Critical Assessments: Woman with a Pearl Necklace

Woman with a Pearl Necklace

c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas
55 x 45 cm. (21 5/8 x 17 3/4 in.)
Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
Jan Vermeer, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

Jan Vermeer
1981, p. 110

The Woman with a Pearl Necklace portrays a woman gazing into a mirror while holding two yellow ribbons that are attached to a pearl necklace she wears. Silhouetted against a white wall, she stands behind a table and chair in the corner of a sunlit room. Vermeer, in this painting, used the compositional format he followed in the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter and A Woman Holding a Balance, but gave it a more dynamic character. In each of the other paintings Vermeer concentrated on the inward thoughts of the woman and conceived of ways to present self-contained images. Likewise, in the Woman with a Pearl Necklace he minimized the apparent physical activity of the figure, portraying her at the moment she has the ribbons pulled taut. Her thoughts may be inward, but they are expressed through her gaze, which reaches across the white wall of the room to the mirror next to the window. The whole space between her and the side wall of the room thus becomes activated with her presence. It is a subtle yet daring composition, one that succeeds because of Vermeer's acute sensitivity to the placement of objects and to the importance of spaces between these objects.

X-rays of this painting (right), the Woman in Blue, and A Woman Holding a Balance present further evidence of Vermeer's attention to exact compositional arrangement. All of these paintings have damages along the edges, indicating that they were once attached to slightly smaller stretchers. This smaller format may have been the one Vermeer selected, for in each instance the composition at the reduced dimension is the more successful of the two possibilities. With each of these paintings subsequent restorers, noting that the painted composition extended over the edges of the stretcher, reenlarged the format to what they thought were its original dimensions.

Painter in His Studio, Painting a Musical Company, Jan Miense Molenaer Painter in His Studio, Painting a Musical Company
Jan Miense Molenaer
Oil on canvas, 86 x 127 cm.
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

This phenomenon is most striking in the Woman in Blue. In this painting severe paint losses have occurred across the bottom of the composition at the level of the chair seat. Vermeer may have recognized that his composition would be stronger if he eliminated the succession of small shapes created by the legs of the chair. He may have reached this decision after painting the Woman with a Pearl Necklace, where the bottom edge of the painting aligns with the seat of the chair.

Vermeer may have used the type of stretcher (below right) seen in a 1631 painting by Jan Miense Molenaer, The Artist's Studio, in which strong twine, strung between the linen and nails or holes in the stretcher, attached the linen to the frame. After completing his painting, Vermeer could then have selected the optimal format for his composition. He would have subsequently placed the linen on a conventional stretcher. In the process of reducing his composition, however, painted tacking margins would have remained.

Young Woman before a Mirror, Frans van Mieris
Young Woman before a Mirror

Frans van Mieris
Oil on panel, 30 x 23 cm.
Staatlice zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
radiograph of vermeer's Woman with a pearl Necklace
Woman with a Pearl Necklace (neutron autoradiography image)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas, 55 x 45 cm.
Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
A Painter in his Studio, Gerrit Dou
A Painter in his Studio (detail)
Gerrit Dou or his circle
Private collection
Vermeer, John Nash

John Nash

1999, pp. 101–102

The Woman with a pearl necklace, now in Berlin, is one of the largest of Vermeer's small, single-figure paintings, having a few centimeters more height than the National Gallery paintings, for example. It is probably the work listed in the 1696 inventory as "a young lady adorning herself, very beautiful." Yet despite this and its size it was priced at only 63 guilders, in contrast with the smaller but in many ways similar Woman holding a balance.

