This is what I see when I wake up every morning. My framed poster of Vermeer's Milkmaid hangs on my bedroom wall, opposite the head of my bed. I know her so well by now. She watches the milk trickle from the jug with the devotion of a scientist pouring liquid into a test tube. It's so important that she pour exactly the right amount into the bowl, so that once she mixes it with exactly the right number of dry bread crusts, it will form a perfect pudding. She's a big-boned girl, and she moves slowly, but with surprising grace and delicacy. When she's done making the pudding, it will be time for her to sweep out the kitchen with broad, efficient strokes of the broom, and then head off briefly to the market to buy a duck for dinner. She takes pride in her work, and in her station in life. Her job is to take care of her employer's family, and she is going to do it as well as she knows how.
Simplicity. Concentration. Quiet strength. And that heavenly sunlight, falling across her like a blessing. Every time I have a chance to spend a few minutes with the Milkmaid, she breaks my heart with her beauty.
I've had this poster since I was a teenager. I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my brother one day, and to my surprise, he bought it for me. He was never what I would call observant, but he must have noticed how mesmerized I was by the painting.
Look at this girl. She wants you to. That's why she's wearing that huge, elaborate hat. She's looking back at you over her shoulder, trying to figure out who you are and what you think of her. Are you worthy enough to be studying her so boldly? Are you a possible suitor? Does the cut of your clothes satisfy her, or does she find you not quite up to her standards? It probably took her about two seconds to size you up - this girl is anything but a fool - but those two seconds in time have been frozen forever.
Look at the man of science. Don't worry about staring; you could be in the same room with him, and he wouldn't even notice you were there. His thoughts are flying free. He doesn't know what he's wearing; he doesn't know how dirty his hair is; he doesn't know the sun is shining. His gaze is fixed somewhere we can't see: on the universe itself. He hasn't eaten anything all day, and he won't remember to eat until, a few hours from now, the maid will knock timidly on the door and, blushing, beg him to come downstairs and have some soup.
No other painter has the kind of power over me that Vermeer does. He mixed his own paints, as did many painters of his day, but he must have added his own secret formula to his: it gave him the ability to display people's souls.