A Maid Asleep

(Slapend meisje)
c. 1657
Oil on canvas
87.6 x 76.5 cm. (34 1/2 x 30 1/8 in.)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
there are 10 hotspots in the image below
A Maid Asleep, Johannes Vermeer

In A Girl Asleep, the Soldier and Laughing Girl and the Dresden Letter Reader Vermeer's matter is stated in a vocabulary not essentially different from that current among his contemporaries. In The Letter Reader the hands are modeled with almost painful attention to the known anatomical form; the same uneasy linear definition of these details appears in the Frick picture. Both reveal the painter with a manner which is the antithesis of that which he later developed.

Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer, 1952

Facsimile of signature of Johannes Vermeer's A Maid Asleep
singed at left, above the figure's head: I.VMeer: (VM in monogram)

A Maid Asleep (detail of signature), Johannes Vermeer

c. 1657
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. (Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997)

c. 1656-1657
Walter Liedtke (Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008)



Johannes Vermeer's A Maid Asleep with frame

  • (?) Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1674);
  • (?) his widow, Maria de Knuijt, Delft (d. 1681);
  • (?) their daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1682);
  • (?) her widower, Jacob Abrahamsz Dissius (d. 1695);
  • Dissius sale, Amsterdam, 16 May 1696, no. 8;
  • probably sale, Amsterdam (V. Posthumus), 19 December 1737, no. 47, sold to Carpi;
  • [probably J.B.P. Lebrun, Paris, in 1811];
  • Smeth van Alphen et al. sale, Paris (Lebrun), April 1811, no. 150, sold to Alexandre-Joseph Paillet, in 1811;
  • John Waterloo Wilson, Paris (after 1873-1881;
  • his sale, Paris, 13-16 March 1881, no. 116, to Sedelmeyer, Paris, 1881, sold 1881 to Rodolphe Kann, Paris (d. 1905); his estate, 1905-07;
  • sold to Duveen, London, 1907-08; sold 1908 to Benjamin Altman, New York (d. 1913);
  • since 1913 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Benjamin Altman (acc. no. 14.40.611).
  • London 28, April – 25 July, 1903
    Works by Early and Modern Painters of the Dutch School. Art Gallery of the Corporation of London.
    no. 188 (as "The Cook Asleep," lent by Monsieur X of Paris).
  • New York
    September – November 1909
    The Hudson-Fulton Celebration. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    no. 137 (as "A Girl Sleeping").
  • New York
    7 November, 1952 –7 September, 1953
    Art Treasures of the Metropolitan. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art Treasures of the Metropolitan
    no. 117.
  • New York 8 March – May 27, 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    no. 67.
  • New York
    September 18, 2007 – January 6, 2008
    The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    no catalogue.
  • New York September 9 – November 29, 2009
    Vermeer's Masterpiece 'The Milkmaid'. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    no. 6.
vermeer's life

Maria Thins, in the first draft of her testament, leaves to Vermeer's daughters jewels (wrings bracelets and gilded chains) and the sum of three hundred guilders to Vermeer and Catharina.

In the same testament Maria Thins wills to Vermeer's first child, Maria, 200 guilders. The child's name is an almost certain sign of good will that existed between Vermeer and his mother-in-law.

In Nov. 30 Vermeer and his wife were lent the sum of 200 guilders from Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, a wealthy Delft citizen and art collector who may have purchased in the following years more than twenty of Vermeer's works. This money may have been a kind of advance payment on the purchase of future works. Van Ruijven is now rightly considered Vermeer's patron. He was almost seven years older than Vermeer and seems to have had a personal relation with Vermeer that went outside the usual client/artist relationship.

Feb. the framemaker Anthony van der Wiel, who had married Vermeer's sister Gertruy, registered at the guild as an art dealer.

dutch painting

Frans Snyders, Flemish painter, dies.

Both Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer began to paint the genre interiors refining a regional type, lending it a more realistic qualities of space, light and atmosphere.

