The Meta-paintings of Marianne Schuit?Meta-paintings.html

I know what Vermeer’s kitchen maid did last night!

Enigmatic Vermeer is not that enigmatic. He loved the ladies; that’s for sure. But not in the way a Casanova loved the ladies. Yes, there is temptation, there is sensuality, in his paintings. But it is not sexuality Vermeer was after in the first place. Even in his most explicit painting in this field, the early The procuress, the portrayed prostitute actually has nothing sexual about her. On the contrary, she may hold her hand up to receive a coin undoubtedly meant to pay her for certain services, this prostitute is of a serenity that takes her far away from the situation she seems lost in. The other figures, the procuress, the customer and the smiling young man supposed to be the young Vermeer himself, are finding themselves in the situation, each in his very own right. The prostitute, being serene as the mother of Jesus herself – despite the lively blushes on her cheeks, thanks to the very earthly wine… -, is mentally entirely transcended above her physical situation. Of the four figures in the painting she is the one shining brightly in her yellow jacket and white headscarf. The others are all more or less in the dark. In every which way this prostitute is above all that is taking place from the darkness surrounding her, including the grabbing hand of the gentleman, who is already taking advantage of the fact that his coin will offer him a certain amount of time in which he will enjoy certain carnal privileges. It is obvious: this prostitute is not at all the archetypal prostitute we might expect in a painting like this, if painted by anyone else but Vermeer. Now she is painted by Vermeer, her presence speaks of a fascination for women, for femininity, much more than of a fascination for the usual moral implications of what is happening in this kind of painting. Yes, the wicked face of the procuress tells a story of moral decay - probably because that would speak to his 17th century bourgeois audience.  But the whole of Vermeer’s heart is at the woman who, most unexpectedly in a situation like this, seems to incarnate mental purity in a situation that is drowned in worldly turbidity.

Vermeer was fascinated by femininity from a much broader perspective than male artists are usually interested in femininity. Except from his early Diana and her nymphs, no one of the many women he painted shows any of her flesh. Yes, there are voluptuous lips, because Vermeer is aware of this side of femininity too. But his fascination is aware of much more than only this side, which is so often almost the only side of the male interest in women.

Remarkably, his fascination for femininity culminates in the only painting of a woman from the lower classes he ever painted, The Kitchen Maid. This humble servant-of-the-house is, thanks to Vermeer’s sensitive observations, one of the most iconic women ever. Despite her humble task, she radiates a silent noblesse that – again.. – lifts her high above what she is actually doing. And still she is all flesh and blood. But then again, all flesh and blood dressed in the most beautifully coloured clothes one can imagine. The insanely beautiful blue overskirt makes us think of the impressive blue dresses medieval painters used to paint on the almost non-existing body of Mary. Coincidence? Merely a matter of aesthetics? I don’t think so. Mary, virgin of virgins, is more close to this young kitchen maid than many of us are maybe willing to admit. Others think this kitchen maid is Mary. Which is not the case. No, this is not Mary breaking the bread, being the body of her son. And yet, Vermeer had Mary in the front of his mind when he was painting The Kitchen Maid. Because this kitchen maid is contemplating on what has happened to her last night; she is contemplating on the fact that she has lost her virginity.

The tile on the wall, showing Cupid, the foot warmer on the floor, the wide open jug from which a most delicate stream of vital white fluid flows…, the signs couldn’t be more clear that this painting has a sexual meaning. But what sexual meaning? This kitchen maid is even more asexual than the prostitute in The procuress. But still… The blue overskirt already leads our thoughts to the virginity of Mary. But it is the windowpane with a hole in it that makes sure that there has to be no doubt about this painting being about defloration. The young woman has made the final step into adult femininity and in the silence of her domain contemplates on this.

Again Vermeer does not put this very sensitive subject in an obvious atmosphere. With utmost refinement he portrays this young woman in her awareness of the life-changing transition she has undergone. Is she worried about the consequences in a moral or just a material way? Looking at her serene face this seems not to be the case. She is merely aware of the meaning of what has happened to her. Losing your virginity in the days of Vermeer still counted for something. And probably even more so seen form the catholic perspective Vermeer had been forced to make his own to be able to marry his catholic wife. He must have been fully aware of the weight of the Immaculate Conception through which Mary received Jesus. And although the young woman he used as a model, might have come from a protestant background, the notion of virginity as a most meaningful state a young woman could find herself in, was of course widely spread in 17th century religious Holland, no matter one’s denomination.

A windowpane with a hole in it… Why would Vermeer damage a windowpane, if not to give the spectator a hint about what his painting is all about? Just couleur locale? Not in Vermeer. Vermeer was not only the painter of light, in the first place he was the painter of meaning, who painted incredibly subtle details, all rooted in the most refined awareness that spirited his paintings. And although the damaged windowpane may look not that subtle, now we recognize what it has to tell us, the fact that it took us more than 350 years to see this, tells a completely different story.

And, speaking of religion, what about the religious connotation of the two women mentioned above? Well, thinking of this, I guess there is a subtle line between them. Because, where the kitchen maid makes us think of the one end of the feminine sexual spectrum, Mary, virgin of virgins, the prostitute makes us think of the other end of this spectrum, Mary Magdalene, the whore who became a devoted follower of the son of the first Mary…

Women were a fascinating enigma to Vermeer, like they are to all men. But Vermeer is probably one of the very few men who really have tried to explore their enigmatic nature. And he belongs to the even fewer men who have succeeded in penetrating the enigmatic nature of women deep enough to be able to delicately catch parts of their nature in works of art that still enchant us.

©Mick van Schooneveld, Amsterdam, January 2014