Reconsidering Vermeer’s Perfectionism
What can we learn by examining Vermeer's paintings?
oil on canvas
painted surface: 39.7 x 35.5 cm (15 5/8 x 14 in.)
stretcher size: 42.5 x 38 cm (16 3/4 x 14 15/16 in.)
framed: 62.9 x 58.4 x 7.6 cm (24 3/4 x 23 x 3 in.)
Johannes Vermeer (artist) Dutch, 1632 - 1675
This image is in the public domain.
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The young woman standing before a table in a corner of a room gazes toward the balance she is holding gently in her right hand. As though waiting for the delicate modulations of the balance to come to rest, she stands transfixed in a moment of equilibrium. She is dressed in a blue morning jacket bordered with white fur; seen through the parting of her jacket are vivid stripes of yellow and orange, perhaps ribbons or part of her bodice. Her white cap falls loosely to either side of her neck, framing her pensive yet serene face. Diffused sunlight, entering through an open window before her, helps illuminate the scene. The light, warmed by the orange curtain, flows across the gray wall and catches the fingers of the woman’s right hand and the balance before resting on her upper figure.
Behind the woman looms a painting of the Last Judgment,
The author of this painting has remained an enigma. No exact prototype for this composition of the Last Judgment is known. It appears, however, to be the work of a late sixteenth-century mannerist painter, probably of Flemish origin. One distinct possibility, kindly suggested by Dr. Pieter J. J. van Thiel, is Jacob de Backer (c. 1555–c. 1585), a student of
The visual juxtaposition of the woman and the Last Judgment is reinforced by thematic parallels: to judge is to weigh. As Christ sits in majesty on the Day of Judgment, his gesture, with both arms raised, mirrors the opposing direction of the woman’s balance. His judgments are eternal; hers are temporal. Nevertheless, the woman’s pensive response to the balance suggests that her act of judgment, although different in consequence, is as conscientiously considered as that of the Christ behind her. What then is the thematic relationship between her act and the painting on the wall behind her?
This question has been asked time and again, and, indeed, the actual nature of her act and its significance have been variously interpreted. Most earlier interpretations of this painting focused on the act of weighing and were premised upon the assumption that the pans of the woman’s balance contain certain precious objects, generally identified as gold or pearls. Consequently, until recently the painting had been alternately described as the Goldweigher or the Girl Weighing Pearls.
A review of the diverse interpretations in the earlier literature on this painting is enlightening. It reinforces the notion that Vermeer often chose motifs and moments that have dual implications, ones which the protagonists, as well as the observer, must struggle to resolve. Théophile Thoré (William Bürger), to whom we owe so much for his enthusiasm and research of Vermeer, cataloged the painting as La Peseuse de perles in Théophile E. J. Thoré (William Bürger), “Van der Meer de Delft,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 21 (October–December 1866): 555–556, cat. 27. Although some confusion existed in his mind as to the objects she was weighing in her balance (“La main droite en l’air tient la balance soulevée; dans les plateaux sont des perles et des pièces d’or [?]”), he recognized immediately that a relationship existed between the painting behind the girl and her actions: “–Ah! tu pèses des bijoux? tu seras pesée et jugée à ton tour!” (Ah, you weigh jewelry? You too will be weighed and judged!). Cornelis Hofstede de Groot (A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century, trans. Edward G. Hawke, 8 vols. [London, 1907–1927], 1:586), on the other hand, described the painting as A Woman Weighing Gold: “In an interior a woman, wearing a dark blue velvet jacket trimmed with fur, stands weighing gold at a table with a blue cover.” Later, in “A Newly Discovered Picture by Vermeer of Delft,” Burlington Magazine 18 (December 1910): 134, Hofstede de Groot offered a somewhat more complex interpretation of the scene: “Her attention is concentrated on weighing gold, or possibly on testing the accuracy of her scales, for the purpose of weighing the pearls lying before her on the table; thus the picture is also mentioned by the title of A Woman Weighing Pearls.” Philip L. Hale, Vermeer (Boston and New York, 1937), 140–142, returned to this idea in his monograph on Vermeer. He cataloged the painting as “A Woman Weighing Gold sometimes called A Woman Weighing Pearls.” In his description of the painting he wrote: “Either weighing gold or testing the weights of her scale to weigh some pearls lying nearby, a lady stands close to an open window.” Perhaps the most extensive analysis of the symbolism of this painting was in Herbert Rudolph, “‘Vanitas.’ Die Bedeutung mittelalterlicher und humanistischer Bildinhalte in der niederländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts,” in Festschrift für Wilhelm Pinder zum sechzigsten Geburtstage (Leipzig, 1938), 405–412. He reemphasized the observation of Thoré (Bürger) on the thematic importance of paintings within paintings in the Dutch and Flemish traditions, extending back to Jan van Eyck and the Master of Flémalle. Rudolph saw the scene of the Last Judgment as a central clue to the hidden symbolism of this painting, which he entitled The Pearlweigher. To help interpret the symbolism he emphasized that pearls and mirrors often had vanitas connotations, ones that were strengthened in the context of a scene of the Last Judgment. Indeed, he saw the woman as a personification of Vanitas. Rudolph noted, however, that the scales that the woman was holding were empty. P. T. A. Swillens, Johannes Vermeer: Painter of Delft, 1632–1675 (Utrecht, 1950), 105, also called the painting Girl Weighing Pearls but did not emphasize the vanitas nature of the scene as explicitly as did Rudolph. He wrote: “She endeavours to adjust her small scales, and is concentrating on this matter. . . . The thought of ‘The Judgment’ compels her to adjust the balance to accuracy.” Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer (London, 1952), 135, offered yet another interpretation. Entitling the painting A Lady Weighing Gold, he wrote: “In this painting a connection between the lady, who seems to be weighing pearls against gold, and the painting that hangs on the wall behind her turns the incident into a fanciful allegory of the Last Judgment.” He then added: “she takes on something of the character of Saint Michael, the weigher of souls in the part of the Last Judgment which is hidden.” Albert P. de Mirimonde, “Les Sujets musicaux chez Vermeer de Delft,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 57 (January 1961): 29, wrote about the symbolism of this painting: Now, in the case of the pearl weigher, Vermeer became moralist. Behind the beautiful woman, he placed a large painting whose meaning is full of threats: a Last Judgement. Who knows if these beautiful necklaces from the East will not be weighing very heavily in the balance of the Archangel? [translated by Jennifer Henel, 01/23/2012, from the French: Or pour une fois, dans la peseuse de perles, Vermeer s’est fait moraliste. Derrière la jolie femme, il a placé un grand tableau dont la signification est pleine de menaces: un jugement dernier. Qui sait si ces colliers d’un si bel orient ne seront pas d’un poids bien lourd dans la balance de l’Archange?] Ludwig Goldscheider, Jan Vermeer: The Paintings (London, 1958), 38, searching for the symbolism of the painting wrote: “If pearls can be the embodiment of earthly, transient beauty, how are we to interpret the picture of the Last Judgment behind the Lady Weighing Pearls? Vermeer’s symbolism is not hard to understand.”
Microscopic examination, however, has revealed that the apparent objects in the scales are painted in a manner quite different from the representation of gold or pearls found elsewhere in this painting
Even so, the jewelry boxes, strands of pearls, and gold chain on the table must be considered in any assessment of this painting’s meaning. As riches they belong to, and are valued within, the temporal world. They have been interpreted in the past as temptations of material wealth and the woman as the personification of Vanitas.
This was proposed by Herbert Rudolph, “‘Vanitas.’ Die Bedeutung mittelalterlicher und humanistischer Bildinhalte in der niederländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts,” in Festschrift für Wilhelm Pinder zum sechzigsten Geburtstage (Leipzig, 1938), 409. Actually since Christian iconography treats the pearl, the most precious jewel, as a symbol of salvation, it would be unusual for it to have strong vanitas connotations. See George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (New York, 1959), 23.
Although the allegorical character of Woman Holding a Balance differs from the more genrelike focus of comparable paintings by Vermeer of the early to mid-1660s, the thematic concerns underlying this work are similar: one should lead a life of temperance and balanced judgment. Indeed, this message, with or without its explicit religious context, is found in paintings from all phases of Vermeer’s career and must represent his profound beliefs about the proper conduct of human life. The balance, the emblem of Justice and eventually of the final judgment, would seem to denote the woman’s responsibility to weigh and balance her own actions,
Cesare Ripa (Iconologia of Uytbeeldingen des verstands . . ., trans. Dirck Pietersz Pers [Amsterdam, 1644], 144, 432) describes how the balance is one of the attributes of equality, Vgvalita or Gelijckheyt (“Door de Weeghschaele wort verstaen de oprachte en waerachtige recht vacrdigheyt, die een ygelijck geeft, dat hem toebehoort”), and of Justice, Giustitia or Gerechtigheyt.
The mirror is frequently considered the attribute of Prudentia and Truth. For a discussion of the various connotations of the mirror in emblematic literature of the mid-seventeenth century, see G. Langemeyer et al., Gerard ter Borch: Zwolle 1617–Deventer 1681 (The Hague, 1974), 98.
