In the first of these two articles showing a selection of paintings of milkmaids, I looked mainly at those from the Dutch Golden Age, and up to the late eighteenth century. In many of those – Vermeer’s being the major exception – the milkmaid was almost hidden from eye. This changed with the Enlightenment.
George Morland’s fascinating painting of St. James’s Park in central London, in 1788-90, shows a military family together in what was then quite rural, sufficiently so for a cow to be milked. It was common for cows to be milked on demand, here to provide drinks for the soldier’s family, and this park was well-known as one of London’s sources of fresh milk.
Just over a decade later, the American history painter Benjamin West painted a more general view of Milkmaids in St. James’s Park, Westminster Abbey beyond (c 1801). Two cows and attendant milkmaids are providing a supply of fresh milk for the crowds in the park.
In France, the rise of social realism ensured at last that milkmaids got the viewing that they deserved.
Jean-François Millet’s Woman Milking a Cow (1854-60) shows one of the secret army of milkmaids working on location as usual.
Sometimes, the milking of domestic animals has deeper meaning. When Eugène Delacroix was painting Ovid in exile among the Scythians of Tomis at the edge of the Roman Empire, he made visual reference to contemporary legend, that the Scythian people were so foreign as to live on mare’s milk. His first version from 1859 shows a local, stripped to the waist, milking a mare at the right.
That first version was criticised when exhibited at the Salon that year, and Delacroix’s final version from 1862 was better received, complete with the mare’s milkmaid.
With France lurching ever closer to war in 1867, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes painted a pair of allegories, one of which is Peace. This is a group dolce far niente which would later have passed for Aestheticism – men, women and children engaged in nothing more strenuous than milking a goat. Quite why this milkmaid is nude is more of a mystery.
Millet continued to paint the harsh reality of life on the farm. In his Norman Milkmaid at Gréville (1871), a grubby and exhausted young milkmaid is carrying a tatty old earthenware milkpot on her shoulder. Behind her the sky shows wonderfully fleeting light effects of dawn or dusk.
Winslow Homer’s watercolour of The Milk Maid from 1878 is far more romantic; he painted this before he lived in Cullercoats in England, though.
Alfred Roll’s full length portrait of Manda Lamétrie, Farmer from 1887 is a Naturalist depiction of a working woman farmer who has just milked the cow behind her. Although she’s a little too idealistically clean and tidy, it’s of historical interest in that her pail is modern and made from metal.
Some milkmaids had to be even more multi-skilled for their role. Albert Edelfelt’s Milkmaid from 1889 is rowing her way across a harbour to carry metal milk churns from shore supply to ships.
Gari Melchers’ painting In Holland from before 1891 shows a more common way of transporting pails of milk on a yoke borne on the shoulders.
Few paintings, even in the nineteenth century, provided much insight into the life of the milkmaid beyond their work.
Nikolai Astrup’s Fjøsfrieri (Early Courting) from 1904 is an exception, a complex and humorous painting showing an early phase in courting in the country. The young couple at the far left are engaged in ‘clothed courting’ in the unromantic surroundings of a cowshed, where she presumably works as a milkmaid. He has a bottle of drink in his pocket; whether that is to give him courage or to weaken the resistance of his girlfriend is unclear.
The couple have hidden themselves in the cowshed, out of everyone’s way, but the boyfriend appears unaware that they are being watched by someone from up in the rafters of the roof. From the apparent direction of gaze of the girlfriend, and the blush on her cheeks, she has just noticed the peeping tom (or watchful relative).
The setting is enhanced by the sunlight pouring through the far window, which illuminates two rows of the back-ends of cows. The wood floor between the cows appears decorated with small sketches, which are in fact piles of cow dung. Courting must have been a sensorily rich experience!
Astrup’s later Befring Mountain Farms (c 1924-28) is perhaps the most magical of all these paintings. Two people are engaged in milking a goat by the entrance to a building in the left foreground. The farm buildings have turf roofs with luxuriant growth, in one case sporting a small tree. Spindly birches stand next to them, their leaves shimmering in the light of the crescent moon.
That moon is reflected in a small pond which is surrounded by marsh marigolds in full flower. You can hear the silence among the massive rock bluffs which tower over the lake, and that in the centre looks like the head of an owl, watching over the stillness of the night.
I end with a slight twist: not a painting of a milkmaid, but a painting of a painting of a milkmaid.
Louis Béroud’s Copyists in the Louvre (1909) shows three works: the large painting in the centre is Watteau’s Embarkation for Cythera (1717); to the left is Greuze’s The Milkmaid (1780), and to the right his Broken Pitcher (1785).
And that’s now the closest that you’ll get to a traditional milkmaid, I’m afraid.