Time and Johannes Vermeer

June 6, 2020 4 Comments

Today’s the last day of my imaginary return visit to the city of Delft.  As always, it’s been a time of rest and contemplation among the canals and step-gabled houses facing them.  And as usual I’ve been thinking about Delft’s most famous citizen, Johannes Vermeer, and his paintings – this time, the early works that feature solitary women.

Johannes Vermeer, The milkmaid (c1657-58)
(Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

The milkmaid, probably painted around 1657-58, when Vermeer was twenty-five years old, is the third, and best known of them.  When reproduced in books it gives the impression of being a large work.  But, like most of Vermeer’s paintings, it’s not.  If you go to see it in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam you’ll find it measures only 45.5 x 40.6cm.  The other misleading thing is its title.  Whoever called it The milkmaid, long after Vermeer’s time, can’t have looked at it very closely, because the woman in the picture isn’t a milkmaid.  Rather, she’s a ‘kitchen maid’ (keukenmeid) attached to one of the middle-class houses of Delft – who just happens to be caught in the act of pouring milk from a large pitcher into an earthenware bowl.

Writers on The milkmaid tend to concentrate on three of its features: the woman at its centre, its detailed use of colour, and the effects of the natural light coming from the window. 

The woman is a solid, intent figure in the very centre of the composition.  In moralising (male) Dutch literature and imagery of the period, as Simon Schama has illustrated, maids were viewed with suspicion, as potential thieves or slippery seductresses.  Vermeer’s working maid, seen from quite a low vantage point, betrays none of this.  (Some have tried read an erotic allusion into one of the tiles and the footwarmer on the floor, but not convincingly.)  She is just herself, a figure of quiet strength and dignity, making bread porridge, and dressed in white, yellow, blue and russet.  Colours echo around the room: the blue dress is picked up in the blue cloth on the table and the figures on the tiles; the yellow of the blouse in the copper ‘marketing pail’ hanging on the wall behind the basket; the white of the cap in the falling stream of milk; the earthy red of the skirt in the pitcher and bowl.

Cool light from the window gives mass and solidity to the objects within: the woman’s head, arms and left breast, the hanging basket, the seeded bread on the table, the dark tablecloth.  And it animates the non-object, which occupies so much space it’s almost a second subject of the painting: the blank wall.  (Originally, x-radiography shows, Vermeer intended a wall-hanging, maybe a map, behind the maid, but later thought better of it.) Its tone modulates almost imperceptibly from dark grey at the left side to beige at the right edge.  Its surface is subtly interrupted by two nails, one empty nail-hole, and old scuffing above the row of Delft tiles that acts as a skirting board.

For me, none of these analyses quite succeeds in capturing the overall, elusive feel of this image.  The key to it lies not just in space, but in time.  Above all, this a painting about time.  Or rather, different forms of time. 

To begin with, it’s clear that Vermeer, as in many of his pictures, is intent on capturing a single moment in time.  The attention centre of the composition – we’re guided straight to it by the woman’s gaze, and the direction of her arms, and it lies at at the intersection of the ‘X’ structural axis of the picture – is the only moving item: the short, thin stream of milk that twists slightly as it falls from the pitcher’s broad lip.

But as well as ‘time as instant’ or ‘time as now’, Vermeer asks us to think just as much about ‘time as duration’.  His picture gives us several timespans of varying length. The stream of milk is just part of a longer fluid flow, which will continue till the pitcher is empty or the maid decides the bowl has received enough milk.  The stale bread on the table, part whole, part torn into pieces, has already evolved from flour, yeast and other ingredients, and unless it’s all eaten, will change again, into even staler bread and crumbs.  The morning light now falling on the room, the maid and her objects – let’s assume it’s breakfast time – will brighten, banishing the grey from the walls and flattening the bright colours, before a different grey resumes towards evening.  The woman herself, maybe in her thirties, will age and change, as she leaves the room, re-enters and leaves it again innumerable times over the years, assuming she remains in the service of the house.

Vermeer holds these two aspects of time, ‘time as now’ (frozen in his paint) and ‘time as duration’ (suggested by the subjects he chooses to include) in perfect balance.  It’s this balance that gives his work its singular hold on the viewer’s imagination.  He has three main means of achieving it: for the caught moment, an extreme attention to the depiction of almost tangible detail, remarkable in such a small painting (tiny dots of paint create the highlights on the bread and its basket); the carefully balanced way he’s composed the picture, and his rigorous but understated use of perspective.  The Vermeer scholar Walter Liedke showed how the lines of the picture converge on a single point (there is actually a hole in the canvas here) just above the maid’s right hand.  The result is a painting that holds within itself both a single, almost photographic moment in time and a series of different times, past, present and future.

