Woman Holding a Balance

(Vrouw met weegschaal)
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas
42.5 x 38 cm. (16 3/4 x 15 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
acc. no. 1942.9.97
there are 12 hotspots in the image below
Woman Holding a Balance, Johannes Vermeer Woman Holding a Balance, Johannes Vermeer

Woman with a Balance provides us not with a warning but with comfort and reassurance; it makes us feel not vanity of life but its preciousness. Against the violent baroque agitation of the painting behind her, the woman asserts a quite, imperturbable calm, the quintessence of Vermeer's vision.

Edward A. Snow, A Study of Vermeer, 1979

No signature appears on this work.

Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1664
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997

c. 1663–1664
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

c. 1664
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

The support is a fine, plain-weave linen with a thread count of 20 x 16 per cm². The original tacking edges are present. The canvas has been glue lined.

The ground is a warm buff color containing chalk, lead white, black and an earth pigment.

The layer structure of the paint is varied, creating different effects and textures, from thick impasto to thin glazes and scumbles. The edges of forms are rarely hard, but overlap only slightly or do not quite touch, allowing the ground to show through. Almost all areas were painted wet-in-wet. In selected areas of the painting, especially in the blue jacket, a dark, reddish-brown undermodeling is visible, particularly the shaded folds. A gray-green underpaint is found in many shadowed areas. The vanishing point of the composition is visible as a small, white spot on the x-radiograph, to the left of the hand holding the balance. The balance was enlarged, as can be seen in the infrared reflectogram. The ground and paint are in a good state of preservation.

*Johannes Vermeer (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis - Washington and The Hague, 1995, edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.)


Johannes Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance, 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. 1;
  • Isaac Rooleeuw, Amsterdam (1696–1701); Rooleeuw sale, Amsterdam 20 April, 1701, no. 6;
  • Paulo van Uchelen, Amsterdam (1701–d.1702);
  • Paulo van Uchelen the Younger; Amsterdam (1703–1754);
  • Anna Gertruijda van Uchelen, Amsterdam (1754–d.1766);
  • Van Uchelen sale, Amsterdam, 18 March, 1767, no. 6, to Kok;
  • Nicolaas Nieuhoff sale, Amsterdam, 14 April, 1777, no. 116, to Van den Boogaerd;
  • Trochel et al. sale, Amsterdam, 11 May, 1801, no. 48, to Van der Schley;
  • King Maximilian I Jozef, Nymphenburg (before 1825);
  • King of Bavaria sale, Munich, 5 December, 1826, no. 101 [as by Metsu], to Caraman;
  • Victor-Louis-Charles de Riquet, duc de Caraman, Paris (1826–1830);
  • Caraman sale, Paris, 10 May, 1830, no. 68;
  • Casimir Périer, Paris (1830–1832); Périer heirs, Paris (1832–1848);
  • Périer sale, London (Christie's), 5 May, 1848, no. 7, [bought in];
  • Auguste Casimir Victor Laurent Périer, Paris (1848–1876);
  • Jean Paul Pierre Casimir Périer, Paris (1876–1907);
  • comtesse de Ségur-Périer, Paris (1907–1911);
  • [Colnaghi, London, and Knoedler, New York, 1911];
  • Peter A.B. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Philadelphia (1911–1915);
  • Joseph E. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Philadelphia (1915–d.1942);
  • since 1942 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Widener bequest (acc. no. 1942.9.97).
  • New York 1912
    Exhibition of Old Masters for the Benefit of The Artists' Funds and Artists' Aid Societies
    M. Knoedler & Co
    53, no. 49.
  • Detroit 1925
    A Loan Exhibition of Dutch Paintings
    Institute of Arts
    no. 33 and ill.
  • Chicago 1933
    A Century of Progress Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture
    Art Institute of Chicago
    13, no. 80, as "A Woman Weighing Gold," lent by Mr. Joseph Widener
  • Philadelphia 1984
    Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting
    Philadelphia Museum of Art
    342–343, no. 118 and ill.
  • Berlin 1984
    Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting
    Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz
    no. 118
  • London September 7–November 18, 1984
    Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting
    Royal Academy of Arts
    no. 118
  • Washington D.C. 1995–1996
    Dutch Cabinet Galleries
    National Gallery of Art
    no catalogue
  • Washington D.C November 12, 1995–February 11, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    National Gallery of Art
    140–145, no. 10 and ill.
  • The Hague March 1–June 2, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    140–145, no. 10 and ill.
  • Washington D.C May 17–August 9, 1998
    A Collector's Cabinet
    National Gallery of Art
    no. 61, fig. 14.
  • Washington D.C. November 24, 1999–February 6, 2000
    Johannes Vermeer: The Art of Painting
    National Gallery of Art
    brochure, fig. 9
  • Osaka April 4–July 2, 2000
    The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer
    Municipal Museum of Art
    182–185, no. 33 and ill.
  • New York March 8–May 27, 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    no. 73 and ill., as "Woman with a Balance"
  • London June 20–September 16, 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School
    National Gallery
    no. 73 and ill., as "Woman with a Balance"
  • Madrid February 19–May 18, 2003
    Vermeer y el interior holandés
    Museo Nacional del Prado
    172–173, no. 35 and ill.
  • Amsterdam March 11–June 1, 2009
    Woman Holding a Balance
    no catalogue
  • Munich March 17–June 19, 2011
    Vermeer in Munich: King Max I Joseph of Bavaria as a Collector of Old Masters
    Alte Pinakothek
    no. 1 and ill.
  • Detroit August 9–Labour Day (about), 2012
    "Woman Holding a Balance"
    Detroit Institue of Art
  • Paris February 20–May 22, 2017
    Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry
    Musée du Louvre
  • Dublin June 17–September 17, 2017
    Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry
    National Gallery of Ireland
  • Washington D.C. October 22, 2017–January 21, 2018
    Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry
    National Gallery of Art
Johannes Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance in scale
vermeer's life