Otto van Veen, Amorum emblemata (Antwerp, 1608), 182. The full verse is: Fortune is loues looking-glas
Eu’n as a perfect glasse doth represent the face,
Iust as it is in deed, not flattring it at all.
So fortune telleth by aduancement or by fall,
Th’euent that shall succeed, in loues luck-tryed case. For further discussions of Vermeer’s use of Amorum emblemata see Eddy de Jongh, Zinne-en Minnebeelden in de schilderkunst van de zeventiende eeuw (Amsterdam, 1967), 49–50.
The character of the scene conforms closely to Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s recommendations for meditation in his Spiritual Exercises, a devotional service with which Vermeer was undoubtedly familiar through his contacts with the Jesuits. As Cunnar has emphasized, Saint Ignatius urged that, prior to meditating, the practicer first examine his conscience and weigh his sins as though he were standing before God on Judgment Day, and then “weigh” his choices and choose a path of life that will allow him to be judged favorably in a “balanced” manner.
Eugene R. Cunnar, “The Viewer’s Share: Three Sectarian Readings of Vermeer’s Woman with a Balance,” Exemplaria 2 (1990): 518.
I must rather be like the equalized scales of a balance ready to follow the course which I feel is more for the glory and praise of God, our Lord, and the salvation of my soul.
Anthony Mottola, ed., The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (Garden City, NY, 1964), 85.
The many different interpretations of this painting that have appeared over the years, nevertheless, are a reminder of how cautious one must be in proposing a given meaning for this work. In addition to questions concerning the contents of the balance, there has been speculation as to whether the woman is pregnant or whether her costume reflects a style of dress in fashion during the early to mid-1660s, when this painting seems to have been executed.
As seen in numerous paintings by Vermeer’s contemporaries, Dutch fashions in the mid-seventeenth century seem to have encouraged a bulky silhouette. The short jacket the girl wears, called a pet en lair, covered a bodice and a thickly padded skirt. This fashion created the impression of a forward-thrusting stomach, which was evidently a desirable one. The opinion that she is not pregnant but wearing such a bulky outfit, which this author expressed in Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century (Washington, DC, 1995), is shared by Albert Blankert in Gilles Aillaud, Albert Blankert, and John Michael Montias, Vermeer (Paris, 1986), 181, and by Marieke de Winkel, “The Interpretation of Dress in Vermeer's Paintings,” in Vermeer Studies, ed. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker (Washington, DC, 1998), 327–339, particularly 330–332. Nevertheless, I now consider it probable that the woman is pregnant. This change of opinion is based in part on the woman’s posture and in part on the belief that the model is Vermeer’s wife, Catharina Bolnes. See Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675): Sainte Praxède—Saint Praxedis (Monaco, 1998), 28.
The theory that the woman is pregnant was first proffered by Richard Carstensen and Marielene Putscher, "Ein Bild von Vermeer in medizinhistorischen Sicht," Deutsches Ärzteblatt-Ärtzliche Mitteilungen 68 (December 1971): 1–6. The authors concluded that the woman, following an old folk tradition, was weighing pearls to help her divine the sex of the unborn child. Since then, many authors have accepted her pregnant state as fact, including John Walsh Jr., “Vermeer,” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 31 (Summer 1973): 79, and Ernst Günther Grimme, Jan Vermeer van Delft (Cologne, 1974), 54, who, as a consequence of the supposed pregnancy, identified the model as Vermeer’s wife, Catharina Bolnes, mother of his fifteen children. I identified the model, on a different basis, as Catharina Bolnes in Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675): Sainte Praxède—Saint Praxedis (Monaco, 1998), 28. Nanette Salomon, “Vermeer and the Balance of Destiny,” in Essays in Northern European Art Presented to Egbert Haverkamp Begemann on His Sixtieth Birthday, ed. Anne-Marie Logan (Doornspijk, 1983), suggested that a pregnant woman holding scales would have been interpreted as a Catholic response to disagreements about the moment a Christian soul obtains grace and salvation. Instead of the predetermined state of grace accepted by the followers of Arininius or one gained through the efficacy of good works as preached by Gomanus, a Catholic, Salomon argued, would have understood that the state of grace of the unborn child was as yet undetermined. This opinion was also accepted by Sutton, in Jane Iandola Watkins, Peter C. Sutton, and Christopher Brown, Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting (Philadelphia, 1984), 342–343.
Kimberley Jones, “Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance: A Secularized Vision of the Virgin Mary,” unpublished lecture delivered at the Mid-Atlantic Symposium, National Gallery of Art, 1989; Eugene R. Cunnar, “The Viewer’s Share: Three Sectarian Readings of Vermeer’s Woman with a Balance,” Exemplaria 2 (1990): 501–536.