The Dortrecht landscape artist Aelbert Cuyp borrows warm light and hilly scenery from Italian examples.

european painting & architecture

Diego Velázquez paints Las Hilanderas (The Spinners)

The Corsini payed Guercino 300 ducats for the Flagellation of Christ painted in 1657. Guercino was remarkable for the extreme rapidity of his execution - he completed no fewer than 106 large altar-pieces for churches, and his other paintings amount to about 144. In 1626 he began his frescoes in the Duomo of Piacenza. Guercino continued to paint and teach up to the time of his death in 1666, amassing a notable fortune.

music Le Sieur Saunier: Vencyclopdie des beaux esprits, believed to be first reference book with "encyclopédie" in its title.


science & philosophy

A pendulum clock was designed by Christiaan Huygens and built by Solomon Coster.

Universal Mathematics (Mathesis Universalis) by John Wallis amplifies the English mathematician's system of notation, applying it to algebra, arithmetic, and geometry. Wallis will be credited with inventing and introducing the symbol for infinity; he has demonstrated the utility of exponents, notably negative and fractional exponents


Mar 23, France and England formed an alliance against Spain.

Jun 1, 1st Quakers arrived in New Amsterdam (NY).

A 4-year Dutch-Portuguese war begins over conflicting interests in Brazil, but Johan de Witt will end the hostilities with a peace advantageous to the Dutch.

Coffee advertisements at London claim that the beverage is a panacea for scurvy, gout, and other ills.

Public sale of tea begins at London as the East India Company undercuts Dutch prices.

The Flushing Remonstrance written to Nieuw Amsterdam's governor Peter Stuyvesant December 27 is probably the first declaration of religious tolerance by any group of ordinary citizens in America.

The first London chocolate shop opens to sell a drink known until now only to the nobility.

Before Vermeer settled on his now-famous interiors, he experimented with a number of motifs and styles. He painted two Biblical themes (one lost), two motifs drawn form Classical mythology (another lost work) and one "bordello" scene which belonged to popular genre in the 1620s and 1630s. After these tentative forays, he approached the "modern" mode which consisted in painting with the utmost fidelity a few, discreet figures set in well-to-do contemporary interiors, the first of which is the Maid Asleep.

Due to the variety of themes and techniques in these early works, Vermeer specialist Walter Liedtke posits that there exists no unequivocal sign of a single master's influence. "Indeed, if a newly discovered document revealed that in his mid- or late-teens Vermeer studied with any particular painter, it would not clarify much.

A stronger bond between master and pupil might have diminished the artist's ability to absorb ideas from diverse sources and to make intuitive connections between them. Perhaps these talents were nurtured by beginning as an apprentice but as an art dealer's son."

This painting is considered Vermeer's first surviving genre interior. Genre paintings depict scenes or events from everyday life. The term genre is French word meaning a "type" or "sort," and did not acquire its current art historical usage until the late 19th century. During the 17th century, genre paintings were occasionally referred to by the general term beeldeken—meaning "painting with little figures"—but were more commonly categorized according to their specific subject matter. Coortegardjes, for example, portray soldiers at rest or play, while conversaties feature fashionable young men and women eating, drinking and playing musical instruments together. In addition to these popular subjects, genre paintings also frequently depict taverns, kitchens, open-air markets, and festive occasions such as weddings, births, or holidays.

Opening page of Houwelijk, Jacob Cats

The opening page of Houwelijk
Jacob Cats

Many genre paintings drew on familiar sayings or illustrated books like Jacob Cats' immensely popular Houwelijk (On Marriage), which was first published in 1625 and sold, according to contemporary estimates, some 50,000 copies. It gave advice on the proper comportment of women from girlhood to widowhood and death.

Emblem books were another popular form of "wisdom literature" that advised on the proper conduct of all aspects of life, from love and childbearing to economic, social, and religious responsibility. These books encapsulated a concept with an illustration and pithy slogan, amplified by an accompanying poem.

A Maid Asleep (detail), Johannes Vermeer

In the mid-1650s, Vermeer joined contemporary genre painters like Gerrit ter Borch, Nicolaes Maes and Gabriel Metsu in depicting domestic interiors. He shared with these artists an interest in edifying or didactic themes supported by emblematic elements. To what extent Vermeer endowed A Maid Asleep with iconographic conventional wisdom remains a subject of conjecture.

