Turn on, tune in, drop out: On the attentional privacy of 17th century Dutch letter-readers

The following blog post is a revised version of the essay that Emil Stephensen wrote as student for the 2019 PRIVACY summer school.

When Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, visited Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in 2016, he claimed to have found an iPhone in one of the paintings – more specifically in A Letter Delivered in a Voorhuis (1670) by Pieter de Hooch. This 17th century painting of a woman receiving a letter is one among many representations of epistolarity in Dutch Golden Age art – and there might be something to the comparison between smartphones of today and Dutch letters of the early modern period. Both smartphones and letters are pragmatic tools of everyday life. Both are used in the sort of individualized, attention-demanding activities so characteristic of modern societies with pervading technological mediation of thinking and communication. And both seem to highlight the visible trademark of people indulged in those activities: the zombie-like determination with which we, mouths slightly ajar and heads tilted down, routinely opt out of immediate perceptual reality and hook up to other, artificial ones.

In this blog post, I want to explore the attentional privacy of letter-readers in Dutch 17th century art. The figures in these representations, most of them women, are calmly attending to something absent within the representational frame of the painting – and doing so with little to no outward expression. The American art critic Svetlana Alpers has described the poised attention of letter-readers in Dutch art as a “vacuum at the center. The letter stands in for or represents events and feelings that are not visible.”[1] In Dutch 17th century art, letters are not yet conceived of as a way of accessing the minds of fictional beings; they are not the signs of transparency and interiority they would become in 18th century sentimental literature and art. Instead, the Dutch letter-readers seem to enjoy a privacy as familiar, yet opaque as that of a smartphone-gazing stranger on the subway in 2021.

1. Illustration of the EXMF by Dave Gray.

As we plug into what Canadian neuroanthropologist Merlin Donald has called the ‘external memory field’ (EXMF, fig. 1) of letters, computers, smartphones and other thinking devices – “a cognitive workspace external to biological memory” – we are temporarily drawn away from our embodied field of experience and communication[2]. The still-ongoing transition from oral-biological to technologically-mediated modes of thinking and communication is both a process of meshing us ever-closer together and fragmenting our attentional fields into evermore self-reliant units. Throughout history, this twofold trend of modernity – toward technological mediation and cognitive privacy, meshing-together and falling apart – has often been perceived as problematic and deceptive. In early modern Europe, letter-writing was characterized by what Gary Schneider has called an “epistemological anxiety” – the letter medium fostered games of unequal access to information: secrecy, manipulation, delay and interception[3]. In order to overcome this fundamental instability and ambiguousness, commentary on and artistic representations of epistolarity has often evoked bodily or oral presence – in the 16th and 17th centuries through the embodied, face-to-face topoi of classical rhetoric and in the 18th and 19th centuries through a robust association between letter-writing (or literacy in general) and emotional immediacy and authenticity. Evoking a sense of oral presence, Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote of letters in the early 16th century: “as we write we seem to be carrying on a conversation with the dearest of friends in his very presence.”[4]. In the 18th century, sometimes called the ‘golden age’ of letter-writing, the letter genre became a model of emotional authenticity in literary fictions (epitomized by the epistolary novel) and in the visual arts. In Jean Baptiste Greuze’s Girl with Letter (1770) (fig. 2), for instance, a girl sits with a letter in her lap, looking at the viewer with an absent-minded and dreamy gaze. Her state of emotional agitation is emphasized by her untidy appearance, her clothes having seemingly fallen off her body and exposed her breast while reading – she is ‘somewhere else’, absorbed into the world of the letter. But she is not absorbed into the activity of letter-reading itself – the abandoned letter in her lap is there to suggest emotional immediacy, not focused attention.

2. Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Girl with Letter (1770)

In Dutch 17th century paintings of readers and writers, the letter (and the attention required to produce or comprehend it) is rendered interesting in itself. In these representations, letters are bland communicational instruments before they serve as indicators of interiority or subjectivity. The stress on the attentional absence and fragmentation produced by reading or writing is evident in genre paintings such as Gabriël Metsu’s Woman Reading a Letter (1660’s) (fig. 3) and Pieter Janssens Elinga’s A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping (1670) (fig. 4); paintings which emphasize and explore the attentional disconnect between modern human beings. In Metsu’s painting, a woman reads a letter while her maid, turned against us, holds the envelope in one hand and pulls aside a curtain with the other, revealing a sea piece on the wall. On a basic structural level, the painting depicts two human beings looking into different representations: A painting of a ship in stormy weather and a letter. As the Dutch became increasingly engaged in seafaring explorations and settlements during the 17th century, it is easy to imagine that the lady has received a letter from an absent husband. But stripping away this level of iconography (we also have a dog possibly indicating loyalty to her husband), the figures, their expression and their interaction are not particularly suggestive of love, longing or other such strong, narratively-driven emotions. While we cannot see the maid’s face, the lady is reading with a poised demeanor and a slight indication of a smile. What is depicted is her action of reading rather than a reaction to something already read and comprehended – her state of focused attention takes the centerstage and is emphasized by her tilting of the letter toward the window in order to catch the light. As Svetlana Alpers has convincingly argued, Metsu’s work thematizes representation in general: “Metsu frankly acknowledges and plays with the representational character of the letter by placing it among other representational surfaces.”[5]. Instead of portraying human sentiment and outward-directed or worldly action, the painting portrays human beings looking into representations of human sentiment and worldly action. As Alpers also note, even the mirror reflects its own mirroring capacity rather than the world: “The mirror, solipsistically, is enfolded into itself, reflecting only the grid of the adjacent window panes.”[6]. The sort of privacy Metsu is interested in is not the domestic, emotionally charged peephole-privacy of 18th and 19th century art – it is the sealed-off privacy of the human mind as it opts out of immediate social and perceptual reality and tunes in on the EXMF.

3. Gäbriel Metsu, Woman Reading a Letter (1660’s)

The disconnect between occupied minds is even more pronounced in Elinga’s A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping. In this painting, three people are occupied by different tasks: a lady is reading a letter, her maid is sweeping the floor and a man is standing, in another room, at what might be an easel – another portable device which promoted attentional privacy and, according to Marshall McLuhan, “deinstitutionalized pictures” and “added much to the new cult of individualism” in early modern Europe [7]. As in Metsu, the painting depicts three minds allocating attention to different things. It also similarly emphasizes representation and representational surfaces: the lady is reading by the window in order to catch the light and the mirror is “enfolded into itself”, reflecting the geometrical patterns of the floor tiles. Only the floor-sweeping maid has a visible, seemingly thoughtless face. The domesticity of the scene is reminiscent of De Hooch’s work with its many openings, doors and mirrors – it suggests a threshold between private and public space rather than a self-enclosed home. In Elinga’s painting, privacy is a situational reality connected to specific attentional practices or actions like reading a letter or working at an easel – not to abstract or permanent categories such as the body, the mind, the home or gender.

4. Pieter Janssens Elinga, A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping (1670)

The privacy of Elinga’s and Metsu’s attentionally occupied figures is characteristic of the kind of cognitive introversion which modern life imposes on us. Since the 17th century, layers upon layers of privacy-promoting technological mediation has changed the ways we think and communicate. The 350 year old letter-reading scenes are strangely familiar to us because their ‘cold collectivity’ of disconnected minds occupying the same space is reminiscent of contemporary scenes from subway trains, internet cafes or reading rooms.

While we are often made aware of privacy as a positively defined normative or political notion, a value to protect or a goal to achieve, we might also understand it as an unavoidable sociological corollary of modernity, that is, processes such as professional specialization, urbanization, and growing technological mediation of thinking, learning and communication. As Svetlana Alpers made it clear in her 1983 book The Art of Describing, 17th century Dutch art moved into an increasingly more descriptive mode of representation. A mode that put less emphasis on storytelling and more on attentive observation. Artists such as Metsu, Elinga and De Hooch was attending to and imitating the world with an unprecedented level of scrutiny and observational skill – an activity often mirrored by figures in their paintings who in similar ways are opting out of immediate social reality and tuning into some individualized, attention-demanding activity, be it reading, easel painting, looking at maps, looking through telescope lenses or simply looking away. The attentional privacy of figures in Dutch 17th century is linked to a distinct trait of modern thinking and behavior: the acknowledgement of the capacity of individual human beings to see, attend to and discern phenomena on their own.