Eugene R. Cunnar, “The Viewer’s Share: Three Sectarian Readings of Vermeer’s Woman with a Balance,” Exemplaria 2 (1990): 501–536, corrects a number of misconceptions about the theological arguments advanced by Salomon and focuses on the meditative character of the image. He then analyzes the ways in which a Catholic, a Protestant, and an Arminian viewer might have responded to this work in light of their beliefs. He also accepts as fact that the woman is pregnant and attempts to relate the image to biblical texts, specifically Genesis 3:15, by interpreting the support underneath the table as the vision of a dragon described by John in Revelation 12. While one may question the likelihood of this latter interpretation, Cunnar’s assessment of the various possible theological responses to the painting is particularly useful.
For an argument that Vermeer represented here “the divine truth of revealed religion,” see Ivan Gaskell, “Vermeer, Judgment and Truth,” Burlington Magazine 126 (September 1984): 558–561. To support his argument Gaskell refers to one of the personifications of Truth described by Cesare Ripa in the 1644 Dutch edition of the lconologia.
This painting offers one of the most glorious examples of Vermeer’s exquisite sense of balance and rhythm from the early to mid-1660s. The woman, her right hand gently holding the scale, is poised with her small finger extended, which gives a horizontal accent to the gesture. The left arm, gracefully resting on the edge of the table, closes the space around the balance and establishes an echo to the gentle arch of boxes, blue cloth, and sunlight sweeping down from the other side. The scales themselves, perfectly balanced but not symmetrical, are situated against the wall in a small niche of space created especially for them. Although no
An alteration made by the artist to an area that was already painted.
A photographic or digital image analysis method that visually records an object's ability to absorb or transmit x-rays. The differential absorption pattern is useful for examining an object's internal structure as well as for comparing the variation in pigment types.
Restoration performed in 1994 provides further insights into Vermeer’s extraordinary sensitivity to light and color
The painted surface now measures 39.7 × 35.5 cm (15 5/8 × 14 in.), whereas, prior to the 1994 restoration, the painting measured 42.5 × 38 cm (16 3/4 × 14 15/16 in.).
The degree of Vermeer’s sensitivity can best be illustrated by comparing this scene with a close counterpart by
See Picture Gallery Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Berlin: Catalogue of Paintings 13th–18th Century, trans. Linda B. Parshall, 2nd rev. ed. (Berlin-Dahlem, 1978), 212. The comparison of this painting with Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance is not new. For comparisons with slightly different emphases see Wilhelm von Bode, Die Meister der holländischen und vlämischen Malerschulen, 2nd ed. (Leipzig, 1919), 86–89, and Herbert Rudolph, “‘Vanitas.’ Die Bedeutung mittelalterlicher und humanistischer Bildinhalte in der niederländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts,” in Festschrift für Wilhelm Pinder zum sechzigsten Geburtstage (Leipzig, 1938), 405–412.
A possible source for such a motif is
The thematic complexities of Vermeer’s composition are also lacking in De Hooch’s work. De Hooch’s woman weighs her gold before a wall richly decorated with a gilded-leather wallcovering and a half-open door leading into a second room. Neither of these elements reinforces the thematic gesture of a woman with a balance as strongly as does the painting of Vermeer's Last Judgment.
Woman Holding a Balance has a distinguished provenance that can be traced in a virtually unbroken line back to the seventeenth century. The enthusiastic descriptions of the work in sales catalogues as well as in critics’ assessments attest to its extraordinary appeal to each and every generation. Perhaps the most fascinating early reference to this work comes from the first sale in which it appeared, the Dissius sale in Amsterdam of 1696. It is the first painting listed in that sale, which included twenty-one paintings by Vermeer, and is described in the following terms: “A young lady weighing gold, in a box by J. van der Meer of Delft, extraordinarily artful and vigorously painted.”
Albert Blankert, with contributions by Rob Ruurs and Willem van de Watering, Johannes Vermeer van Delft, 1632–1675 (Utrecht, 1975), 136, doc. 62. “Een Juffrouw die goud weegt in een kasje van J. van der Meer van Delft, extraordinaer konstig en kragtig geschildert.” It sold for fl 155, the third highest price in the sale. Nothing more is known of the box in which it sat, but at the very least it was a protective device designed to keep light and dust away from the painting’s delicate surface. In the 1683 inventory of goods accruing to Jacob Dissius after the death of his wife, Magdalena van Ruijven, three of Vermeer’s paintings are listed as being in boxes (kasies). See John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Millieu: A Web of Social History (Princeton, 1989), 359, doc. 417. Presumably one of these was Woman Holding a Balance.