Seymour Slive sought to explain the picture as a kind of warning against the excesses of drink pointing out the over-turned roemer and the half-full wineglass. Slive downplayed the importance of the Cupid which hangs above the girl's head. Madlyn Millner Kahr on the other hand saw the painting to symbolize disillusioned and disappointed love, hence the maids dejected posture.

Peter L. Donhauser, instead, saw key to the work in a small detail. At the center of the painting, the near edge of the open door is interrupted in what appears to be the ring of a key. Visual and literary sources of the period link keys with domestic responsibility, duty, and fidelity, implying the privilege of access and closely associated with housewives and housemaids. Keys also had a sexual connotation, alluding either to lustful behavior or to female virginity. The key was additionally used by Nicolaes Maes, Samuel von Hoogstraten, and Jan Steen as a metaphor for significance, a literal clavis interpretandi, intended to draw attention to a particular detail crucial to the understanding of a picture; and Vermeer could well have employed the motif in a similar manner.

The Idle Servant, Nicolaes Maes

The Idle Servant
Nicolaes Maes
Oil on oak, 70 x 53 cm.
National Gallery, London

In the early part of the 17th century, genre paintings tended to have clear allegorical content. Such works warned of the vanities of worldly pleasures, the dangers of vice, the perils of drink and smoke, the laxness of an old woman or a sloth of a maid. Genre painting served both to reflect and define ideals about the family, love, courtship, duty, and other aspects of life. By mid-century, most genre pictures had become less obviously didactic.

A key to understanding the girl's attitude was once founded on the catalogue description of the 1696 sale of the painting as "a drunken, sleeping maid at a table." In fact, on the table before her lies not one but two glasses and a wine jug. Originally, there were also some grape leaves to the left-hand side of the still life later eliminated by the artist. A small wine-glass stands almost empty within the girl's reach while an overturned glass at the near side of the table beside the white wine jug is a roemer of the kind used by men. Today, neither of them is immediately apparent. Perhaps the woman's glass was deliberately concealed but the overturned roemer has been obscured by overzealous cleaning.

However, this traditional interpretation has been challenged by Arthur Wheelock who concludes that the young girl's pose "does not indicate that she is asleep, nor does it appear to represent sloth in Maes' painting (The Idle Servant, the unmistakable model for Vermeer's composition). In this context, the girl's pose seems to refer to another iconographic tradition in which the figure rests its head on its hand: melancholia. Melancholia was an affliction widely associated in the 17th century with depression, self-absorbed reflection, artistic creativity and unhappy love affairs." For Wheelock, the motive of the young girl's distress is disclosed within the picture itself. The visible portion of the painting behind her, although small, is enough to identify it with a contemporary emblem which speaks of the serenity of love and the overcoming of deceit.

During the course of the painting process, Vermeer strongly revised his initial concept of the work which, as Arthur Wheelock put it, consisted in relating two isolated "vignettes."

X-radiographs demonstrate that Vermeer had more of a story to tell and had included a dog in the doorway which stared at a standing gentleman sporting a broad-rimmed hat in farthest reaches the back room. Furthermore, grape leaves lay over the fruit of the present-day still life and the chair in the foreground was eventually added to diminish visual access to the far room.

Vermeer also cut down the picture on all four sides thereby increasing the importance of the figure in respects to the environment. The numerous alterations reveals that the artist was willing to sacrifice narrative clarity in favor of a more poetic image allowing the viewer greater latitude in interpreting the scene. Moreover, by simplifying the composition, he enhanced the visual impact of the work by eliminating unessential, distracting elements.

Such compositional and iconographic revisions are an important characteristic of Vermeer's slow, meditative painting process. His incessant search for the most balanced and effective image possible finds few equals among European artists.

Ascribing precise iconographic meaning to a painting by Vermeer has often proved vexing, the Girl Asleep being a perfect example. In some cases even the social identity of the sitters themselves has been questioned. Although many critics have described the figure as a drunken maid, Arthur Wheelock believes that she may have been a mistress due to her refined dress. Consequentially, she does not represent a slothful maid but a young upper-class woman distraught by questions of love.

