n a late summer trip to Amsterdam, I visited the newly renovated Rijksmuseum. After a few hours spent looking at paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, I wandered down to the gift shop, wanting to buy something for my two sons back at home. There, underneath a huge plastic Playmobil figure with a familiar shiny smile and clip-on hair, I saw shelves stacked with exclusive, co-branded Playmobil souvenirs—one set depicting Rembrandt’s 1642 oil painting “The Night Watch,” and another Vermeer’s 1657–1658 painting “The Milkmaid.”
In the “Night Watch” package, the seventeenth-century burgemeester Frans Banninck Cocq and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch, are rendered in three-inch plastic form. Cocq wears a black hat that may have been borrowed from Playmobil’s cowboy set, while van Ruytenburch wears one that might have been swiped from the swashbuckling pirate set.
I found the Vermeer “Milkmaid” package even more striking, in part because the kitchenware and bread on the table seem repurposed from the bakery set that I’d bought my children almost a decade ago. I’ve always loved the tiny, specific details of that bakery scenario: Not just bread, but several specific varieties, including miniature rye, wheat, sourdough, and baguettes; Not just pastries, but a bundt cake, croissants, cinnamon buns, and a sheet of berry tarts; Not just a bakery, but a primary-colored, minimalist Bäckerei, with big sunny windows and workers with white coats and little white “paper” hats—a bakery that a Europhile American like myself might believe actually exists in Stuttgart or Linz or Utrecht.
As I examined the Playmobil version of Vermeer’s “Milkmaid,” I realized how Vermeer’s popularity as a painter rests on the same sort of generic, domestic scenarios as Playmobil, with all those charming, joyful, bourgeois little details, the depiction of the everyday things of our lives. That’s why I love Vermeer. I’ve always found myself equally charmed by the sweet details of the Playmobil worlds: A-frame vacation homes with “wood” beams, tiny vehicles that resemble Smart Cars, jungle adventurers with five-o’clock shadows, skateboarders with baggy cargo pants, polar explorers with puffy winter coats and furry hoods, beach lifeguards with orange Snooki-style tans, flight attendants serving blue coffee mugs, Euro camper vans with sunroofs, a construction crew that comes complete with a case of beer and a porta-potty, a timber Alpine lodge with a lederhosen-clad innkeeper playing an accordion and pulling draft beers from the tap.
I bought both the “Night Watch” and the “Milkmaid” sets, and when I returned home I excitedly gave them to my boys, aged thirteen and ten. Both sons enjoy the occasional art museum, and we had a chuckle about the sets, but a few days later, they remained unopened.