Hidden items found in Vermeer’s famed ‘Milkmaid’ painting

Researchers knew from x-rays carried out around a decade ago that there was something hidden below the layers of paint in the artwork.

Experts from Amsterdam‘s Rijksmuseum said Thursday they have found a hidden jug holder and basket in Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s famed painting “The Milkmaid” which he later painted over.

The “startling” discoveries in the 17th century masterpiece shed new light on the technique of the enigmatic artist, ahead of the largest ever exhibition of Vermeer’s work starting at the museum in 2023.

Advanced scanning technology revealed that beneath the plain white wall that makes the milkmaid’s bright yellow and blue clothes stand out, Vermeer had originally painted extra details before changing his mind.

The resulting simplicity paved the way for later masterpieces like his iconic “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, which will also form part of next year’s landmark Vermeer show, researchers said.

“This reveals a new unexpected Vermeer, it’s astonishing,” Gregor Weber, head of fine arts and at the Rijksmuseum, told a news conference.

Vermeer’s changes mean that the figure of the maid, seen in the painting pouring a stream of milk from an earthenware jug, “stands in front of us in a much more monumental way,” he said.

Researchers knew from x-rays carried out around a decade ago that there was something hidden below the layers of paint in the artwork, which is believed to date from 1657-8, but they weren’t sure what.

– ‘Too hectic’ –

One of the most significant new discoveries by the Rijksmuseum was that the artist had sketched out a wooden holder for jugs on the wall just behind the milkmaid’s head.

Experts previously thought it might be a fireplace, but a new technique called Short Wavelength Infrared Reflectance clearly showed the details of the jugs and the wooden frame.

The technique, usually used for industrial inspections and for military purposes, produces “false colour” images in blue, although in reality it was in black paint. 

Further research revealed that such a jug rack was mentioned in Vermeer’s estate after his death, while a model of a very similar holder can be seen in a 17th century dolls house in the Rijksmuseum.

“What we discovered with The Milkmaid is that she didn’t at first have a very beautiful white wall behind her. No, there was a rack hanging with jars in it,” Rijksmuseum General Director Taco Dibbits told AFP.

“One of the jars is now picked to make the milk pudding she’s making. So that’s one of the things that Vermeer then thought – ‘this will make a composition that is too hectic, I’m going to paint it over.'”

Another key finding was that the previously-noticed shadow of some kind of basket could now be seen to be a “fire basket”, woven from willow, which would typically be used to air clothes.

The basket was replaced by a much smaller foot stove complete with Delft blue tiles.

The researchers further discovered a “hastily applied” thick black line of paint underneath the milkmaid’s left arm showing that Vermeer had apparently made a swift initial sketch.

– ‘Less is more’ –

The uncovered sketches provide a crucial insight into the genius of Vermeer (1632-1675), since none of his drawings or studies remain.

Very little is known about Vermeer, who lived a life of modest means in the historic city of Delft during the Dutch “Golden Age” of painting.

The changes to “The Milkmaid” would be crucial for his later works, introducing a “motto of simplicity” involving blocks of colour and the use of light and shade.

“These steps had consequences for his whole work which will follow, he learned that less is more,” Weber said.

The Rijksmuseum has used similar techniques to uncover the creative process behind Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” and Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”.

“You would think that these iconic paintings have no secrets for us any more,” said Annelies van Loon, researcher from the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague. 

The exhibition running from 10 February to June 4 2023 will feature 27 of Vermeer’s small lifetime production of some 35 paintings, gathered from museums around the world.

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Dibbits said it was the “first and also the last time that so many Vermeer paintings could be gathered together”.

Tickets go on sale on the Rijksmuseum website on Thursday.