[1] Svetlana Alpers. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (The University of Chicago Press, 1983), 196.

[2] Merlin Donald. The Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. (Harvard University Press, 1991.), 296-97.

[3] Gary Schneider. Politics, Deception, and the Workings of the Post: Some Features of Epistolarity in Early Modern England. In Explorations in Rennaissance Culture. (Brill, 2002), 99.

[4] Gary Schneider. The Culture of Epistolarity: Vernacular Letters and Letter Writing in Early Modern England, 1500-1700. (University of Delaware Press, 2006), 29.

[5] Alpers, 196.

[6] Ibid., 197.

[7] Marshall McLuhan. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. (University of Toronto Press, 1962), 206.

Visualizing Privacy: Atmosphere and Medium

One battleground of contemporary privacy issues is the world of big data gathered in the so-called digital cloud. This is quite an intangible battleground. The cloud evokes an elusive realm of ever accessible and simultaneously concealed data: a territory of digital data doubles of concrete counterparts that we might touch and smell, but that we cannot harvest for correlations and predictions. The cloud constitutes an all-encompassing realm where data is placeless and liberated from the bodies that generate it.[1] This cloud is a metaphor. It denotes large data sets gathered as digital information on remote servers, in data centers. It shrouds information politics and privacy regulation in the elusive intangibility of metaphoric vapours.

Using the atmospheric, and in particular clouds, to explain data transmission has important precedents in the Western history of art. They can help us to visualize privacy in relation to the ever-mediated world of digital information. For example, we will show how the motif of the Annunciation – the fateful surprise visit of angel Gabriel to Mary to announce her immaculate conception (cf Luke 1.25-38) – evocatively illuminates today’s digital culture that reconciles constant connectivity with (an illusion of) optional privacy. In the Annunciation, the private, the atmospheric and data meet. Figure 1 shows a paradigmatic visual representation: In the privacy of Mary’s chamber a mysterious data transfer permeates her space and her body, communicated by Gabriel and conceptually facilitated by atmospheric props of clouds and rays of light.

Figure 1: Philippe de Champaigne, Annunciation, ca. 1645/8. Oil on canvas, 334 x 214.5 cm, The Wallace Collection, London. Public Domain.

In this post we approach, in three tentative steps, some problems of visualization posed by the plurality of issues inherent in privacy.[2]. First, we will delve into the implications of describing privacy as an atmosphere, by referencing philosopher Gernot Böhme’s description of atmospheres. Second, we use the spaces usually depicted in Annunciation paintings to draw attention to the spatial construction of privacy, in terms of thresholds, furniture, objects and atmospheric components. Third, we will reflect on the element of communication and information transfer in relation to the private setting of the Annunciation. Here, the integration of the cloud as symbol and device contributes to the construction of an atmosphere of privacy. Reading the Annunciation paintings with a view to Durham Peters’ understanding of media as atmospheric conjures up the promising beginning of an exchange between otherwise quite distinct historical and contemporary nexuses of privacy and clouds. The goal of this blogpost is to offer the conceptual intermediary of atmosphere as a possible link in our ongoing efforts to reach a useful conceptualization of privacy – in this case, the relationship between the digital cloud and privacy. To our mind, a more accessible visualization is a key remedy for counteracting that elusiveness of privacy which leaves users open to abuse.



“When we talk about privacy in today’s society, it’s your eye that is looking. It’s your eye that is doing the invasion of privacy,” says Trevor Hughes, President and CEO of the International Association of Privacy Professionals that is devoted to digital privacy related education and regulation. This quote is indicative of the visual vocabulary that permeates digital culture. Delving into the visual representation not of invasion of privacy but of the actual concept itself, Koerner explored the profuse use of the padlock as its visual icon online, in a former blog entry.

