I’d be surprised if you could find anyone now employed as a milkmaid, someone whose primary task was to milk cows by hand. In many middle and upper class households, this extended to working with dairy products more generally, including making butter and cheese, and caring for the day’s milk. This weekend, in this and tomorrow’s articles, I’m showing a selection of paintings of this long-lost role.
Until the advent of the milking machine in the early twentieth century, milking of all domestic animals used as sources of milk could only be performed by hand. Prior to the Second World War, specialist dairy farms became more common, and this accelerated with the more widespread use of mechanical milking systems during the late 1940s.
The milkmaid’s life wasn’t an easy one. For much of the year, across Europe and North America she’d be up before dawn and out into the fields with first light. Most milking was performed not by bringing the animals into a dairy, but on location wherever they happened to be.
One great benefit of milking cows was exposure to cowpox, a mild viral illness which provided immunity against its mutilating and often deadly relative smallpox. In 1796, the British physician Edward Jenner made the association between the two diseases, leading to the introduction of vaccination using cowpox virus, and the eventual eradication of smallpox in 1980, long after the eradication of the milkmaids who had made it all possible.
Peter Paul Rubens shows a glimpse of milkmaids in two of the glorious landscapes he painted in retirement. In An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning from about 1636, there’s a small group of people on the grass in front of the house. A woman is seated, perhaps nursing an infant; next to her is another woman, and a man. Another man is fishing in the moat, from the bridge which connects its main entrance with the outside world. At the far right, a milkmaid walks out to a small herd of cows, marking the start of the day.
Painted a couple of years later, his Landscape with a Rainbow shows the countryside, and its people, at work. At the left, the harvest is in full swing, with haystacks being constructed. The wagoner passes by a couple of young milkmaids, one of whom is carrying a vessel on her head, and being propositioned by a man. Alongside them is a small herd of cows waiting to be milked.
The rise of specialist animal painters, and the popularity of genre works, during the Dutch Golden Age brought the milkmaid to the fore.
Paulus Potter’s Peasant Family with Animals (1646) shows a family with a curiously grotesque young daughter, their cottage, and some wizened trees. Among his extensive repertoire of farm animals are two cows, one of which is being milked.
Potter was reticent about showing his milkmaids, though. In his Cows Grazing at a Farm, painted in 1653, the year before his early death, the milkmaid is almost hidden by the cow’s hindquarters. These rich lighting effects might be more typical of Corot two hundred years later.
Potter’s successor Gerard ter Borch was prepared to put the milkmaid and her cow at the centre of this painting, A Maid Milking a Cow in a Barn from about 1652-54. As was universal at the time, the milk was collected in a wooden bucket which would have been scrubbed thoroughly before use, but fell far short of modern standards of hygiene.
David Teniers the Younger’s Barn Interior from about the same period shows the milkmaid pouring freshly collected milk into a large earthenware flask, through a muslin filter. This is taking place under the watchful eye of an older woman, probably the head of the domestic staff.
Adriaen van de Velde was, like Potter, another brilliant artist who died tragically young. His Farm with a Dead Tree (1658) must be one of the finest landscapes from the period, and features a coy milkmaid at work.
Van de Velde’s undated Milkmaid with Cow and Goats in Front of a Barn perhaps does more justice to the cow, which looks directly at the viewer, than the milkmaid, who faces away again.
By far the most famous painting of a milkmaid shows her not in her milking role, but managing the milk for the household. It is, of course, Jan Vermeer’s Milkmaid from around 1660.
A milkmaid is pouring milk from a jug, beside a tabletop with bread. In the left foreground the bread and pots rest on a folded Dutch octagonal table, covered with a mid-blue cloth. A wicker basket of bread is nearest the viewer, broken and smaller pieces of different types of bread behind and towards the woman, in the centre. Behind the bread is a dark blue studded mug with pewter lid, and just in front of the woman (to the right of the mug) a brown earthenware ‘Dutch oven’ pot into which the milk is being poured. An ultramarine blue cloth (matching the woman’s apron) rests at the edge of the table.
The woman, seen in three-quarter view, wears working dress: a stiff, white linen cap, a yellow jacket laced at the front, a brilliant ultramarine blue apron, and a dull red skirt underneath. Her right hand holds the handle of a brown earthenware pitcher, which she supports from below with her left hand. Her work sleeves are pushed up to lay both her weathered forearms bare to the elbow. Her strong-featured face and eyes are cast down, watching the milk as it runs into the pot.
The painting is light and simple, showing the servant peacefully preparing food in a well-lit corner of a kitchen. The bread on the table is finely textured with seeds, the glaze on the pots glistening in the light, contrasting with the smooth fabrics and flesh of the woman. The edges of her forearms are soft, suggesting movement.
One of the British artist Thomas Gainsborough’s last landscape paintings of Suffolk, before he went to Bath to make portraits of the rich and fashionable, is Landscape with Milkmaid (1754-6). Amid the subtle rhythms of its tree canopies and clouds is a milkmaid kneeling to milk a white cow.
Martin Drolling’s undated Little Milk-Girl from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century takes us out onto the street at night. This young milk seller has lifted the lid from the milkpot, ready to scoop some out with a ladle. Beside her the table has old potatoes which are sprouting, cabbage which has been eaten by pests, and carrots which are also well past their best. I shudder to think what state that milk is in.