405 Early Vermeer body fluids

Did Vermeer’s Kitchen maid, an icon of Dutchness, have an older, Italian sister? Schwartz finds her resemblance to an earlier, unjustifiedly doubted, Vermeer copy after an Italian painting of a saint so convincing that he sticks his neck out to argue that she does.


On short notice, I agreed to give a lecture at Dutch Heritage Amsterdam, a museum on the Amstel that until 3 March 2022 was known as the Hermitage Amsterdam. At its founding in 2004 it was a daughter institution to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, part of an ambitious project by the director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, to spread the riches of his museum worldwide. As praiseworthy as it was, Piotrovsky’s plan was star-crossed from early on. Two other annexes, in Somerset House in London and the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas (in space shared with the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Guggenheim), were unable to rise above the financial and political complications attending this outreach, up to and including the murder in London of Aleksandr Litvinenko. Amsterdam held out until one week after the tragic Russian invasion of Ukraine, when the Amsterdam location removed the m from its name and shipped back to St. Petersburg the recently opened exhibition of Russian avant-garde art of the early twentieth century.

Johannes Vermeer, The kitchen maid (also known as The milkmaid), ca. 1658-59
Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 41 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (SK-A-2344)

In a gesture of encouragement, the Rijksmuseum gave Dutch Heritage Amsterdam the loan of one of its greatest treasures, Johannes Vermeer’s Kitchen maid. It forms a one-work exhibition, and it was on this work that I was asked to speak.

Looking again at that overfamiliar image and its place in Vermeer’s oeuvre, I was struck by a resemblance that I had not noticed earlier, between the Kitchen maid and a somewhat earlier painting by Vermeer of a woman at work. I show them close up.

Both women are concentrating intensely on the performance of a modest duty, bringing a trickle of fluid into a receptacle. The turn of their bodies and their poses are similar. Their outlines against the backgrounds follow a similar sequence of curves. The angle of their heads is so close as to be identical. The crown of hair falling onto the fine lady’s shoulders is substituted in the Kitchen maid by a white cap with nearly the same form. With the fall of light coming from the same direction, the light and shadow on their foreheads and faces follow the same pattern, including a reflection on their foreheads.

The painting on the left is inscribed with the year 1655, that on the right is dated on stylistic grounds to the latter 1650s. In any classroom lecture on formal development within Vermeer’s work, this would seem to be as clear a case as you could wish for of the artist modulating an earlier solution into a later one, domesticating a motif from a history subject for use in the household, moving a foreground figure deeper into space, transforming an element from a conventional iconography into a highly personal creation. That this comparison has not been made in textbooks or specialist literature is due, I believe, to the extreme difference in meaning between the two images and the nearly sacrosanct status of the Kitchen maid. Added to this is the refusal, on the part of most students of Dutch painting and of the general public as well, to believe that the painting on the left could have been made by Vermeer at all. As even the agnostic David Littlejohn wrote (The Hudson Review, Summer 1996): “If it is by Vermeer, I’m glad he quickly moved on to other subjects.”

On a previous occasion, in Schwartzlist 332, I wrote about the attribution issue.

Felice Ficherelli, St. Praxedis saving the blood of a martyr in an urn, 1645
Oil on canvas, 108 x 80 cm
Ferrara, Fergnani Collection

Johannes Vermeer after Felice Ficherelli, St. Praxedis, with addition of crucifix, signed and dated 1655
Oil on canvas, 101.6 x 82.6 cm
Tokyo, National Museum of Western Art (DEP.2014-0001)

By all appearances, the painting now in the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, which I compare to the Kitchen maid, is a copy after a composition by the Tuscan painter Felice Ficherelli, also called Il Riposo (1605-60). Two versions of Ficherelli’s painting are known, one in a private collection in Ferrara, another that was sold at the Dorotheum in Vienna in 2017, with a highly informative entry in the catalogue. The figure in the painting is the second-century St. Praxedis, martyred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. In their hagiography, she and her sister Pudentiana, granddaughters of the Roman senator Quintus Cornelius Pudens and daughters of Saint Pudens, are honored for devoting themselves to the care of fellow Christians who suffered persecution and martyrdom. In particular, they were revered for burying executed Christians and preserving their blood.