Johannes Vermeer,
Girl reading a letter at an open window

Vermeer had already painted a similar, but simpler canvas, Girl reading a letter at an open window, painted around 1657 and now in Dresden.  Here, the present instant – the reading of the letter – immediately calls to mind the past duration (who is the writer of the letter, and what is its content?).  In the other solo female picture of this period, A woman asleep (c1657, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) the other time, ‘time as duration’, is hidden from us, within the dreams of the sleeping figure.

While Vermeer was painting The milkmaid in Delft, one of the leading philosophers of the age, Baruch Spinoza, was at work in Amsterdam, about 70 kilometres away.  He made a living by grinding optical lenses, and it’s not impossible that Vermeer, who used optical instruments in his art, knew of him, since his lenses were highly regarded by the leading Dutch intellectuals Christiaan and Constantijn Huygens (Constantijn knew of Vermeer).  In 1656 Spinoza had been ritually expelled from the Jewish community of Amsterdam, by means of a ‘herem’, presumably because of the heretical philosophical theories he was developing.  He believed that God and nature (the whole world around us) were the same name for a single substance, and that individual phenomena, like table and chairs, and human minds and bodies, were merely attributes of this whole.  He denied the dualism of his predecessor, Descartes, who regarded the mind and body as two separate entities, he had no time for any caring, provident God, and he claimed that free will was an illusion.

Johannes Vermeer, A woman asleep

Spinoza said little about the nature of time.  Raul Inesta has argued that he may have believed that in a ‘tenseless’ theory of time, in which ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ – time perceived as a flow – can be replaced by a series of successive presents, so that our sense of time passing is an illusion.  He quotes Spinoza:

Furthermore, nobody doubts that time, too, is a product of the imagination, and arises from the fact that we see some bodies move more slowly than others, or more quickly, or with equal speed,

If someone conceives Duration in this abstracted way, and confusing it with Time begins dividing it into parts, he can never understand how, for instance, an hour can pass by. For in order that an hour should pass by, a half-hour must first have passed by, and then half of the remainder, and then half of what is left of the remainder; and if you go on subtracting half of the remainder to infinity, you can never reach the end of the hour. Therefore, many, who are not used to distinguishing mental constructs from reality have ventured to assert that Duration is composed of moments […] To say that duration is made up of moments is the same as to say that Number is made up by adding noughts together.

Unknown artist, Baruch Spinoza (c1665)

Jason Waller argues that Spinoza took not only a tenseless but also an eternalist view of time: that past, present and future are equally real. 

If so, could it be that Vermeer shared something of Spinoza’s intuition, that time, both as moment and as duration, is equally real and belongs to a unified system of being, a perfect harmony of existence – a harmony to be reflected in painting?

Comments (4)

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  1. Jean Williams says:

    What a coincidence! We were meant to be on a CASW study tour to the Netherlands last week, and I was eagerly looking forward to see the Vermeers. Alas not to be this year. Your blog wiil be compulsory reading for hopefully a trip next year! Diolch unwaith eto.

  2. Chris Armstrong says:

    You may be interested in following up Spinoza’s thoughts on time and your own with respect to the Vermeer paintings with Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time. I found it a very enjoyable read and I’m sure it influenced my own Elegies of Time.

  3. Jeremy Yates says:

    Dear Andrew

    Good to read your pieces on Dutch Art since I started ‘lockdown’ with a charity shop find – Laura J. Snyder’s Eye of the Beholder : Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and the Reinvention of Seeing…which sent me back to Svetlana Alpers’ Art of Describing (both with lots to say about Fabritus) , and books I have on Vermeer and Dutch art (not Liedtke though – only Wheelock)). I wonder if you have seen the latest on the wonderful Dresden Vermeer you illustrate – the Gemaldegalerie has an updated page on its restoration, and the recently discovered ‘cupid picture on the far (blank) wall that is being slowly uncovered – So there is an additional factor to the interpretation of the letter’s import prompted by this presumably. The link https://gemaeldegalerie.skd.museum/en/research/vermeer/ Codart also reports the same restoration on its site, and there was an article in the Burlington Magazine about it some time ago apparently.

    Looking forward to combing through the rest of your blog.

    • Andrew Green says:

      It’s good to hear from you again, Jeremy. Thanks for the info about the Dresden Vermeer – very interesting. It’s time there was a comprehensive new book on Fabritius. The Christopher Brown book was already out of print when I got hold of a copy many years ago, and I’m sure there’s plenty new to say about him.

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