Even within the restricted range and constant repetitions of Vermeer's pictorial topography, these two most narrowly coincide. Only the Woman tuning a Lute, in the Metropolitan, New York, which is on the scale of the Woman with a pearl necklace, might be compared with them. All three show the window butted against the plain rear wall; the leading, where it is visible, is the clear version of the heraldic pattern seen in the other Berlin painting, the Glass of wine. All three have a similar heavy table placed against the window wall, slightly to the fore of the window. Two further similarities are shared by the Woman with a pearl necklace and Woman holding a balance: the carpet covering the table is rucked back to form an irregular range of ridges and valleys, at once exposing the bare table-top and obscuring the objects on it, and beside the window hangs a similar mirror. Oddly, perhaps, the mirror into which the woman with a pearl necklace is looking is smaller than that in the Woman holding a balance. In reproduction the two appear to make a pair not dissimilar to the two in the National Gallery, London. In reality, the difference in size means that they cannot have been intended as pendants in the strict sense. Nevertheless, as they both were, in all probability, bought directly from the artist by his patron, Van Ruijven, it may be that the second piece (whichever that might have been) was painted in the knowledge that the two works would remain in the one collection and be seen in a similar light.

Like the Woman holding a balance, the Woman with a pearl necklace recalls earlier images. Most similar is that of Superbia, the sin of pride.

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things
Hieronymus Bosch,
Oil on wood, 120 × 150 cm.
Museo del Prado, Madrid

In his table of the Seven Deadly Sins, now in the Prado (left), Hieronyrnous Bosch had exemplified Pride by a bourgeois woman admiring herself in a glass held up by a devil; and behind her is an open jewel box. The objects on the table in Vermeer's painting are obscured by shadow and their overlapping contours but, in addition to the large Chinese jar, they include a powder brush and comb. (However, the rectangle rising above the level of the table is not a jewel box, as in the Woman holding a balance, but, as the shadow on the wall reveals, the back of a chair.) In a closely allied image, many of Vermeer's contemporaries represented a young woman rising from her bed and dressing before a glass to evoke the traditional motif of the goddess of love, Venus, at her toilet. This could be equated with another sin, that of Luxuria or lust. Again, it could be a vanitas image, a reflection on the ephemerality of youthful beauty, the brevity of human life and the inevitability of death. But mirrors had many meanings in Netherlandish painting. They could reflect Truth, as it has been claimed far the mirror in the Woman holding a balance. It was for this reason that Prudence regards herself in a glass, to know herself more thoroughly. Sight, one of the five senses, also has a looking glass as one of her attributes.

At first sight, the Woman with a pearl necklace appears unlikely to exemplify Truth, Prudence or the sense of Sight. Truth should be naked or, at the very least, have a balance, too, as in the Washington painting. Prudence would have a serpent (is the unexplained shadow beneath the table of the Washington painting a serpent?) Sight would be accompanied by the sharp-eyed eagle or, more domestically, a cat. Faced by an image of a young woman adorning herself before a glass without further attributes, a contemporary would recognize the sins of Pride and Lust, or, responding to the beauty of this young woman, would reflect on the brevity of life and the vanity of worldly desires.

To see the painting in this light, however, is to miss its singular distinction. In the tradition of images of vice and folly, the sinner is heedlessly, or even vaingloriously, engaged in, committed to, vain pursuits. It is the viewer alone who stands pack and considers the consequences of those blind passions. But Vermeer's young woman stares at her own outward beauty visible to herself alone in the glass, and just as the glass reflects her face so, manifestly, she reflects on it. As in the Rijksmuseum Letter- reader and the Washington Woman holding a balance, here, too, a simple profile establishes for the viewer a sense both of intimacy and of distance, of individuality and universality. This most abstract of painters, concerned with the appearance of light reflected from surfaces, nevertheless leaves no room for doubt that the young woman appears as she does because.the rapid and deft movements with which she had placed the pearls around her throat, movements that reflected her innocent self-satisfaction, have been stilled as more profound and sobering reflections cross her mind. There can be no doubt, that is, if the viewer will contemplate this image as the young woman regards her own. It is an image that leads the mind from vanity to self-knowledge and truth through the sense of sight by physical and mental reflection.

Allegory of Justice and Vanity, Nicolas Tournier
Allegory of Justice and Vanity
Nicolas Tournier
104 x 84 cm.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford