Speculations on the Private Life of a Fictive Milkmaid

Fig. 1: Johannes Vermeer, Milkmaid (1657/1658)

A problem we often come across at the Centre for Privacy Studies is how to extract the truly private from our sources. Can a letter ever really be a source of private information, considering that the most private notes would usually be burnt? Similarly, how much insight can we gain from paintings of private homes? This question was raised during a seminar at the Centre on the private in early modern Dutch paintings of interiors. The paintings explored in this seminar somewhat intimately reveal the private context of Dutch upper-class homes. Some of them display privately exhibited luxury, for example Pieter de Hooch’s Leisure Time in an Elegant Setting (1629–1684), where gilded leather hangings feature prominently, or Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (1670–71), which shows a bejeweled lady writing a possibly private letter in the company of her maid in a handsome interior. The implicit self-staging of the patrons inevitably stands at odds with privacy and makes these interior paintings a difficult source for privacy studies. The truly private – the messy, the embarrassing and the ugly – is likely to have been removed from view, hidden behind curtains, inside coffers and beyond the picture frame.

Johannes Vermeer’s Milkmaid (1657/1658) is especially evocative in terms of the hidden, the secret and the private. The painting has remained an important narrative object for 360 years.[1] Like the Mona Lisa, the Milkmaid seems to carry a secret, an intriguing story, hidden behind a thick layer of paint. Onlookers have speculated profusely for three-and-a-half centuries about the milkmaid’s private life,[2] or rather her employer’s. Since the milkmaid was depicted at work, if there was a secret hidden somewhere in the adjacent private world of the painting, then it was most likely linked to her master.

As the truly private is mostly concealed from view, I will engage in an exercise of speculation informed by the existing art historical analysis of the Milkmaid and some of the actual or overpainted objects in the painting as a starting point to (re)construct the potential or imagined private life in a Dutch home in the early modern period. To initiate this conjecture on the private, we might imagine Vermeer’s painting as a contemporary photograph. While portraying the milkmaid, Vermeer the photographer might have instructed his assistant to “remove that dishcloth from the nail on the wall.” And if you picture it hanging there as in my photoshopped version (Fig. 2) – it does interfere disadvantageously with the milkmaid’s cotton bonnet.

But even beyond the possibly removed objects from the actual scene, the painting’s own materiality embodies hidden entities. Previous detectives of privacy have examined the painting through x-rays to uncover two paint-cloaked objects: A world map and a clothes basket had for some time coexisted with the milkmaid, before Vermeer painted them over and replaced the basket with a foot warmer. The latter, simultaneously conjuring sentiments of warmth and the lack thereof, has been written about extensively in terms of iconography that evokes a woman’s sexuality, since the coals inside the little box would not only warm her feet but all other body parts hidden underneath her layered skirt.[3] The foot warmer may thus have accentuated the prevailing reputation of kitchen maids – and especially milkmaids – as sexually available.[4] Next to the footwarmer there is a tile of cupid[5] and of a travelling man with a walking stick – two males with pointy devices, at least one of them most certainly aimed at a female (heart). With these loaded symbols in mind, I will now dive into two speculations on privacy to go beyond common clichées and to endow both the painter and the subject with more subtle storytelling and agency respectively.

Fig. 2: Speculative Enhancement of the Vermeer’s Milkmaid

Speculation 1 (based on the x-rayed, overpainted objects):

At first, Vermeer, relatively well-off and possibly a little biased when it came to lower working-class people, whose lives were naturally transmitted via stereotypes, imagined the milkmaid in love with a sailor when he saw her wistful smile.[6] He painted the map behind her, as a clue for the onlooker to the “back of her mind” – her love, out in the world, while she waited in another family’s home, tending to their dairy until her love would return and marry her. The girl is a symbol of virtuous work – diligence and patience. The clothes basket conjures more work, and there is no cupid lurking to distract her from her patient wait. This version would have been a little flat: the milkmaid as a stereotype condemned to a life on hold, her only realm of action entirely determined by her employers, for as long as her sailor was at sea, himself subject to the volatilities of the weather and a captain.