Anonymous, Sts. Praxedis and Pudentiana tending to the body of a female martyr
Engraving, information on dimensions unavailable
London, Wellcome Collection (10880i)

An anonymous engraving in the Wellcome Collection, London, shows the sisters in action. Praxedis, having sopped up blood from the wound of a female martyr, is squeezing it out of a sponge into a bowl. It is assumed that the sponge was an attribute of Praxedis’s sanctity, and that she may have been the patron saint of people involved in fishing or diving for sponges, or in their trade. Another distinction of the saint is that a church dedicated to her was one of the first to be built in Rome, the Santa Prassede. It is the titular church of a cardinal, a function that in 1644 was conveyed on Ernst Adalbert Cardinal von Harrach zu Rohrau. There’s a funny story about Ernst Adalbert. He came to Rome so seldom that when in 1643 he did come, the pope took it as an evil omen, as if the only reason the cardinal  would come would be to attend a conclave to choose his successor. Yet, it may have been in his honor that in 1645 Ficherelli painted the saint of his prestigious parish.

Whether or not either of these associations motivated the artist, the subject itself is emblematic of the cult of relic worship. Shortly after the martyrdom of the Pudens sisters, the church father Tertullian gave ground to this devotion with his famous dictum “Semen est sanguis Christianorum” (The blood of Christians is seed – that is, seed from which the congregation of the faithful sprouts). Above all, of course, was the blood shed by Christ on the Cross, the seed of salvation. That Vermeer puts a crucifix into the hands of St. Praxedis equates the blood she is preserving with the blood of the Savior.

The next step I am about to describe need not be taken, but I cannot leave it unmentioned. Unlikely as it may seem, a certain devotion was known in the Netherlands in Vermeer’s time, combining the two fluids in St. Praxedis and The kitchen maid. We see it on a stained-glass window once in the Pieterskerk in Den Bosch. On 9 July 1632 it was drawn by Pieter Saenredam:

Pieter Saenredam, Stained glass window, 1597, in the Pieterskerk, Den Bosch, 9 July 1632
Pen, aquarel and wash on paper, 39.4 x 24.8 cm
Den Bosch, Noordbrabants Museum (12130)

Bishop Gisbert Masius kneels before a heavenly vision of Christ on the Cross. A spray of blood comes from his wound toward the bishop. Behind him, in a mandorla of the same kind, sits the Virgin, pinching her breast so that a spurt of milk falls toward him. Latin inscriptions put his thoughts into words. On the right: “Here I am nourished by blood,” and left: “Here I am suckled with milk,” and beneath him: “I am in the middle, not knowing to whom I shall turn.” The highly physical form to which this mystical meditation refers is a devotion of which Bishop Masius learned in Padua and brought back with him to Den Bosch. The worshiper would imbibe a libation of blood (transubstantiated wine would do) and milk, taking in the motherly care of the Virgin and the salvatory sacrifice of Christ.

Master of the Antwerp Adoration, Closed triptych, with nourishment of blood and milk, ca. 1520
Antwerp, Phoebus Foundation

Although Masius is said to have encountered this practice in Padua, it was also known in the Netherlands. The underlying thought was put into imagery about 1520 by an artist known as the Master of the Antwerp Adoration. The same fluids, from the side and breast of the same divinities, flow into a fountain, from which angels scoop the mixture, to pour into the open mouths of souls in purgatory.

Johannes Vermeer, Allegory of the Catholic faith, ca. 1670-72
Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 88.9 cm
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art (32.100.18)

Before dismissing the possibility that Johannes Vermeer was thinking about this association when he modeled his Kitchen maid on St. Praxedis squeezing blood from a sponge, consider this: St. Praxedis is dated 1655. That is two years after Vermeer’s marriage to a pious Catholic woman with an even more pious and demanding mother, with close ties to the Jesuits of Delft. To paint a devotional image like St. Praxedis can be seen as a gesture of respect and familial obligingness on Vermeer’s part, perhaps even intended as a donation to a Catholic institution or family. That is also the case of one of his latest paintings, Allegory of the Catholic faith. While no one can deny that it was painted by Vermeer, almost everyone who has written about it derides it, considering it “offensive […] because it violates an ideal of ‘Dutchness’” (Christiane Hertel). Bearing St. Praxedis and the Kitchen maid in mind, we can ask if it is more than happenstance that this painting includes subtle references to milk and blood, in the juxtaposition of the spread fingers of Faith on her breast to the chalice with wine, being the blood of Christ. Granting that the answer is probably No, I find the possibility too intriguing to ignore.

Retreating to firmer ground – the derivatory resemblance of the Kitchen maid to St. Praxedis – I conclude with the suggestion that this helps to account for the worshipful air of the Kitchen maid, the feeling that seizes the viewer of being witness to something more profound than a routine household task.