Vermeer's income in the 1660s was probably higher than in the 1670s. In the1660s, sales of paintings and especially his mother-in-law's (Maria Thins) substantial financial contributions together probably ranged from 850 to 1,500 guilders a year. A mason earned about 500 guilders.

Vermeer is elected for the first time headsman of the Guild of Saint Luke in Delft at the age of 30 for a two year term. However, by this time many artists resident in Delft had left for the more prosperous Amsterdam and so his election may have had less significance than once believed. He was the youngest artist to become headmaster since the guild was organized in 1611.

Many of the luxury items seen in Vermeer's interiors such as the virginal seen in The Music Lesson were economically out of reach of the artist. They may have been lent to him by affluent men of culture or clients such as Diego Duarte, a rich Antwerp banker, in whose important art collection was cited "a young lady playing a clavecin, with accessories, by Vermeer." The virginal seen in Vermeer's Music Lesson was built by Johannes Ruckers. These rare instruments were sold at about 300 guiders, about half the cost of Gerrit Dou, a Frans van Mieris. An averge Dutch house might cost 1,000 guilders. In Delft, hese instruments were owned by the official town musician Scholl.

dutch painting

Pieter Saendredam (b. 1597) dies in Haarlem.

Despite its decline, Delft remained and important city of passage for artists passing from Haarlem, Utrecht and Amsterdam. It contained a number of fine art collections. Ferries parted many times a day to the nearby The Hague and Amsterdam was less than a days away on an inexpensive horse-towed barge.

european painting & architecture André Le Nôtre designs park and gardens of Versailles Louis XIV begins to build palace of Versailles; he makes Charles Lebrun his chief artistic adviser.
music Composer Henry Lawes dies at London October 21 at age 66.

science & philosophy

New Amsterdam colonist John Bowne is arrested for permitting Quakers to hold meetings in his Flushing house, completed last year at what will become 37–01 Bowne Street, Queens (see Mathematician-physicist-philosopher-theologian Blaise Pascal dies at the Jansenist Port-Royal monastery in Paris August 19 at age 39.

Publication of a world atlas in eleven parts by Joan Blaeu in Amsterdam.

