribution to Vermeer was upheld throughout. Slankert enumerates various Amsterdam sales in which the Milkmaid is mentioned and highly spoken of, until the canvas became part of the Six collection, Amsterdam, in the earlier part of the nineteenth century. It was acquired by the museum in 1907-8 from this source.

Although the genre of "kitchen pieces" belongs to a long tradition in the Netherlands, with Joachim Beuckelaer and Pieter Aertsen in the sixteenth century being its initiators, it lost favour in the subsequent century, with the exception of Delft, where it endured. Vermeer’s realization, however, has nothing in common with his archaic forerunners. His vision is concentrated on a single sturdy figure, which he executes in a robust technique, in keeping with the image that he wants to project. The palette features a subdued colour scheme: white, yellow, and blue. But the colours are far from frank or strident, and are rather toned down, in keeping with the worn work clothes of his model.

The still life in the foreground conveys domestic simplicity, and the light falling in from the left illuminates a bare white kitchen wall, against which the silhouette of the maid stands out. One gains from this deceptively simple scene an impression of inner strength, exclusive concentration on the task at hand, and complete absorption in it. The extensive use of pointillé in the still life lets us presume the use of the inverted telescope in an effort to set off this part of the painting against the main figure and alert the viewer to the contrast between the active humanity of the maid and her inanimate environment.