Johannes Vermeer — The Milkmaid (1657-8)

April 26: MousterWork #17

My Changes:

I love this painting so much (always have!) that there wasn’t much I wanted to change. The basket weave on the table was hard to deconstruct, so I simplified the weave (with the tradeoff that it’s less fun than the original). The tile images were also difficult to make out what was happening, so I turned them into sunflowers. And I decided I wanted a slightly brighter, warmer kitchen for this hard worker. I tried changing the wall to a gray-blue and gray-green, but ultimately decided to stick with Vermeer’s original color scheme so kitchen could feel cheery and so Vermeer’s distinctive blue would stand out.

Speaking of that blue, you will find a lot of it in Vermeer’s works. He showed a definite affinity to using ultramarine blue, which was made from crushed lapis lazuli. Lapis is found in semi-precious metamorphic stones and isn’t cheap! (I am well familiar with lapis, since my youngest once spoke of it frequently while relating his Minecraft mining adventures to us.)

Things I thought/Questions I asked:

I find it fascinating to think that we’re drinking milk and eating bread in 2021 like they did in 1650! But did it taste the same? Of course, their milk came directly from a cow, and they probably didn’t have options of drinking 1%, 2%, and 4%. Did they refrigerate it?

I love the wonderful variety of breads on the table. Unlike us, it’s likely they made all of it themselves. Some pieces on the table look a couple days old, but is some of it still warm and filling the room with a delicious smell? I can imagine enjoying the texture of the seeds that dot the breads. Which would you choose to eat? I would definitely dig into the large loaf in the basket!

How old is this girl? What kind of a family does she come from? Did she come to work willingly? Does she love anyone? What is she thinking? (It seems that this question is the mark of a great painting, as many ask that about the Mona Lisa and Girl with Pearl Earring.) How early does she rise to do her job? Did she milk the cows for the milk? What is she doing with the milk? Turning it into butter? Letting it separate for cream? Making it cheese? (These mice are hoping for that!) Does she serve this to the family she waits upon? Does she enjoy working here? Are the people she works for kind? Does she hum or sing? What does she dream about? Wish for? Do for fun?

What can she see outside that window? What time of day is this? What time of year? My guess that it’s a colder month and earlier in the morning. If you’re wondering (like me!) what the box on the floor is, it is a foot warmer (also seen in Rembrandt’s The Holy Family with Angels).

Look at all the questions I have from one picture!

What I noticed or learned from Vermeer’s techniques:

Vermeer noticed beauty in small, ordinary things. The milkmaid’s dress looks rough from a distance—and perhaps it is when compared to fine fashion of the day. But a close-up look at Vermeer’s treatment of it shows subtly beautiful color variations. Then when you look at the wall it’s plain, but there is beauty in the cracks and wall holes. And although the table is set with simple milk and bread, the inconsistent structure and grains dotting the outside gives them character and charm.

Perhaps it makes me old-fashioned, but I am also a huge fan of Vermeer’s realism. And I love his use of color—hence my reluctance to change it. I especially love the deep blue of her skirt, the greens on her sleeves, and the rusty red found on the pitcher and floor. And his lighting is wonderful!

Johannes Vermeer — Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665)

April 19: MousterWork #16

My Changes:

I wanted to do more than just copy this painting, and I needed some way of adding in two mice. My husband suggested the girl lost her earring and the mice were helping her find it, which led me to these rogue mice. (I considered adding black masks to the mice, but my husband and son felt it was unnecessary.) Because of my changes the girl’s earring didn’t stand out enough, so I made it blue to contrast with her orange dress. I had also intended to paint the background purple, but a little research revealed that the original background was probably a deep green. I decided to honor Vermeer with a closer-to-the-original background in mine.

Things I thought/Questions I asked:

I wanted to know more about this girl. What is she thinking? Who is her family? What does she do for fun? Who are her friends? Is she happy? What is her name? Unfortunately, I found nothing. In 2006 the Dutch voted this their most beautiful painting, and (like the Mona Lisa) she’s so mysterious that people have been speculating about her for years in books and movies.

I did learn that turbans were a popular fashion accessory at the time, inspired by Turkish/European wars. Because Vermeer painted her in exotic apparel, the painting is considered a tronie instead of a portrait. (But really, what’s the difference?)

What I noticed or learned from Vermeer’s techniques:

What I love most about this painting is Vermeer’s ability to make us wonder and care and want to know more about this girl. She feels so real, and her expression feels like a snapshot in time. This painting is quite simple—proving that things don’t need to be fancy to command attention. There’s something about her eyes and Vermeer’s use of color and light makes it impossible to look away.