In line with the accessible and inaccessible realms suggested by the padlock, at the Centre for Privacy Studies we usually approximate the fluid concept of privacy by thinking with a series of heuristic zones or thresholds that can be crossed and upheld in relation to privacy (Figure 2). These heuristic zones are not a theoretical model, but a research tool. They help us to gain common discursive ground in our interdisciplinary approach to a shared set of historical sources. And while these thresholds between the zones at first glance suggest definitive boundaries, they are in fact constantly renegotiated and they shift with moving bodies, activities, political and social circumstances, seasons, and time. Thus, these constantly changing shapes and conditions of the protean[3] concept of privacy resist the visual vocabulary that often accompanies it. In this reflection, we shall pursue a different spatial trope. What happens if we conceptualize privacy as an atmosphere – an affective atmosphere?[4]

Figure 2: Centre for Privacy Studies, Work Method, Heuristic Zones

The notion of atmospheres has become increasingly popular over the past three decades, championed in particular by philosopher Gernot Böhme. The concept is especially interesting in relation to privacy as it describes a subjective, environmental condition: “atmospheres are always something spatial, and atmospheres are always something emotional.”[5] Atmospheres can be consciously “produced”[6] and they can overwhelm: “Atmospheres fill spaces; they emanate from things, constellations of things, and persons. The individual as a recipient can happen upon them, be assailed by them.”[7] Let us then consider privacy as a matter of atmosphere rather than solid materiality. Let us ponder the hazy atmosphere of privacy. And let us ponder invasion of privacy as a matter of gusts that can dissolve or alter this atmosphere at any moment. A shift from a solid material to an aerial register comes with representational challenges akin to the challenges encountered by artists who want to represent the meeting of the secular and the divine – as it is the case in the visualization of the Annunciation.


Private Space and the Annunciation

The Annunciation is a key liturgical feast in the Christian tradition. The representation of the Archangel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she will bear the son of God, which is at the same time a representation of the immaculate conception of Christ, became a popular pictorial motif from the late Middle Ages onwards.[8] This motif gathers several important – and complex – aspects, and offers a possibility to ponder issues such as God’s agency in the world through the Holy Spirit; the very foundation of the mystery of the Incarnation; as well as Mary as a model believer who is absorbed in withdrawn pious reading or prayer when the angel accosts her, and responds to his surprising message with docile humility. The motif also invites pondering from a privacy angle. Firstly, the scene is set in Mary’s chamber and depictions often abound in thresholds, marked by walls, curtains, windows and doorways (ex: Sandro Botticelli’s Annunciation (1485-92), Figure 3), which establish layered zones of privacy. Secondly, the scene depicts an act of communication that disturbs Mary’s private reading or prayer while establishing a different kind of privacy between woman and angel in a vicarious representation of the vital meeting of Mary and God. Thirdly, the motif hints at a third form of private space – that of the virgin’s womb where the incarnation is about to be initiated. Portrayals of the event prioritize these different dimensions and temporalities in different measures.

Figure 3 Sandro Botticelli’s Annunciation (1485-92). Public Domain.

Late medieval Annunciations such as those by Robert Campin (1428), Rogier van der Weyden (ca. 1440) and Joos van Cleve (1525) engage intensely with Mary’s chamber, detailing her furniture, as well as the paraphernalia of piety.[9] Dealing with specific artworks, some scholars have associated this interior with female domesticity[10] while others read the furnishing as signifiers of spiritual elements belonging to contemporary devotional literature.[11] As a via media between these two readings we suggest that the key spatial signifier here is not the home, but the chamber. Mary has withdrawn to her closet to pray (cf Matthew 6.6). This may be represented as a physical space, but connotations of interiority loom large.

