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Critics have always noted that almost every compositional element in Vermeer’s works is determined with the utmost care in order to direct the spectator’s eye to the to points of thematic interest and create an indivisible expressive unit. The cascade of the black frame, the basket and brass marketing pail all lead the eye down towards the thematic center of the painting: the pouring milk. The basket, presumably, held bread, the lifeline of any Dutch family. Curiously, when Vermeer died he owed the considerable sum of 617 guilders to the baker and occasional painting client, Hendrick van Buyten.
This debt was probably not unusual for the time. After the painter’s untimely death, his widow, Catharina Bolnes, turned over two paintings as collateral, a rather generous gesture on the part of the baker. The wicker bread basket was hung high on the wall away from mice. The copper pail immediately below, called a marktemmer, had a long handle so it could be conformable slung of the shoulder when shopping at the outdoor market. Similar pails are seem in a number of Dutch interior paintings of the time although Vermeer’s is smaller and more finely decorated than most. In many Dutch homes one would have stumbled across a foot warmer or foot stove, a little wooden box with a perforated top and sometimes perforated sides. Inside these curious objects was a receptacle of pottery or metal filled with hot coals that served to keep one’s lower parts warm during the long, gelid Dutch winter, a necessity particularly in damp, poorly-heated houses with stone or brick floors.