However, such an elegant dress does not necessarily rule out her being a maid. Overdressed maids had become a predicament in the Netherlands. An Amsterdam regulation of 1681 forbade household servants from wearing silk garments and jewelry like those donned by Vermeer's young woman. In popular literature, maids were often cast as a threat to the security of the home, the center of Dutch life. Maids were frequently the subject of contemporary plays and popular writing. As Simon Schama wrote, in the 17th-century maids were "indisputably regarded as the most dangerous women of all..."

The present picture has been the focus of numerous attempts at interpretation, but none of the proposed explanations have takes into account all of its feature.

Although the study of iconography (hidden symbolic meaning) as applied to 17th-century Dutch genre painting has been a subject which has engaged art scholars for a good part of the 20th century, there remain numerous unresolved questions. While it has become clear that many Dutch genre painters did purposely imbue their works with symbolic meaning not immediately apparent to the modern viewer, it is not known to what extent they did so. Another open question regards the sources which painters used to devise their symbols. Unfortunately, there exists no comparative text for genre painters to Cesare Ripa's Iconologia which constituted a virtual cook book of symbols which allowed history painters to convey abstract meanings such as "faith," "glory" or "virtue." Although it is clear that history painters used Ripa's interpretations liberally and sometimes not at all, many artistic compositions can be traced directly to him. In the case of genre painting, instead, it most likely that each painter invested his works with symbolic meaning according to this own likings or the expectations of his prospective clients picking and choosing from a common stock of popluar literature, emblem books and folk saying. For some clients, symbolic meanings may have been of secondary importance. For others, the right subject was an additional incentive, perhaps even a justification, for the work's purchase. Perhaps the simplest explanation of this lacuna is that everyone, including the lower class, already knew their meaning quite well. Thus, what was common knowledge in those times and had no reason to be written has become in our time a suggestive, but largely uncertain, science.

Vermeer's paintings have attracted a considerable share of interpretation but have resisted any definitive or consistent solution. It would appear that some paintings are laden with conventional symbolism (Allegory of Faith, Woman Holding a Balance and The Art of Painting) while other paintings seem devoid of anything but purely pictorial meaning. Some scholars have hypothesized that the artist took advantage of the contradictory nature of contemporary symbols to imbue his works with poetic depth rather than with overt didactic meaning leaving the meaning open to the spiritual necessities of different viewers.

View of an Interior, The Slippers, Samuel van Hoogstraten

View of an Interior, or The Slippers
Samuel van Hoogstraten
between 1654 and 1662
103 x 70 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Within the history of western art, the door stands for an image of both physical or metaphysical transformation. In Dutch genre painting of the mid-17th century, this visual fascination in the door appears to have reached its peak. Indeed, the interest of Dutch genre paintings appears almost obsessive.

As art historian Georgina Cole pointed out, "By the 1650s and 60s, doors—doorways, open doors, half-open doors, even closed doors—can be found in the paintings of each province and in the work of almost every known genre painter. They feature heavily in the interior paintings of artists such as Pieter Saenredam, Emmanuel de Witte, Nicolaes Maes, Jacob Ochtervelt, Pieter de Hooch, and Samuel Van Hoogstraten, opening out onto streets, courtyards, and other rooms." Vermeer is known to have painted at least three interiors with doorways.

Doorways create open gaps in interiors, defining outside and inside, heightening the viewer's sensation of an enclosed "insideness" into which one may enter or escape. Consequently, the space of the doorway takes on a character of "in-betweenness" and functions as a subliminal invitation to participate in the narrative which unfolds within the depicted image.

In the genre scenes of Jacob Ochtervelt and Nicolaes Maes, the doorway signified the boundary between two social worlds: the civic and the domestic. The doorway also divides buyer from seller. In one such work, The Milk Seller, seen from the street side of the domestic divide, an old woman carefully counts out coins into the hand of a brusque-looking mother on the doorstep, the Dutch two-part door. Ochtervelt created a number of doorways which show beggars who at the threshold of an open doorway solicit offerings to members (female) of a well-appointed bourgeoisie interior. Beggars and vendors are always kept outside the door, and their contact with the domestic interior through the doorway is strictly governed by the rules of economic transaction.