After the late medieval Italian taste for architectural perspective and the more northern predilection for richly furnished rooms, early modern Annunciations seem to have become more focused on the communicative act. This is the case not least in the Annunciations painted by Philippe de Champaigne (1602-74). Perhaps he painted as many as seventeen different versions of the motif, ten of which still exist.[12] In the article ‘A Private Mystery: Looking at Ph. De Champaigne’s Annunciation for the Hôtel de Chavigny’ Bruun has looked at the three Annunciations that have been associated with the Hôtel de Chavigny in Paris, and they will serve us well in this context too (Figures 1, 5, 6).[13] The three paintings all show Mary and Gabriel in an indoor space with enough furnishing to indicate the privacy of Mary’s chamber (respectively a bed, a fireplace and a prie-dieu: reading desk and kneeling cushion in one). They represent the communication between Gabriel and Mary by way of gestures and the communication between heaven and earth by a ray of light emanating from the dove of the Holy Spirit with clouds and angels supporting the celestial message.[14] These three Annunciations reveal a spatial constellation in which Mary’s chamber meets with heaven. Clouds, populated by cherubim and opening up towards rays of divine light, are literally superimposed onto the domestic setting.


Cloud machinery: atmosphere as performative device

While the floor of the room is detailed realistically with varying tile patterns (Figures 1 & 5), instead of a ceiling, the gaze encounters a seemingly infinite upward extension, beyond the domestic realm, into the heavenly. Especially since the quattrocento, the metaphorically vertical movement of saints and angels between the realm of the mortals and of the divine has been conceptualized as facilitated by clouds. In religious theatre productions, particularly in Florence, co-called cloud machinery that developed out of a simple plinth—“a flat pedestal, camouflaged as a cloud”[15]—into a complex, technologically ingenious illusionary system that could be lifted and suspended, thus creating the illusion of flight or ascension from ground to sky. These props were known generally as “cloud” or nughola/nuvola (Italian), nuée (French) or nube (Spanish).[16] The sturdy iron or wood structure and pulley system were hidden by wadding, feathers and painted fabric to create the imitation of a cloud. In art historian Alessandra Buccheri’s words, the props “were used mainly for the representation of the episodes which involved some communication between heaven and earth”.[17] Actors who represented saints, were able to navigate this interface between the worldly and the heavenly—an elusive border of two realms that meet but do not mix—with the help of the cloud machinery: it quite literally lifted them from one realm into the other.

Figure 4: Andrea Mantegna, Tryptich, ca 1463-1464, 86 x 161.5 cm, Uffizi. Public Domain.

The cloud machinery influenced quattrocento painters. The relationship between the cloud as performative device and mediating environment can be seen in Andrea Mantegna’s (1431–1506) triptych of The Ascension of Christ, The Adoration of the Magi and The Circumcision (1460-1464). Both the Ascension and the Adoration feature cloud machinery (Figure 4), which supports Jesus in the former, and Mary with the Christ child in the latter. The cherub-embellished, mandorla-shaped, blue ascension clouds differ starkly from the meteorological clouds in the distance: these are white, their consistency is less dense, and their sizes and shapes are more irregular than the machinery’s wadding. Philosopher Hubert Damisch draws attention to the close connection between these painted “ascension tools” and religious theatre: “with all the precision of an ethnographer, Mantegna carefully represented the vertical metal rod, the tip of which upheld a star and a foursome of angels in a cloud of wadding”.[18]

It is intriguing that Mantegna depicted the prop rather than a “real” meteorological cloud. The cloud as performative prop—and as symbol—can here be understood as a veil that discloses information in the very act of obscuring it, as it mediates an otherwise impossible exchange of bodies and of information, between earth and heaven. Böhme’s understanding of atmospheres can be extended to the cloud as connective device: “atmosphere is what is in between, what mediates the two sides.”[19] Like the digital cloud metaphor for digital data, the theatrical cloud machinery enables mobility and communication while partly blurring the hardware that enables the exchange. Both mimic the meteorological cloud that is transcendentally mobile, borderless and locationless, that conceals and reveals.[20]

