The Met: Celebrating Woman as Sexual Prey?

Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” is on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.




According to the New Yorker, the  Met curator of European art , Walter Liedtke focuses on the painting’s supposed erotic content.  Apparently milkmaids were  widely believed to be sexually available.  In fact, this theme is highlighted by Liedtke’s picking a more explicitly erotic accompanying picture.

So let’s think:  On looking at this picture, is your first thought of grabbing her and getting  your hand up her skirt?  Just as starters, of course.  And if so, given the precariousness of her ability to dissent, isn’t that sort of, well, bad?  Maybe seeing her as a sexual object, preserved through the centuries, kind of dispicable problematic?

Is this just feminist prudery?  Perhaps, but it seems reasonable to ask that when we are dealing  with supposed erotic art, and considering the social facts about how people were portrayed, that we have some awareness of how partial those perspectives were. 

The New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, appears aware of the questionable perspective involved in seeing the  picture as erotic.

28 thoughts on “The Met: Celebrating Woman as Sexual Prey?

  1. I can’t tell for sure which you’re criticising:
    (1) The idea that milkmaids are sexually available.
    (2) The making of a painting which is premised on this idea.
    (3) The enjoyment of a painting which is premised on this idea.
    (4) The act of reporting that this is what was going on in the painting.

    Well, clearly you’re criticising (1), but I can’t tell for sure where you stand on the others. If (3) is being criticised, I would think there’s a significant difference between the way the painting was enjoyed when it was viewed by people who held that milkmaid idea and the way it’s enjoyed today, given that most of us don’t have this view and I suspect most don’t see it as erotic.

  2. Goodness, I wasn’t clear at all. The answer is: none of the above. To put it more explicitly, I was objecting to was the invitation to experience the painting as (as something like) sexually titillating. (A cruder but perhaps clearer example might be this: the picture is of a young slave women on the selling block and the comment invites us to imagine “holding those breast in your hands”.) [added later for clarification:] The problem here is that the art critical perspective is limited to that of the possessor’s.

    Of course, now there seems to be the urgent question: Did the Met really do anything analogous? Unfortunately, the New Yorker review is not available on the web; it’s just for subscribers.

    Looking back at the review, I think it is pretty clear that the reviewer takes the presentation of the painting to raise the question of whether the painting is titillating. He says he does not find it such and takes Vermeer to have instead achieved a humane wisdom beyond his years. But it is actually less clear that the curator himself did take this view.

    Given that the curator does seem to have drawn uncritically on the idea that milkmaids were thought to be sexually available, it may be that the more restrained criticism is to see the Met at presenting the picture solely and uncritically in terms of “the male gaze.” BUT to do that is to treat art as the presentation of women as sexual objects. Which in part explains the reviewer’s contrast with achieving humane wisdom.

    And actually I guess that was my criticism: that we should have some critical distance from the deliverances of the male gaze.

  3. If milkmaids were widely believed to be sexually available, and this is referenced or alluded to in the painting (either through how she is represented, or simply in virtue of being the center of attention), then for me this only heightens its inspiring brilliance.

    Hitherto, what moved me about this painting (as with several other Vermeers) is the promise, hope, or assurance it seems to offer (through his compositional, chromatic, and perspectival choices) that the mundane and the otherwise unremarkably (if not, depending on your temperament, wretchedly) commonplace is the inescapable material, scaffolding or portal of the transcendent; and that, having participated in the movement from the commonplace to the transcendent promoted by the painting’s internal dynamics, one comes away somehow re-enchanted with the commonplace.

    That he may also have deployed the material of what we now consider to be a morally objectionable form of “sexual interestedness” for this wholesome purpose is, for me, renewed cause for celebrating the painting, Vermeer’s brilliance, and maybe even, in a perhaps disturbingly Nietzschean vein, life itself. (Disturbing, I think, because this might suggest that nothing is so bad, morally-abhorrent, or evil that it can’t become the material for aesthetic life-affirmation; and there are some things, we might feel, shouldn’t ever be capable of becoming such material.) Whoah, sorry to ramble on…

  4. Oh, by the way, Jon Jost’s meditative and mischievous film All the Vermeers in New York(1990), several key scenes of which were shot in the Met’s Vermeer room, may be worth mentioning, particulary in connection with “the male gaze.” It’s about a jaded stockbroker in the late-1980s who falls for a French student with a resemblance to a woman in a Vermeer painting. Though the film is apparently quite improvisational, Jost clearly inflected the narrative with Proust, particularly with famous depiction of Bergotte’s fatal visit to an art exhibit featuring View of Delft, which the student at one point reads. (There is also an exchange between the two on top of one of the Twin Towers that, for me at least, resonates somewhat eerily.)

