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Geometries, harmonies, and proportions: How Vermeer’s The Milkmaid is far more than an image of a woman pouring milk

Senior Instructor Ryan Gauvin engages in projects ranging from small, intimate drawings to etchings. Many of Ryan’s works hang in group shows as well as in private homes. Ryan is currently working on a number of commissioned projects including portraits and landscapes.

An extremely important feature to be found in Vermeer’s greatest works — such as The Milkmaid — is a rigorously structured spatial organization and unity. Every element found within the canvas dimensions has a very specific and intentional relationship to every other element — being both aesthetic in nature as well as representational.

This peculiar feature of inter-relationship that binds everything we see helps to elevate the image passed that of an ordinary genre scene. In short The Milkmaid is far more than merely an image of a woman pouring milk.

The use of a geometrical framework to divide the canvas dimensions plays a crucial role in this. For the reason being that it binds the subject matter together in a structure that isn’t based on mere subjective whim, but rather, on the objective, timeless, and irrefutable certainties of mathematical law.

Such use of geometry in the service of expressive languages such as painting has its roots in Antiquity, and has been employed by certain artists and epochs ever since. A Greek sculpture, a Medieval cathedral, or a Renaissance fresco all derive much of their expressive power from the particular and very specific relationship of the said compositions parts in relation to each other and these parts collectively to the whole.

It was understood that the harmonies and proportions in mathematics could be applied to the study of nature, and that by finding the eternal patterns that underlie the seemingly transient and chaotic world normally experienced one would be brought into perfect accord with Divine Truth. Certain artists have ever since sought to employ these eternal patterns in their creations.

Now, it must be understood that in Vermeer’s case we are not dealing with anything resembling an esoteric or advanced use of geometry. He was by no means an artist/mathematician such as Piero della Francesca. Vermeer’s method, for example to establish linear perspective, can be said to have been quite crude. That being said what he achieved far outweighs the relatively simple means which he used.

Anyone — non-artist or artist alike — can easily subdivide a rectangle into its constituent sections, and there are many artists who use a grid, though not necessarily to advantage. For the reason being that a grid, like any other tool, will generate powerful effect only by the proportional strength and power of the imagination employing it. For if it is used in too obvious and artless a manner then it creates an intrusive artificiality which labours and therefore weakens a convincing illusion of authenticity. Rather, it must work in tandem with the representational and aesthetic components in such a way that all aspects are united and satisfied.

Only a truly great artist can do this.

A mathematician he was not, but Vermeer was unquestionably one of the greatest painters in history. He was certainly instinctively fascinated by pattern and the potentialities of pattern to yield great expressiveness.

Easily recognizable patterns and ratios affect us on a very fundamental level. For example the octave in music is a 1:2 ratio, a perfect 5th is a 2:3 ratio. Such ratios can be found in creations ranging from Chartres Cathedral to the late paintings of Van Gogh.

Even if we choose to omit for the moment any philosophical or religious motive in a work like the Milkmaid, the fact remains that a major part of its appeal comes from the specific use of measure and proportion to create a harmonious overall effect. And this instinctive predilection for perfect balance applied to Vermeer’s use of all aspects of pictorial design. Value, hue, chroma, focus, contour, shape, ideal and natural visualization, texture, optical distortion, all were delicately woven to create an effect that magically conjures Reality yet surpasses Reality, and elevates the image into a realm where finally analysis is rendered silent.