When we link the concept of the digital cloud as a data transfer medium to the theatricality of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, we arrive at an intriguing set of figurations of an invisible and inaccessible space. In the Early Modern Annunciation paintings discussed above, the clouds are still imbued with a mediating agency, despite no longer being quite so explicitly performative. By creating an intermediate space, the cloud apparatus in Renaissance theatre and in Champaigne’s paintings pre-empted any enquiries into the how of the ascension or message transmission. These historical precedents help us to situate the metaphorical, pseudo-meteorological digital cloud, which so omnisciently umbrellas remote computing and archiving, in a long tradition of clouds enabling communication between two bordering but ultimately distinct realms. The cloud is thus a connective device, or rather a mediating environment, as its responsive nature defies clearly defined boundaries.[21]

Figure 5: Philippe de Champaigne, Annunciation, ca. 1643. Oil on canvas, 215 x 170 cm. Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montrésor. Photograph by Alain Crozemarie (2015). This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


Atmospheric Medium

Not only does the cloud have a history of representing physically inaccessible regions, but it also has a history of mediating. In media historian John Durham Peters’ words, “the idea that media are message-bearing institutions such as newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet is relatively recent in intellectual history”.[22] Media scholar Jochen Hörisch also emphasizes that “well into the nineteenth century, when one spoke of media, one typically meant the natural elements such as water and earth, fire and air”.[23] In Durham Peters’ understanding, media “are vessels and environments, containers of possibility that anchor our existence and make what we are doing possible”.[24] As ‘bodies without surface’[25] clouds are exemplary of spatial entities that have no clear outlines, no beginning and end, making them dynamic media for information transmittal. Rather than as particular messages per se, media can also be understood as data environments that can be tapped into as they invade or permeate our private spaces.

Despite the joyous aspect, Mary’s portrayal in the Annunciation paintings also evokes John Berger’s – possibly a little crude – differentiation between the perception of women and men in paintings. While man conjures agency – “the pretence is always towards a power which he exercises on others”, he finds that “a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her.” Although the immaculate conception is miraculous, according to the Gospel of Luke, Mary was at first “greatly troubled” but succumbs and says to Gabriel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Berger’s stereotyping thus resonates strongly with Mary’s role and depiction. She is in her private chambers, this is where she sleeps behind curtains, this is where she reads and prays, her outer piety presenting her inner sincerity – and yet, put simply: the ceiling opens up, amidst clouds and holy light an unexpected guest penetrates her space and nestles a fetus in her womb. If there is privacy in the relation with God through prayer (as she was engaging in just moments before), this moment is different. The affective atmosphere has completely transformed: The heuristic zones of Mary’s self, her body, and her chamber have all been permeated by an atmospheric shift visualized by the clouds and light that question her self-determination and privacy through the revelation of a message.

Figure 6: Philippe de Champaigne, Annunciation, ca. 1639. Oil on wood, 260 x 210 cm. Notre-Dame-du-Port de Clermont-Ferrand. Photograph by Quentineo (2018). This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Inscribed in the conception of privacy as an atmosphere is the notion of energy or agency. This agency is a contextual and performative freedom to reveal and to conceal at will, at any given moment. On the one hand, there is the freedom to adjust the contextual parameters in order to withdraw from others’ presence; on the other hand, there is the power inscribed in dynamic, external agents that can affect our ability to do so.

The powerful image of the Annunciation can help us conceptualize the digital cloud and its traversal of many privacy thresholds. Privacy as an ever-shifting affective atmosphere transforms with information flow, activities, spatial and temporal markers. In terms of privacy, the digital cloud can then be understood as a portal into our bodies through health data; into our souls through documentation of intimate conversations, thoughts, and images; into our finances through bank data; into our political mind through Facebook (Cambridge Analytica); into our homes through the internet of things, etc. The digital cloud permeates our private lives quite literally, as do the divine clouds in Champaigne’s annunciation paintings, as they override the affective atmosphere of privacy in Mary’s chamber.




[1] Natalie P. Koerner, “The Digital Cloud and the Great Outdoors,” The Site Magazine 37, no. Future Legacies (2017): 116–22.

[2] Daniel Solove. Understanding Privacy (Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[3] Jeff Weintraub and Krishan Kumar, Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), 2.