Speculation 2 (based on the objects that were added later):

The type of foot warmer that Vermeer then replaced the basket with, also appears in several paintings by Pieter de Hooch. For example in A Mother with Two Children and a Maid with a Pail by a Fireplace, 1675–1680 (Fig. 3), with which de Hooch depicted his day’s emphasis on womanhood as nurturing: The lady of the house is nursing her baby, with one foot resting on a foot warmer, while her older daughter is petting the cat, mimicking her mother’s gestures. In this picture, a maid carries in a bucket – she is part of scene, but clearly outside the nursing realm of her employer’s family.

Fig. 3 Pieter de Hooch, A Mother with Two Children and a Maid with a Pail by a Fireplace, 1675–1680

Inspired by the role of the foot warmer in nursing activities, one might conjecture that the simplistic, first speculation contained a grain of truth. Possibly there was in fact an absent lover, but he had left the milkmaid pregnant before he continued his travels. She then found herself in the precarious position of having to confess, begging to keep her job. And to spin the narrative further, into the maid’s workplace, maybe this shameful revelation secretly suited her employer, as his wife was unable to nurse – to her great distress, as at the time, middle-to upper-class women were expected to nurse their children, “rather than rely on a wet nurse.”[7]

In early modern Dutch society children were especially beloved[8] and they were often depicted in paintings of domestic interiors. Children would have been running around, but Vermeer, who had an unusually high number of children – eleven – barely ever painted any.[9] Unlike in de Hooch’s painting, in the Milkmaid, the mistress of the house as well as any children are absent. In the photoshopped version (Fig. 2), I have included them, borrowing them from The Van Moerkerken Family, ca. 1653–54, by Gerard ter Borch the Younger. The child in this rendering has most likely just about outgrown nursing, but may – like the toddler Catharina Hooft in Frans Hals’ portrait from ca. 1620 (Fig. 4) – feel quite attached to his wet nurse. In this speculative scenario, the child would have been pulled away from the wet nurse / milkmaid by an irritated mother (her nursing shortcomings amplified by her son’s affections for the maid), and Vermeer would have been left to wonder about the maid as he continued to paint her, without a map, without a basket, but with the milk jug and a foot warmer. Possibly he glimpsed her wet nursing her master’s child before she laced up and rushed in for her sitting. Or maybe she was called away from Vermeer by the cries of a child, which was not hers, nor her duty to feed. The cloth on the wall of my visual alteration might then have been a nursing cloth rather than a dishcloth.

Fig. 3: Frans Hals, Catharina Hooft and Her Nurse, ca. 1620

And this is where the true privacy of such a painting might rest, in the clues the objects give us. Some of them are loaded with iconographic meaning beside their actual meaning. The gazes and facial expressions also give us hints, as does the vantage point of the onlooker. Had Vermeer bent down to greet the little boy when he noticed the optimal (unusually low) angle for his painting? True privacy remains in the speculative realm. Can this speculation exercise teach us about privacy and its construction in the early modern period, beyond the conjuring of a family’s dirty laundry or my possibly overly empathetic projection? Privacy – like the milkmaid’s dress and the painting’s coats of paint – is best described in terms of layers. The layers of privacy are always laced with speculation. They are shifting and difficult to uncover. We might see through them with the help of x-rays and other means, but through the reading between the lines, the guessing at what has not been written down, and the imagining of whispers, we, as historians, can turn restrained speculation into a probing tool.


[1] It fetched the second highest price at an auction of 22 of Vermeer’s 35 paintings in 1696, off the estate of the original owner’s son in law, Jacob Dissius.

[2] Walter Liedtke, “Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) and The Milkmaid,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, August 2009, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/milk/hd_milk.htm.

[3] Liedtke.

[4] Liedtke.

[5] H. Rodney Nevitt, Jr., “Vermeer’s Milkmaid in the DIscourse of Love,” in Ut Pictura Amor: The Reflexive Imagery of Love in Artistic Theory and Practice, 1500-1700, vol. 48, Intersections (Brill, 2017).

[6] During Vermeer’s lifetime, painters such as Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer himself began to represent maids more neutrally than their predecessor who emphasized the easy sexuality associated with maids. See also “The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer,” accessed January 28, 2020, http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/milkmaid.html.

[7]  See also Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (University of California Press, 1988), 540.

[8] Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches.

[9] Children are only pictured in The Little Street, c. 1657–1661 and in The View of Delft, c. 1660–1663.