  5. oh, lord, mulvey. her concept doesn’t work. i’m not trying to be rude and i realize the essay is a touchstone, but it should be dropped from the cannon. i find it so alarming that whenever the subject of looking + women comes up people nearly immediately default to “seeing” mulvey’s “male gaze” again and again.

    i’d suggest something by satre or lacan or joan copjec’s “Imagine There’s No Woman: Ethics And Sublimation.”

    on this whole subject of milk + women = erotic might i suggest that the potential eroticism of milkmaids stems from some connection to wet nurses? it was quite common to have children fed by “the help,” and i’m sure that included the (young?) milkmaid who, more often than not, had children of her own. i suppose that might give the painting a different sort of domestic-erotic slant, one that finds the labor the issue and not the look.

  6. Perhaps the missing text – the New Yorker review – is causing the issue…

    Nonetheless, I also question – quite frequently in long hours of writing/studying/sweating/asking myself why? why? why am i doing this? – the feminist binary of erotic = bad, wrong, devalued and without sexual/erotic = good, valued, male-free zone.

    I don’t assume when the information that “milkmaids were once stigmatized as a sexualized female other” within the domesticity of upper middle class culture – that is necessarily a negative piece of information to have. Especially as one who seeks to articulate that our rejection of our history as stigmatized domestic and public sexualized others profoundly affects our status as “legitimate” women. We are building on sand.

    Therefore, the curator suggests, the viewer should ask themselves was Vermeer attempting to create an erotic scene within domesticity? Where else does sexuality live, if not within the intimacy of the home? Women were of private domain. Even labor going public into factory and shop was seen as a public domestic act – women were simply following the miraculous evolution of industrialization as domestic duties were being turned into low paying, long hours, physically grueling jobs.

    Was this scene illicit – if this was such the deviant, subversive point of the artist? Why, yes it was – as too many woman have historically had to make difficult decisions to keep food in their families mouth. Yet, to pretend women don’t assert agency in the most exploitative circumstances is also ridiculous. If not, how did feminism come about? How did the changes in the labor laws for women and children emerge? Only by a bunch of middle class women of leisure getting their hands dirty? Ah, no. Middle class women are not the only active agents of history, despite what they say.

    Should we assume that milkmaids were all single and without children? No, that would only perpetuate a fallacy of the fantasy that the sexualized female domestic other was available and without ties. Fair game, as well like to call it in the business. Historically, women in low paying jobs have been a grab bag of demographics. Rhetorically, in the mouths of reformers and social critics, she has been much more narrowly defined – often against her will.

    So, when the erotic question comes before us in new contexts – i believe that it shouldn’t be rejected or dismissed as those men doing their stupid thing again – but as places of claiming our history and seeking ought new perspectives on our history. Otherwise, we are simply ranking worth within “their” hierarchy without really stopping to question how the value is allocated because the words “erotic” “sexualized” or “sex” came up again. How can this be the male domain when so many working women for so many centuries have had to learn how to navigate it for survival?

  7. I have a mechanically-reproduced “canvas” of this picture in my kitchen and it’s one of the Vermeer works that depicts a woman contemplating what she is doing.

    There’s this Milkmaid, pouring the milk, looking at it.

    There’s a woman sewing, looking at her work.

    These works exemplify how Vermeer depicted *utter tranquility* in the figure’s contemplation of her action.

  8. Let me go on record as resisting any identification of erotic with being bad. That’s not the point at all.

    The point rather is that there is, I think, a problem with taking the rumor that milk maids were sexually available uncritically as a starting point in an account of the picture.

