Spending an Hour with Vermeer’s Sleeping Maid

Is there anything more luxurious than slowly absorbing a sublime work of art?

How easily I forget this. When I visit a new art museum, I can get in a manic state. I don’t want to miss anything, so I am tempted to methodically make my way through every gallery. And by seeing everything, I see nothing.

So, when I gave myself three days to retreat in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I made a conscious effort to take my time with the artworks that called out to me. I wrote about three of those artworks here.

But one painting spun a web so strong that I got absolutely stuck in front of it. I was wandering slowly through the Met’s galleries when all of a sudden I came face to face with a very familiar image. Vermeer’s A Maid Asleep, a square-ish painting in a black and gold frame, of a sleeping woman leaning her elbow on a table.

A Maid Asleep, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vermeer

I spent the next hour absorbed in this painting. I put my nose in it, I gazed at it from the far end of the gallery, I sat on the bench in front of it. Time stood still, the other visitors disappeared, and I entered this woman’s world.

The maid’s pale face and rosy cheeks reminded me of Swabian sculptures I had seen in an exhibition at the Musée du Cluny in Paris. I squinted at the painting, and was overwhelmed with warm golds. There were mysterious parts of the canvas where not all was revealed; I couldn’t quite make out the physicality of the empty chair or the objects on the table.

A Maid Asleep, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vermeer

A Maid Asleep had been my desktop wallpaper during my senior year of university. At the time, my overworked self appreciated the drowsy woman’s napping skills. On this day, however, I was able to read the wall label, which suggested that the maid was actually daydreaming about her recent visit from a gentleman caller (as evidenced by the second glass on the table and a painting of cupid). I loved looking at this woman as someone who was digesting something good that had just happened to her, in warm golden light.

A Maid Asleep, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vermeer

The longer I looked, the more the materiality of the image began to pop out to me. It is so sensory, from the texture of the carpet-like tablecloth, to the leather of the chairs, to the wooden door with the metal hardware. The soft light is very present and physical, like afternoon sunlight that makes floating dust visible.

But what I remember most palpably from my hour with that sleeping maid is the stillness. Somehow a visual artwork communicated silence and peace. Her world’s tranquility became my own.

A Maid Asleep, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vermeer

This is an installment of this month's creativity theme of WOMEN. If you missed it, check out a description of the project here


The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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