Johannes Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance
A Moment Captured
Light flows from a window, accentuating a hand, a sleeve, a face.
It washes across the wall, revealing a painting of the Last Judgment. It shimmers across gold and pearl jewelry.
In the center hangs a balance, empty but for the light itself.
Dressed in a blue fur-trimmed jacket, a woman stands alone before a table in the corner of a room. She holds the balance in her right hand and with lowered eyes waits for it to come to rest. A blue cloth, some open boxes, two strands of pearls, and a gold chain lie on the table. While the woman seems psychologically removed from us, her graceful figure and serene face suggest an inner peace.
She is oblivious to our presence. Her pensive stillness suggests she may be weighing something more profound than jewelry. In waiting for the balance to rest at equilibrium, she acknowledges the importance of judgment in assessing her own actions. Woman Holding a Balance captures that brief moment when a familiar action is lifted to the eternal.
The poetry of Vermeer's paintings is immediate and recognizable. In Vermeer's hands, the stillness of the scene, the woman's concentration on her task, and the soft light that gently illuminates the room become at once heightened and familiar. Through his sensitivity to light, color, and composition, Vermeer transforms seemingly ordinary subjects into expressions of perfect balance and harmony.
Woman Holding a Balance embodies a spiritual principle that is often manifest in Vermeer's work: the need to lead a balanced life. Though Vermeer's working methods remain a mystery, it is clear that he constructed this composition with extreme care. Orthogonal lines to the vanishing point meet precisely at the woman's finger. The frame behind her reinforces this focus.
The balance point of the scales is exactly at the center of the painting. The woman's hands, the jewelry, and the tabletop form the shape of a pyramid. This imaginary pyramid supports the woman's hand and encloses the balance.
Vermeer frequently modified the scale and even the shape of objects to achieve a desired effect. Note, for example, that the bottom edge of the frame around the Last Judgment scene is higher in front of the woman than behind her, to allow sufficient space for the balance.
The interplay of verticals and horizontals, of mass against void, and of light against dark creates a carefully balanced, but never static, composition. This underlying pictorial structure subtly reinforces the theme of spiritual moderation.
In 1994 conservators at the National Gallery cleaned the painting, removing discolored varnish from its surface. Their work revealed that at some point in the past, the painting had been extended by a half inch on all four sides. To restore it to its original size, conservators removed the added paint.
Also in the past, black and grayish paint had been added, particularly on the frame of The Last Judgment. After three month's work, golden yellow highlights that originally represented the frame's gilding were uncovered. The recently revealed gold trim on the frame creates an accent in the upper right that visually links with the yellow curtain and the yellow accents on the woman's costume, thereby restoring Vermeer's original, and more dynamic, compositional intent. Compare photographs of the work before and after treatment. The conservators completed their work by replacing the existing frame with one from the same period as the painting.
For those interested in a more detailed description of the treatment, extensive conservation notes are available below.
The original support is a fine, tightly woven fabric. When the painting was lined, the format was enlarged about one-half inch on all sides by opening out and flattening the tacking margins. The composition was extended by overpainting these unpainted edges. Regularly spaced tacking holes and losses in the ground layer along the folds of fabric bent over the original stretcher confirm that these smaller dimensions were the original format.
A moderately thick, warm buff ground is present overall, and a reddish brown underpaint is found under the blue jacket. Opaque, fluid paint of various densities is applied with fine brushstrokes, with the ground incorporated into the design in the woman's features and headcovering. Dense paint layers overlap with thin glazes to soften the contours. Some contours are softened by leaving a thin line of ground between two edges.
Thin, diffused glazes are overlaid with rounded, thick strokes to create specular highlights. No pentimenti are visible in the x-radiograph; infrared reflectography reveals a change in the position of the balance.
Small losses are found in the figure, small areas of abrasion in the dark passages. Discolored retouching and old varnish were removed in 1994. Black overpaint covering the frame of the Last Judgment on the wall behind the woman has been removed, revealing two vertical bands of yellow paint along the right side of the frame. Overpaint that had been applied along the opened-out tacking margins when the painting was restretched on a larger stretcher has been removed. The painted image, now smaller, reflects Vermeer's original intention.
 For pigment analysis of the paint layers see Kühn 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 26 June 1974 by Robert L. Feller, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, and by Melanie Gifford in June, 1994 (available in the Scientific Research department, NGA).
As with other elements in Woman Holding a Balance, Vermeer's technique reveals the utmost in skill and care.
In the 1660s Vermeer painted pearls in two layers: first a thin, diffused grayish glaze, followed by a thick stroke on top to create a specular highlight. Vermeer used a similar layering technique to paint the pearl earrings in A Lady Writing. He may have experimented with a camera obscura* to achieve these optical effects.
Other works by Vermeer also may have been enhanced by this forerunner of the modern camera. Although the camera obscura creates no lasting record, it intensifies colors and dramatically differentiates depth of field. It also produces optical effects not normally visible, such as diffused circular highlights caused by bright light reflecting off shiny surfaces. He may have recognized that the peculiarly soft quality of these unfocused highlights would beautifully represent the luminosity of pearls. Although its use in the creation of Woman with a Balance has not been confirmed, there are specific passages in Girl with the Red Hat, another Vermeer painting in the National Gallery's collection, that clearly suggest the artist's familiarity with this mechanical device. The diffused forms of the lion-head finials strongly resemble the unfocused foreground elements characteristic of a camera obscura image. In addition to emulating these optical effects, Vermeer often used highlighting creatively, to animate his painting's surface and to distinguish different depths of field.