    I suppose it is possible that the milk maids did happily invite a life with std, pregnancies by who knows whom, and very often early death. Holland at that time was quite religious and the religion was quite strict, but perhaps milk maids were not subject to the condemnation and social shame such religions often visited on unmarried mothers. But though that’s possible, it is also likely that they were simply thought fair game, and were in effect sexual prey. That’s a very different description, though the historical behavior might be the same.

    Another bit from the MET: the commentary, which I think is linked to above, mentions that the footwarmer is a sexual symbol, because they were used to warm not just the feet, but everything above. I.e., one’s genitals. Now it is true that many of us in our ordinary lives have had male acquaintances think that when we lean against a radiator we are actually getting nicely warn in preparation for sex. Sometimes it is said very overtly, in classrooms, on buses, etc. But it is a particular way of looking at a woman, and while it is perhaps smacked there in the picture, I find it very surprising that this is simply described without any indication of any awareness of what this means for the woman so viewed.

    And of course I say this from the perspective of someone who has always been able to tell the viewer to get lost. But this women is supposed apparently to think it’s all a lark??

    Of course, I am exaggerating…

  9. Let me try another tact: There are various ways the woman in the picture could be described, among them these:

    – this is the sort widely believed to be sexually available
    – this is the sort young men liked to pretend they could have sexually as they wished
    – this is the sort who was repeatedly raped and had all the miseries following, including condemnation.

    And there are many more. And I have to admit that for all I know, milkmaids did have a taste for the unsatisfactory encounters lustful young men are apt to visit on one. Or perhaps, mirabile dictu, those young men did actually go in for satisfying their partners with foreplay, etc. So maybe there was a lot of fun before the biological realities settled in.

    But a description of the first strikes me as very partial; I don’t think it’s how I’d like a girl to learn about the portrayal of women in Western art.

    I could easily imagine myself taking a young person aside and explaining that there probably was a real disconnect between the description and the historical reality. Perhaps that is how the artist saw it, but then his perception was kind of screwed up, so to speak. Maybe we can fully understand the painting by understanding the illusions of the artist about women, but still is the fact that they’re illusions not relevant at all?

  10. The exhibition book I have from the wonderful National Gallery exhibit of Vermeers, back in Nov. ’95-Feb. ’96, offers a considerably more demure interpretation than the one suggested by the Met ( “The image of Cupid on a Delft tile next to the foot warmer (see detail)—which can imply arousal of the fairer sex—would appear to intimate that the woman has feelings as well as obligations”):

    The footwarmer had emblematic associations with a lover’s desire for constancy and caring, ideas reinforced by the cupid images on the tiles directly behind it. Rather than being associated with romantic love, however, these elements here related to the maid’s human warmth and evident devotion to her task as she assiduously provides for the nourishment of others. […] The dignity of his milkmaid relates to contemporary images of virtuous women[…] A singular focus on a maid, however, is rare in Dutch painting; indeed, a milkmaid, alone and at work in the kitchen, is not a subject otherwise found in Dutch art. […]Vermeer’s figure has an iconic character that is unprecedented in Dutch art. (p. 110, ISBN: 0300065582)

    It goes on to note that the pose may be derived from a strikingly similar image in a c. 1645 painting of Queen Artemesia by Domenico Fiasella (1589-1669).

    A final point perhaps worth mentioning is that the horizon line is such that we are looking up at the milkmaid from below — a significant internal formal property of painting, along with the composition and lighting, which I think works against the “sexualizing” interpretation and for the “transcendent” one in which balance, harmony and steadfastness are the prevailing values exemplified and promoted.

  11. Thanks so much, Rob, that’s really interesting. The connections to other paintings are particularly striking. I hope I can find them on the internet.

  12. Accepting the reality of women’s history – and current existence – with the whore-stigma -and all that comes with it – and thus incorporating it into the feminist gaze doesn’t minimize, nor does it normalize, the brutality of patriarchy.

    I don’t minimize the history of the milkmaid by acknowledging, and putting into perspective, the sexualizing of her existence and the potential fallout (rape, std, foreplay) of that particular type of prejudice – anymore then I minimize my own history that has the markings of the same fallout (incest, rape, std, foreplay, casual prostitution, exotic dancing – in that order).

    My daughter knows the history of both – the male gaze and the feminist gaze. Knowledge is a very powerful thing. Denial of our history of the male gaze and its fallout is an injustice of education. Educating of male gaze without a third space for a woman to accept her agency within extreme circumstances to initiate change outside of rage and victimization is also an injustice.

