The Milkmaid, by the celebrated Delft master Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675), is one of the most admired paintings in the world and an image especially beloved in The Netherlands. Already described as famous in 1719, the small canvas is now such a familiar symbol of Dutch culture that simply announcing its name to a native of the country—in Dutch (Het Melkmeisje) or even in English—will probably conjure up a clear mental picture of the composition as well as memories of a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or a particular day in school. There are paintings that could be said to offer a broader view of seventeenth-century Dutch society, such as Rembrandt's Night Watch (1642) or Syndics of the Cloth Guild (1662), since they represent the kinds of civic organizations that transformed The Netherlands into an independent republic and a business empire. But in The Milkmaid we discover Dutch self-reliance and well-being in an individual who appears to have her own thoughts and feelings but also evokes the hard-won peace and prosperity of the Golden Age.
Nearly half of Vermeer's surviving oeuvre was seen at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in the exhibition "Johannes Vermeer" of 1995–96. A similarly large but somewhat different selection of paintings by Vermeer was included, along with about 140 other works of art, in the Metropolitan's 2001 exhibition "Vermeer and the Delft School." The Milkmaid, however, has been to America only once before, when it was one of the "masterpieces of art" displayed at the New York World's Fair of 1939–40.
"Vermeer's Masterpiece The Milkmaid" is one of several events celebrating the anniversary of Hudson's voyage in 1609. In that respect the exhibition recalls the Museum's participation in the citywide Hudson-Fulton Celebration of 1909, when 149 seventeenth-century Dutch paintings (including five Vermeers) and a large display of American pictures and decorative arts were gathered from private collections and public institutions in this country. The essence of the current project, less ambitious perhaps but of very special import, is the gift of a loan, for nearly three months, of one precious Dutch picture, as a gesture of collegiality between two great museums and two great countries.