New research reveals two objects, underpainting in Vermeer's The Milkmaid
A new study into the Johannes Vermeer painting The Milkmaid revealed two objects on the canvas - a jug holder and a fire basket, the Rijksmuseum announced on Thursday. The advanced research technologies also revealed that Vermeer used an underpainting for this masterpiece, shedding new light on the famous artist’s methods.
“So much work has already been done on this painting that we never anticipated something so definitive would surface thanks to modern technology,” Rijksmuseum director Tacco Dibbits said.
The research was carried out by a team of conservators, restorers, and scientists from the Rijksmuseum, collaborating with colleagues from the Mauritshuis in The Hague, in the run-up to a Vermeer exhibit in the Rijksmuseum next year. The researchers used Macro-XRF and RIS scanning technology that recently formed part of the restoration of Rembrandt's masterpiece, The Night Watch.
“These state-of-the-art technologies have revealed what is clearly an underpainting of The Milkmaid. This discovery sheds entirely new light on Vermeer’s method,” the Rijksmuseum said.
Underpainting is a technique that was used by many Dutch Golden Era painters where a draft of the artwork is first put on the canvas in brown tones or in black-and white. Then, it is covered with different layers of color which are more translucent to create a more lustrous look when the painting is completed.
Experts always assumed that Vermeer produced his works very slowly, always working with extreme precision. But this discovery revises that view. “A hastily applied thick line of black paint can be seen beneath the milkmaid’s left arm. This sketch clearly shows that Vermeer first quickly painted the scene in light and dark tones before developing the detail.”
The researchers also found similar preliminary sketches of a jug holder - a plank of wood with nobs attached used for hanging ceramic jugs by the handle - behind the milkmaid’s head and a fire basket at the lower right of the painting. A fire basket was a common household item for young families in the 17th century. According to the museum, a fire bowl containing glowing coals was put inside the basket to keep newborns warm and dry nappies.
The Rijksmuseum’s Vermeer exhibition next year will be the largest yet, featuring at least 27 of the artist's small oeuvre of about 35 paintings, loaned from the most prestigious museums in the world. The exhibition will include all three of the Vermeer paintings in the Frick Collection in New York, The Girl with a Pearl Earring from the Mauritshuis in The Hague, The Geographer from Stadel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, and Lady writing a Letter with her Maid from the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.
“The exhibition in 2023 offers the Rijksmuseum the perfect opportunity to explore Vermeer with the latest technological advancements available to us, bringing viewers ever closer to this most mysterious and beloved artist of all time,” Dibbits said.