The protective box in which Woman Holding a Balance was framed was probably related to the painting’s special thematic character. Much as with the boxes that
Wilhelm Martin, Gerard Dou (London, 1902), 145–147. See also: Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “The Framing of a Vermeer,” in Collected Opinions: Essays on Netherlandish Art in Honour of Alfred Bader, ed. Volker Manuth and Axel Rüger (London, 2004), 232–239.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “The Framing of a Vermeer,” in Collected Opinions: Essays on Netherlandish Art in Honour of Alfred Bader, ed. Volker Manuth and Axel Rüger (London, 2004), 232–239.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
August 30, 2017
Possibly Pieter Claesz van Ruijven [1624-1674], Delft; possibly by inheritance to his wife, Maria de Knuijt [d. 1681], Delft; possibly by inheritance to her daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven [1655-1682], Delft; possibly by inheritance to her husband, Jacobus Abrahamsz. Dissius [1653-1695], Delft; (his sale, Amsterdam, 16 May 1696, no. 1); Isaac Rooleeuw [c. 1650-1710], Amsterdam; (his bankruptcy sale, Amsterdam, 20 April 1701, no. 6); Paolo van Uchelen [c. 1641-1702], Amsterdam; by inheritance 1703 to his son, Paolo van Uchelen the Younger [1673-1754], Amsterdam; by inheritance to his daughter, Anna Gertruijda van Uchelen [1705-1766], Amsterdam; (her estate sale, B. Tideman, Amsterdam, 18 March 1767, no. 6); Kok. Nicolaas Nieuhoff [1733-1776], Amsterdam; (his estate sale, Arnoldus Dankmeyer, Amsterdam,14 April 1777 and days following, no. 116); Van den Bogaard. Maximilian I Joseph, King of Bavaria [1756-1825]; (his estate sale, Munich, 5 December 1826, no. 101, as by Gabriel Metsu); Louis Charles Victor de Riquet, duc de Caraman [1762-1839], Paris; (his sale, Salle Lebrun by Lacoste, Paris, 10-12 May 1830, no. 68). Casimir Pierre Péreir [1777-1832], Paris; his heirs; (his estate sale, Christie & Manson, London, 5 May 1848, no. 7); purchased by Péreir's son, probably Auguste C.V.L. Périer, later Casimir-Périer [1811-1876]; probably by inheritance to Auguste's daughter, Marie Thérèse Henriette Jeanne, comtesse de Ségur [1844-1916, née Périer]; purchased 1910 by (P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London); one-quarter share purchased October 1910 by (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); sold 11 January 1911 to Peter A. B. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; inheritance from Estate of Peter A. B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; gift 1942 to NGA.
The original support is a very fine, tightly woven fabric.
Average densities of 20.5 threads/cm horizontally and 16.5 threads/cm vertically were measured by the Thread Count Automation Project of Cornell University and Rice University (see report dated May 2010 in NGA conservation department files).
A moderately thick, warm buff ground is present overall, and extends onto the tacking margins.
For pigment analysis of the paint layers see Hermann Kühn, “A Study of the Pigments and the Grounds Used by Jan Vermeer,” in National Gallery of Art Report and Studies in the History of Art 2 (1968): 191–192. Kühn’s conclusion that the yellow of the curtain is Indian yellow is based on a sample taken from the overpaint near the edge of the painting. Subsequent pigment analysis of the ground was undertaken on June 26, 1974, by Robert L. Feller, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, and by the NGA scientific research department using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and X-ray powder diffraction and optical microscopy (see reports dated September 30, 1994, and October 12, 1994, in NGA conservation department files). See also Melanie Gifford, “Painting Light: Recent Observations on Vermeer's Technique,” in Vermeer Studies, ed. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker (Washington, 1998), 185–199.
For this practice in Vermeer’s paintings see Jørgen Wadum, “Vermeer in Perspective,” in Johannes Vermeer, ed. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. (New Haven and London, 1995), 66–79.
Small losses are found in the figure, small areas of abrasion in the dark passages. Discolored inpainting and varnish were removed in 1994. During this treatment, black overpaint covering the frame of the Last Judgment on the wall behind the woman was removed, revealing two vertical bands of yellow paint along the right side of the frame.
The paint and ground layers in this area were studied by the NGA scientific research department using cross-sections (see report dated July 11, 1994, in NGA conservation department files).
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Joanna Dunn based on conservation reports by David Bull, Melanie Gifford, Melissa Katz, and Kay Silberfeld
April 24, 2014