Remonstrance, 1657). Bowne is convicted of having violated Governor Peter Stuyvesant's ban on Quaker assemblies. He is jailed and banished, but when he reaches Holland and appeals to the Dutch West India Company, it acquits him of all charges, frees him, and rebukes Governor Stuyvesant, thereby establishing the right to free practice of religious worship.

Blaise Pascal proposes the introduction of a public transport system in Paris. Coaches would travel along predetermined routes and take passengers for a small fee. The first coach goes into service during the following year.

Founding of the Academia Leopoldina in Vienna

The Royal Society receives charter from Charles II.

Holland and France form an alliance against possible attack by England.

vermeer's life

In the early and mid-1660s Vermeer paints a series of extraordinary pictures of single women in the corner of a room absorbed in their activity. Even their most striking passages of observation are always subordinated to the impression made by the whole composition.

A French diplomat and art connoisseur Balthasar de Monconys visits Vermeer in Delft. In his diary he notes that he was unable to see any paintings there and had to visit the house of a baker where he saw a painting with a single figure.

De Monconys comes initially as a tourist, evidently unaware of Vermeer's presence. A few weeks later, he went to pay his respects in The Hague to Constantijn Huygens, an important art connoisseur and theorist of Dutch culture. De Monconys admired his art collection and described it in detail. However, one can only imagine how amazed Huygens must have been to hear that the Frenchman had been in Delft, without visiting Vermeer. It seems a reasonable assumption that Huygens urged de Monconys to meet with the Delft painter, given the Frenchman's predilection for fine art. Not long afterward, de Monconys did indeed visit with Vermeer at his house, and wrote the following account in his diary journal, which was published in 1665, the year of his death: "In Delft I saw the painter Verme(e)r who did not have any of his works: but we did see one at a baker's, for which six hundred livres had been paid, although it contained but a single figure, for which six pistoles would have been too high a price." Simply put, de Monconys thought the painting he saw was worth less than a tenth of the price mentioned.

c. 1663 a son named Johannes, named after himself, is born to Vermeer.

dutch painting

Rembrandt depicts himself as a bit player in his painting The Raising of the Cross.

Jan Steen paints The Drawing Lesson.

Pieter de Hooch: At the Linen Closet.

Adriaen van de Velde paints Cattle near a Building.

Pieter de Hooch, who had moved away from Delft to Amsterdam to seek more patronage, returns to Delft at least once in this year.

european painting & architecture

Bernini: Scala Regia, Vatican, Rome

Building of Castle Nymphenburg, near Munich.

Nicolas Poussin paints The Four Seasons.

France's minister of finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert appoints painter Charles Le Brun director of the Gobelins, which will grow under Le Brun's direction from a small tapestry manufactory into a vast enterprise that supplies all of the royal houses. The Academy of Painting and Sculpture is reorganized, with Le Brun as its director.


Mar 7, Tomaso Antonio Vitali, composer, is born.

Pascal: L'Equilibre des liqueurs (posth.)


The Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres (the Academy of the Humanities) is founded in Paris.

John Milton marries Elizabeth Minshull.

science & philosophy

Isaac Newton discovers the binomial theorem.

Physicist Otto von Guericke invents the first electric generator. It produces static electricity by applying friction against a revolving ball of sulfur, and Guericke will show in 1672 that the electricity can cause the surface of the sulfur ball to glow.


Dutch forces hold the best pepper ports of India's Malabar Coast, giving them a virtual stranglehold on the spice trade once controlled by Portugal.

A Third Navigation Act adopted by Parliament July 27 forbids English colonists to trade with other European countries. European goods bound for America must be unloaded at English ports and reshipped, even though English export duties and profits to middlemen may make prices prohibitive in America.

vermeer's life

In a death inventory of the English sculptor Jean Larson, who lived in the Hague, is listed "a head by Vermeer." Some critics believe it may have bee the Girl with a Pearl Earring.

In the early to mid-1660s Vermeer refined all the qualities of his mature style. In his orderly designs, Vermeer gave new life to familiar patterns of contemporary genre painting by closely studying the subtleties of appearance.

dutch painting

Pieter de Hooch paints Young Woman Weighing Gold

Jan Steen: paints The Christening Feast.