    Again, is the MET curator correct in their attempt to sensational that painting steeped in 21st century “raunch culture” slang? No. Is a discussion of the potential implications of the milkmaid’s circumstances as an unjustly sexualized Other upon the contemporary viewers of the painting first showing important? Absolutely. Especially for young Western women.

  13. Actually, Schjeldahl is trying to raise some doubts about the extent to which the curator Liedtke emphasizes the erotic content of the image. Schjeldahl pokes fun at him once by saying that it seems the viewers of such paintings are always male. Then he says, “We have come a long way, lately, from a once de-rigueur prudery among art historians. We may go too far.”

    Incidentally, a propos of the Proust comment on View of Delft, Schjeldahl mentions that too and says that Proust got it wrong, that is, his description of the painting was wrong (“like the rest of us, Proust had a lousy memory.”)

    Interesting discussion. I suppose in some way the bottom line is, what do you do about paintings (or any other artworks) whose themes or subliminal messages you find unacceptable? Banish them? Then we’re back with Plato in the Republic, and I doubt many of us want to be there. These Vermeers, however interpreted, are nothing compared to the countless others by Titian, Goya, Velazquez, etc., celebrating rape, female vanity, etc. etc. If you don’t want to experience sexism in art you have to stay away from pretty much all of its history.

  14. Yeah, I had the damnedest time at the National Gallery exhibit trying to locate that “little patch of yellow” worth dying for. (In a way, though, the disappointment of not finding it, after having gone to some lengths in preparation, was eminently Proustian, a little lesson in the vanity of trying to meet in the world what is largely an artifact of the overzealous mind’s fancy.)

  15. Calypso, thanks for emphasizing the contrast between Schjeldahl and Liedtke; I thought I had contrasted them, but it may not have gotten into my words. It is good to clarify that.

    I just posted a link [in the above comment] to a Guardian article that says the sexualizing of Vermeer is regrettable Hollywood hype, the milkmaid was a long term servant and member of the household, etc.

    Could I just emphasize that it wasn’t at all the picture I had any problem with? It was the uncritical presentation of figure as someone widely rumored to be one of the sexually available. And it isn’t the even the truth of that statement, though the Guardian article does make one wonder. In addition, I objected to the invitation to uncritically regard the painting as erotic. I am less clear, I should say, how much of that was Liedtke and how much simply the critic’s take and/or my reading of his take.

  16. Well, suppose the milkmaid wasn’t meant to be viewed erotically. The problem still arises for many paintings in the history of art, where e.g. the Venus d’Urbino or Naked Maja were meant to be viewed erotically. Then what? In other words, these are straight-out erotic presentations of people’s mistresses, meant to be arousing. Does that make them bad morally, or bad artistically? Should one protest, avoid them, or slash them as a suffragette once did to the Rokeby Venus?

    Obviously, a big can of worms here…

  17. Girl with a Pearl Earring strikes me, in contrast to Milkmaid, as steeped in eroticism, whatever its moral valence may be, from beginning to end. I burst out laughing at Jenkins’ dismissal (“a mere turning of the head can draw the lips apart”). The gloss of the lips, and the touches of light Vermeer carefully applied at their corners, heighten their sensuousness and connect them to the luminosity of the earing and the eyes. The sensuousness, it seems to me, is a stably enticing feature and not one that is absorbed into a “loftier” engagement with the formal aspects of the painting. And then there’s the perplexing question of whether she’s in process of turning towards or away from the viewer. I can’t figure out, from the fall of the turban behind her back, which, if either, it is. Is she returning a gaze the viewer has already cast upon her, puncturing a bout of voyeurism, or is she initiating the contact? …Though maybe my presumptively erotic take simply betrays a fairly standard form of captivity to what Jenkins derides as “the modernist thesis”…

  18. Rob, I’m thinking of doing a poll on readers reactions by gender identification. Hmmm. Not for a minute to prove you right or wrong, but to see if there’s variation along that dimension.

  19. Yes, I have doubts that my reaction can claim to represent anything but perhaps a subset of hetero males, and among them perhaps no more than those of the recent Western history under which “the modernist thesis” arose.

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