© Gary Schwartz 2022. Published on the Schwartzlist on 10 May 2022


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9 thoughts on “405 Early Vermeer body fluids”

  1. If nothing else, your thoughtful and carefully handled argument reminds us that the sacred air of “The Kitchen maid” must be accounted for. More than that, however, you provide an intriguing possibility, one that all of us who discuss the work in class must consider. Thanks.

  2. Several comments. One is that it is almost impossible to believe that the two juxtaposed women pouring are by the same artist at the same point in his/her career. Not only is the lighting treatment different and the colour palette widely divergent, the sense of raw and rough-hewn texture in the Milkmaid is worlds apart from the Italian mannerist flow of the draperies in the Saint Praxedes work.

    It might be possible to associate them if they were from different stages of the artist’s development, but the assigned dates are within a very few years of each other. I would think it much more plausible that the latter derived from dispersion from the Italian expatriates of the School of Fontainebleau than a Vermeer work. Indeed, the general pose of the saint is quite reminiscent of the downcast eyes and gestures of the figures in the Adoration cartoon by Leonardo da Vinci, the originator of the School of Fontainebleau in France.

    On the Allegory, I am prepared to believe that Vermeer is indeed linking the gesture to the breast with the chalice toward which the figure of Faith appears to be leaning. It is not mentioned that the blood theme of this commentary is continued on the floor, with blood spurting out of the snake in a rather ambiguous iconography.

    But there is no comment on the actual triple finger gesture, which can be found in numerous depictions of Mary by a wide range of artists over the centuries. Has anyone ever remarked on this association or proposed a decoding of the gesture? Is the arrangement into three ‘fingers’ indicative of three elements of the trinity? Does it represent the M initial for the name Mary (it is often also used in depictions of Mary Magdelene, for example)?

    Finally, if the arrangement of the hand and the chalice is significant, how much more significant must be the globe of the world emerging from the dress of the figure of Faith. It is strongly reminiscent of a woman giving birth, implying a theology of the origin of the world, in what is otherwise a rather undignified posture for a globe.

    1. Dear Christopher,

      I reacted the same way when Arthur Wheelock published St. Praxedis as a Vermeer in 1986. But I see no way to explain away the signature and date, which fit perfectly into Vermeer’s practice. It was only discovered when the painting was examined for an exhibition in New York, so you cannot say that it was put there to fool anyone. And what forger would take such an unlikely work to foist off as a Vermeer? If you accept this evidence at full value, then your other consideration has to be turned on itshead. Yes, it was possible for a 23-year-old artist to paint this copy, and at the age of 27 to paint the Kitchen Maid.

      Look at Schwartzlist 332 and at Wheelock’s article of 1986, “St. Praxedis: new light on the early career of Vermeer,” in Artibus et Historiae, available on JStor.

      Thanks for the comments on the Allegory, and questions about it that I wish I were able to answer. I didn’t mention the bloody snake on the floor because I was concentrating on blood in potable form.

      Be well,
      Gary

  3. I’m convinced and grateful to see some life coming into images that I would otherwise not look at twice (exception made for the maid). While we’re looking into details, however, I would ask how plausible is the angle at which she, the maid, is pouring milk into the bowl, since the pitcher does not seem to be filled to the brim?

  4. I remain very grateful to your book on Saenredam for many reasons, one of which is applicable here: the emphasis that you place on his links with Catholic clients – shown, for instance, by his insertion of an altarpiece and placement of the memorial statue of Masius in his painting of Saint John at ‘s-Hertogenbosch. For Vermeer the links as you note were much stronger, everyday experience. Household help hired by his wife and mother were presumably their co-religionists.
    The importance to “Dutchness” of “old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago,” and the commodification of national identies as “imagined communities,” shape perceptions today. It may be that the queasy derision expressed by writers you quote is an index of that conditioning. Many English writers have similar trouble with the plausible evidence of Shakespeare’s Catholic sympathies.

    1. I like that, Richard, “the commodification of national identities.” It’s indeed still very strong with regard to Dutch art and society. The image of Rembrandt too suffers badly. Sympathy for Jews fits the stereotype and is exaggerated, while sympathy for Catholics goes unmentioned. Yet Rembrandt painted a portrait of Titus in the habit of a Franciscan monk, and not in the talit of a yeshiva boy.

  5. I think that, given the results from the isotopic analysis of paint chips together with the analysis
    of his attribution of St. Praxedis to Vermeer given by Arthur Wheelock in the paper mentioned above,
    the burden of proof now should be on the skeptics to explain, in a convincing way, how this painting cannot be by Vermeer.

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