Gabriel Metsu — The Sick Child (1663-4)

April 12: MousterWork #15

My Changes:

Though I kept in a lot from the original, I altered the color palette a touch (wanting it to feel happier and hopeful), threw in some dramatic lighting, added patterns on the clothing, changed the picture of Jesus (look closely: it may be familiar to you!), and included a map from Germany (close to the Netherlands, where this—again—takes place!).

Things I thought/Questions I asked:

I never knew about this amazing painting until selecting MousterWorks pieces. I love so much about it! I’m very much not a fan of sickness, but I’m touched by how Metsu transcends time and culture by capturing universal emotions. I know exactly how miserable that poor girl feels, and I can commiserate with her attentive mother! That grim, lowered face and bent over posture, the comforting, hopeful, almost clinging hands perfectly express the worry and love I’ve felt holding my own sick kids. I also love that Metsu captures the daughter’s slight attempt to smile, something my own boys did when they were younger (not so much now that they’re teenagers!). Other wonderful details further add to the story: I bet the little girl loved her satin bonnet—sewn by loving hands?—now strewn haphazardly, along with her mother’s (?) jacket on the chair; the bowl of soup, now forgotten and sitting to the side; the picture of Christ’s suffering on the wall.

In my research, Metsu painted this during a plague in Amsterdam that killed one in ten people. Although we are fortunate to have modern medicine and understanding in 2021, our current pandemic underlines some emphasis to the comradery of human suffering.

What I noticed or learned from Metsu’s techniques:

As mentioned earlier, I think Metsu masterfully expresses emotion and storytelling. You can feel the heaviness in that room through the postures and his color choices. His ability to draw the human figure is also impressive, and he put in extra effort with difficult angles (like the mother’s head tilt) to show exactly what he wanted. (It took me a long time to work out that head tilt, and even still it’s not quite there!)

Because of my admiration for this painting, I rendered it stlightly more realistically than I typically do. I adore how he painted the little girl’s eyes and worked hard to mimic them here.

Diego Velasquez — Portrait of Prince Felipe Prospero (1659)

April 5: MousterWork #14

My Changes:

Because many masterpieces during this time period had dark, warm, and similar color palettes I wanted to push the boundaries a bit. I opted to keep the prince’s attire its original color but complimented it with blues and greens around him. I also added in modern patterns to give it a makeover. If you look closely between my version and the original, you’ll also notice that I darkened and warmed up Prince Felipe’s skin a touch (to give a little more contrast between that and his pinafore), widened his face to feel more toddler-ish, enlarged the dog’s head, cropped it, and completely disregarded the background. (Though I was intrigued by what lay beyond this room, I couldn’t see enough to do it justice.) There were a few moments of panic while experimenting that I wasn’t sure it would work, but I am quite happy with the end result. (Copying each aspect of the original can often be easier because there’s less guesswork!)

Things I thought/Questions I asked:

There are a few artist repeats in my MousterWorks series, and this is one of them. Although Las Meninas was my favorite childhood painting, I also enjoyed this one. I think it resonated with me because it was a chance to see a real person—little, like me—who lived hundreds of years earlier than me. Even though this is a portrait, I feel that Velasquez was successful in adding in narrative through the inclusion of little details: the child-sized chair, the friendly dog, and the ornaments hanging like what I thought were toys on Prince Felipe’s clothing. It made me wonder what kind of toys children played with at this time. I later learned that these ornaments weren’t toys after all, but charms to ward off harm. Sadly, Prince Felipe struggled with health challenges throughout his life and died when he was only four.

In addition to these details, I love how Velasquez reveals Prince Felipe’s soul. I melted as I looked closely at the little right hand resting on the chair, tenderly emphasizing how small and young (and weak) this heir to the throne is. Not sure I captured it quite like Velasquez—I had to make the hands bigger so they wouldn’t look like claws—but I tried! His eyes also say so much, though I’m sure this 3-year-old wasn’t all that thrilled to stand for hours to have his portrait taken. I also fell in love with the dog. (Those eyes!) It made me glad that this sickly prince had a cute friend. After learning about his sad, short life it made sense why Velasquez made the color choices that I opted to change. And what choices would he have made had Prince Felipe been well? It made me glad I got to change history just a bit and give this poor soul a second life!

What I noticed or learned from Velasquez’s techniques:

As mentioned last week, it is clear that Velasquez saw people intuitively. Although he was a master of paint, value, anatomy, and likeness what I most appreciate is how he used these skills to reveal the soul and story of whomever he painted.

Missed my March MousterWorks? Find them here.

About Me

My name is Angela, and I love how Masterpieces make me think about people painted in time. Hopefully MousterWorks will get you thinking too!

All original images © Angela C. Hawkins


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