Frans Hals, one of the most fashionable portraitists of his time and now in his late sixties, paints two of his most significant group portraits, the Regents and Regentesses of the Old Men's Alshouse at Haarlem. Owing to his dire poverty he will be given a small allowance by the town of Haarlem.

european painting & architecture

Nicola Poussin paints Apollo and Daphne

John Vanbrugh, Eng. architect and dramatist, is born.

Christopher Wren: Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford.

Francisco de Zurbaran, Spanish painter, dies.


The French horn becomes an orchestral instrument.

Oratorio: Christmas Oratorio by Heinrich Schütz at Dresden.


William Shakespeare - the second impression of the Third Folio, which added seven plays to the thirty-six of the First Folio and the Second: Pericles, Prince of Tyre and six works from the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

Thomas Killigrew and the King's Company stage Killigrew's The Parson's Wedding with an all-female cast. Killigrew attempts a similar all-female production of his play Thomaso, though the project is never realized.

science & philosophy

Robert Hooke discovers the Great Red Spot (an extremely persistent storm) on Jupiter and uses it to determine the period of Jupiter's rotation, which is astonishingly less than ten hours despite Jupiter's great size.

Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, calculates the orbit of a comet and finds that it is a parabola (not a circle, ellipse, or line as expected in various earlier theories).

Descartes' Traité de l'homme et de la formation de foetus (treatise on man and the formation of the fetus), printed posthumously, describes animals as purely mechanical beings; that is, there is no "vital force" that makes animals different from other material objects.

Christiaan Huygens proposes that the length of a pendulum with a period of one second should be the standard unit for length.


Aug 29, Adriaen Pieck/Gerrit de Ferry patented a wooden firespout in Amsterdam.

New Amsterdam handed over by Peter Stuyvesant to the English, who renames the city New York

Amsterdam passes a regulation banning the sale of "rotten, spoiled, or defective spinach, cucumbers, and carrots, ears of corn, radishes, or other fruits [vegetables] because pride could not be taken in or from such things."

Slavery is introduced into the Caribbean island of Montserrat and will not be abolished until 1834.

The Black Death kills 24,000 in old Amsterdam while the English are taking Nieuw Amsterdam. The plague spreads to Brussels and throughout much of Flanders, and in December it kills two Frenchmen in London's Drury Lane. Men who put the dead into the deadcarts keep their pipes lit in the belief, now widespread, that tobacco smokers will somehow be spared.

Samuel Pepys buys forks for his household, but most Englishmen continue to eat with their fingers and will continue to do so until early in the next century lest they be considered effete or, in the opinion of some clergymen, even sacrilegious. A man going out to dinner has for centuries brought his own spoon and knife, the spoon being folded into the pocket and the knife carried in a scabbard attached to the belt; more men now carry folding forks as well.

The Kronenbourg Brewery founded in Alsace will continue into the 21st century to produce beer.

vermeer's life Pieter van Ruijven and his wife Maria Knuijt leave 500 guilders to Vermeer in their last will and testament. This kind of a bequest is very unusual and testifies a close relationship between Vermeer and Van Ruijven that went beyond the usual patron/painter one. It would seem that in his life-time the rich Delft burger had bought a sizable share of Vermeer's artistic output.
dutch painting

Rembrandt paints The Jewish Bride.

Adriaen van Ostade paints The Physician in His Study.

c. 1665 Gerrit Dou painted Woman at the Clavichord and a Self-Portrait in which he resembled Rembrandt.

european painting & architecture

Bernini finishes high altar, Saint Peter's, Rome (begun 1656).

Murillo: Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

Nicolas Poussin, French painter, dies. Known as the founder of French Classicism, he spent most of his career in Rome which he reached at age 30 in 1624. His Greco-Romanism work includes The Death of Chione and The Abduction of the Sabine Women.

Compagnie Saint-Gobain is founded by royal decree to make mirrors for France's Louis XIV. It will become Europe's largest glass-maker.

Francesco Borromini completes Rome's Church of San Andrea delle Fratte.


Molière: Don Giovanni.