On the other hand, Vermeer and de Hooch employ the doorway inside the same interior to create a sense of spatial depth and emotional depth and as a boundary which divides the viewer of the painting and the figures who are being viewed. Both artists seemed to have drawn their models from the work of Samuel van Hoogstraten. Hoogstraten's pioneering use of illusionism, an important aspect of Dutch art practices can itself be seen as the definition of a space between the spectator's world and that of painter's representation of the world.

A Maid Asleep (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Critics generally agree that so-called pictures-within-pictures were meant to convey comment on the scene which takes place below. The interpretation of this picture has been particularly problematic. Lawrence Gowing supposed that the inclusion of the mask in the Cupid painting (the Cupid's left-hand foot can barely be made out) has illuminated the theme with a typical reference; sleep admits a fantasy of love.

If the fallen mask were to signify deceit, rather than being drunk, the young girl may be feigning sleep to her lover who is about to appear. In fact Vermeer had once painted a standing cavalier in the back room, seen through the door, but then painted it out.

Johannes Vermeer's A Maid Asleep in scale

music icon Nicolas Vallet (c. 1583-c.1642)
Slaep, soete slaep (Sleep, sweet sleep) [2MB]
Konrad Ragossnig, lute

Although it may not be apparent to modern museum-goers, most of Vermeer's interiors transport the viewer into situations which do not reflect the culture and social standings of the artist but more likely those of his rich Delft patron, Pieter van Ruijven. The Maid Asleep is considered the first painting to have been acquired by Van Ruijven.

Van Ruijven entertained great ambitions along with his wife, Maria de Knuijt, who was herself independently rich. In 1669, he paid an exorbitant sum to acquire land near Schiedam that brought with it the title of Lord of Spalant. He built himself a respectable art collection and through the years acquired at least 20 works by Vermeer (at least one third of the artist's estimated, but dispersed, output) and stipulated a conspicuous sum of 500 guilders to the artist in his will, an exceptional bequeath for the time. Since the works he collected evenly span the arc of Vermeer's activity, it seems that he acquired about one important work each year perhaps though a first-option agreement. Historians believe that Van Ruijven may have taken the lead from his relative Pieter Spiering Silvercroon who was a patron of Gerrit Dou, one of the best remunerated painters of the century.

Thus, in their symbiotic relationship Vermeer's art might have been considered a means by which Van Ruijven could not only cultivate his love of art but, like the great mecenas of the Italian Renaissance, raise his social rank and carve himself a place in history by associating his name with a great artist-to-be. Likewise, Vermeer's elaborate Art of Painting, whose central theme is the glory and fame brought by art, demonstrates that his artistic ambitions paralleled his patron's desires for social elevation.

Vermeer's relationship with Van Ruijven could have brought him other advantages. For example, in the Netherlands, where painters sold their works through myriad channels, from auctions and dealers' shops to fairs and lotteries, the most innovative and expensive art which Vermeer would have wanted to study was primarily accessible through private elite channels, channels which Van Ruijven could have opened.

To what point Vermeer tailored his works to Van Ruijven's expectations is unknown but a collaborative relationship would be neither surprising nor anomalous. What did Vermeer and Van Ruijven discuss? Most likely they conversed on art theory as well as the artistic developments in the Netherlands which had one of the most florid and innovative art markets of Europe. Obviously, Van Ruijven desired beautiful paintings but paintings that were important as well. The fact that Vermeer was able to concentrate his efforts on a few near-perfect paintings may be consequence of Van Ruijven's financial support and their shared vision of art.

While Vermeer must have been fully in charge of the aesthetic part of the painting perhaps Van Ruijven did not refrain from suggesting some moral concept that would have had a personal significance or a successful motif of another artist that appealed to his tastes. However, since Vermeer did not depict his own world it is could be that it was Van Ruijven who offered guidance to the painter or that Vermeer spontaneously found the Van Ruijven's patrician life style desirable to represent.

Lest our modernist sensibilities be offended by the notion of close collaboration between artist and client, we should remember that the overwhelming number of great European paintings were the direct fruit of commissions. The client furnished the work's subject (often indicating a specific textual source), dimensions, materials and even certain aspects of its composition. Essentially, it was the artist's task to bring to life the motif which reflected the cultural aspirations of the commissioner.