[4] While some voices emphasis that all atmospheres are affective (Mikkel Bille, “Review: Gernot Böhme, 2017, The Aesthetics of Atmospheres. Edited by Jean-Paul Thibaud. London, Routledge,” Ambiances. Environnement Sensible, Architecture et Espace Urbain, February 20, 2018, http://journals.openedition.org/ambiances/1065.), other focus on the affective aspects in relation to affect theory. For example, in his work on affective atmospheres, Ben Anderson takes a point of departure in Marx’s reconfiguration of the epicurean distinction of air, liquid and earth, and his interest in the affective agency that can be developed with the metaphorical deployment of atmosphere as something that ‘presses’ and ‘envelopes’. The metaphorical potency of the notion of atmosphere rests with its slightly ambiguous, indeed airy, implications when it comes to agency/energy and materiality. See also Ben Anderson, “Affective Atmospheres.,” Emotion, Space and Society 2 (2009): 77–81.

[5] Gernot Böhme, An Aesthetics of Atmospheres, ed. Jean-Paul Thibaud (New York: Routledge, 2016).

[6] Böhme.

[7] Böhme.

[8] David M. Robb, “The Iconography of the Annunciation in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries”, The Art Bulletin 18.4 (1936) 480–526; see also Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary through the Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996): Miri Rubin, Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009);  Gary Waller, A Cultural Study of Mary and the Annunciation: From Luke to the Enlightenment (London and New York: Routledge, 2015).

[9] These works contrast Antonello de Messina’s Virgin Annunciate (1476) which draws the viewer into Mary’s inner life solely by means of her gestures and facial expression.

[10] Annette LeZotte, “Defining Domestic: An Examination of the Characteristics and Function of the Home Setting in Early Netherlandish Paintings”, The Journal of Architecture, Design and Domestic Space 6.1 (2009) 5–17 Jeanne Nuechterlein, “The Domesticity of Sacred space in the Fifteenth-Century Netherlands”, in S. Hamilton and A. Spicer  (eds.), Defining the Holy: Sacred Space in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Farnham: Ashgate, 2006) 49–79

[11] Reindert Falkenburg, “The Household of the Soul: Conformity in the Merode Triptych”, in M. Ainsworth (ed.), Early Netherlandish Painting at the Crossroads: A Critical Look at Current Methodologies (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001) 2–17.

[12] Bernard Dorival, “Les oeuvres de Philippe de Champaigne sur le subjet de l’Annonciation”, Bulletin de la société de l’histoire de l’Art Français (1970; publ. 1972) 45–71 (50).

[13] Mette Birkedal Bruun, “A Private Mystery: Looking at Philippe de Champaigne’s Annunciation for the Hôtel de Chavigny” in Quid est sacra­mentum?: Visual Representation of Sacred Mysteries in Early Modern Europe, 1400-1700, ed. Walter Melion, Elizabeth Pastan, Lee Palmer Wandel (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 606–55 https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004408944_021

[14] Mette Birkedal Bruun, “A Private Mystery: Looking at Philippe de Champaigne’s Annunciation for the Hôtel de Chavigny,” n.d., 632.

[15] Alessandra Buccheri, The Spectacle of Clouds, 1439-1650: Italian Art and Theatre (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), 2.

[16] Buccheri, The Spectacle of Clouds, 1439-1650: Italian Art and Theatre.

[17] Buccheri, The Spectacle of Clouds, 1439-1650: Italian Art and Theatre, 14.

[18] Hubert Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting, trans. Janet Lloyd (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 71.

[19] Gernot Böhme. “The Aesthetics of Atmospheres (Ambiances, Atmospheres and Sensory Experiences of Spaces).” Apple Books.

[20] Parts of the discussion on the digital cloud and the cloud prop developed out of Natalie P. Koerner, “Towards the Meteorological: The Architecture of Data Centres and the Cloud” (PhD diss., KADK, 2019).

[21] Koerner, “The Digital Cloud and the Great Outdoors.”

[22] John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 2.

[23] Jochen Hörisch, Ende Der Vorstellung: Die Poesie Der Medien (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1999), 134, 140.

[24] Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, 2.

[25] From Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, cited in Hubert Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 218, 124, 141, 218, and in John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 256.

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.


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