* A camera obscura is an optical device used as a tool by many artists from the seventeenth century onward. It is the ancestor of modern cameras.
The apparatus consists of a small opening or lens on the side of a darkened tent or box. Light reflected from the subject passes through the opening and is projected onto a surface inside the chamber. The artists can then trace the image and use the drawing as a basis for a composition.
Infrared reflectography reveals that Vermeer changed the position and increased the size of the balance.
Infrared light is used by conservators in the examination of paintings. It is able to penetrate varnish and paint layers and can reveal underdrawings and compositional changes that lie beneath a painting's surface.
Infrared has a spectral range beyond that of visible light. Infrared images can be photographed (an infrared photograph) or recorded with a specially adapted video camera (an infrared reflectogram)
Vermeer maintained extraordinary control over his paints, working effectively with both dense impastos and thin glazes. The effect of soft light is achieved through subtle modulations in paint handling. Under high magnification, we can analyze how Vermeer represented light on different surfaces.
The face is painted with imperceptable brushstrokes and finely ground paint. (16x magnification)
Paint on the sleeve changes from thin to thick, as the highlights vary from soft to intense. (16 x magnification)
The texture of wool is achieved by dragging a layer of coarse orange paint over yellow paint,leaving an irregular edge. (64x magnification)
His sensitivity to color was equally remarkable. Vermeer used the best available pigments, such as natural ultramarine and lead-tin yellow, and fully understood the optical characteristics of color. For example, in the woman's costume he applied a thin blue layer of paint over a reddish-brown layer, infusing the cool blue tones with inner warmth.
Symbols and Meaning
Vermeer's Woman with a Balance contains multiple levels of meaning. Much of its significance depends upon the emotions and experiences of the viewer.
In Vermeer's painting, a frame on the wall contains a mirror. Mirrors in art often symbolize vanity or self-knowledge, as seen here in works by Annibale Carracci and Georges de La Tour.
Artists often use light to denote supernatural events and spiritual enlightenment, as seen in Titian's Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos and Sir Anthony van Dyck's The Virgin as Intercessor.
In The Last Judgment, Christ in majesty judges the souls below in this violent and fearsome final reckoning of mankind. The woman's head obscures the place where Saint Michael customarily would be weighing souls in the balance. The figure of Christ appears immediately above the woman's head, reinforcing the interpretation that her mundane act is intended to parallel the weighing of souls in The Last Judgment. While the day of judgment is violent and final, the woman seems serene and contemplative.
Vermeer's scenes of domestic life are infused with the moral seriousness of history painting. Even today, his subtle nuances compel viewers to meditate upon his meaning. Whether conveying the vanity of worldly possessions, or the need for moderation and restraint in life, Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance exemplifies the artist's ability to distill scenes to their essence and create perfectly balanced compositions that seem at once realistic and idealized.
Vermeer dealt in works of art and probably owned this painting of the Last Judgement. No exact prototype is known, but it appears to be the work of a late-sixteenth-century mannerist painter, probably of Flemish origin. A distinctive characteristic of this composition, often found in similar works by Jacob de Backer (Antwerp, 1540-1595), is that Christ sits in judgment with both of his arms raised.
The woman's serene expression and her blue robe recall images of the Virgin Mary. Her eyes are downcast, her gaze seems to be inward. Golden light falls on her ample belly, further emphasized by a yellow streak. Some contemporary authors speculate that the woman is pregnant, while others conclude that her costume--a short jacket, a bodice, and a thickly padded skirt--reflects a style of dress current in the early to mid-1660s.
The balance traditionally symbolizes justice--after all, to judge is to weigh. With nothing in its pans, it is not quite symmetrical, yet almost at equilibrium. In an exquisite passage of visual poetry, the woman's little finger echoes the horizontal arm of the balance and picture frame.
Scholars once thought that the balance contained gold or pearls; however, recent microscopic examination of the surface suggests that Vermeer did not paint these highlights with lead-tin yellow, the pigment he used elsewhere on this canvas to represent gold. While the reflections resemble the specular highlights on pearls, close study reveals that Vermeer used a different technique in this area of the painting -- the pan reflections are achieved with single layers of paint, whereas the pearls are painted in two layers. The fact that the pearls on the jewelry boxes and table are bound in strands further reinforces the conclusion that the scales are empty, since pearls most likely would have been weighed individually. For these reasons, Vermeer scholars now believe that the artist intended to depict the balance as empty, save for the diffused reflections of light from the window.
Symbolically, pearls have been associated with vanity and worldly concerns. Titian, for example, painted Venus' hair adorned with pearls. They can also represent purity, as seen in Lorenzo Lotto's painting of Saint Catherine.
This in-depth study was designed and produced by Donna Mann, Department of Education Publications, National Gallery of Art. Content has been adapted from the Vermeer Micro Gallery feature, the 1995 exhibition brochure and catalogue, the systematic catalogue Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., curator of northern baroque paintings, and other sources. The feature was edited by Ulrike Mills, Editors Office. Thanks to Arthur Wheelock, Quint Gregory, and Ana Maria Zavala in the Department of Northern Baroque paintings for their assistance with this project.
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Wheelock, Arthur K. Jr. Vermeer: the Complete Works. New York, 1997.