Sep 22, Moliere's L'amour Medecin, premiered in Paris.


Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society begins publication.

science & philosophy

Giovanni Cassini determines rotations of Jupiter, Mars, and Venus.

Peter Chamberlen, court physician to Charles 11, invents midwifery forceps

Pierre de Fermat, French mathematician, dies. His equation xn + yn = zn is called Fermat's Last Theorem and remained unproven for many years. The history of its resolution and final proof by Andrew Wiles is told by Amir D. Aczel in his 1996 book Fermat's Last Theorem. Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh was published in 1997. In 1905 Paul Wolfskehl, a German mathematician, bequeathed a reward of 100,000 marks to whoever could find a proof to Fermat's "last theorem." It stumped mathematicians until 1993, when Andrew John Wiles made a breakthrough.

Francis Grimaldi: Physicomathesis de lumine (posth.) explains diffraction of light.

Isaac Newton experiments on gravitation; invents differential calculus.

Robert Hooke's Micrographia, with illustrations of objects viewed through a microscope, is published. The book greatly influences both scientists and educated laypeople. In it, Hooke describes cells (viewed in sections of cork) for the first time. Fundamentally, it is the first book dealing with observations through a microscope, comparing light to waves in water.

Mathematician Pierre de Fermat dies at Castres January 12 at age 63, having (with the late Blaise Pascal) founded the probability theory. His remains will be reburied in the family vault at Toulouse.


English naval forces defeat a Dutch fleet off Lowestoft June 3 as a Second Anglo-Dutch war begins, 11 years after the end of the first such war. General George Monck, 1st duke of Albemarle, commands the English fleet, Charles II bestows a knighthood on Irish-born pirate Robert Holmes, 42, and promotes him to acting rear admiral, giving him command of the new third-rate battleship Defiance, but the Dutch block the entrance to the Thames in October.

Feb 6, Anne Stuart, queen of England (1702–1714), is born.

At least 68,000 Londoners died of the plague in this year.

University of Kiel is founded.

The second war between England and the United Provinces breaks out. It will last until 1667 and devastate the art market.

Mar 11, A new legal code was approved for the Dutch and English towns, guaranteeing religious observances unhindered.

Nov 7, The London Gazette, the oldest surviving journal, is first published.

Ceylon becomes important trade centre for the VOC.

Details of WOman in Blue reading a Letter and Girlw Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Johannes Vermeer

Owing to the intimate nature of Vermeer's art, there has been an inclination to link the painter's family members to the figures of his paintings, some of which seemed to have posed more than once. The economic advantage of employing family members who would be willing to model long hours without pay is obvious. Some Vermeer scholars, including Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., believe that Vermeer's wife Catharina posed more than once and most likely as the model for the present picture. However, since there are no surviving images of her we can not make any comparison. The same woman, perhaps, also posed for the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (bottom left) and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (top left). Catharina was one year older than her husband.

This woman, who appears slightly girlish the earliest picture and pregnant in the other two, has the same high brow, straight nose and wide-spaced eyes. She is the most attractive of Vermeer's models, who cannot be described as conventional beauties. Their beauty derives from the way they are painted.

If we agree with the date generally asigned to the present work, c. 1664, Catharina would have been approximately 32 years old when she posed for the Woman Holding a Balance. After having lost a child in 1660, Catharina bore her first son Johannes, about three years later. In the years that followed, she must have spent most of her time pregnant since she gave Vermeer 15 children before the artist died in 1675. Eleven survived.

Although to modern viewers it seems obvious that the young woman is pregnant, there exist sound reasons to believe this it not the case. Marieke de Winkel, an expert of the history of costume, offers substantial evidence in regards in her essay, "The Interpretation of Dress in Vermeer's Paintings." According to De Winkel, pregnancy "was not a common subject in art and there are very few depictions of maternity wear. Even in religious paintings such as the Visitation, where depictions of pregnant women is required, the bodies of the Virgin and Saint Elizabeth were usually completely concealed by draperies." De Winkel further argues that "to my knowledge there are no examples of pregnant women in Dutch portraiture, an interesting fact considering that many women were painted in their first year of marriage, a time when they could have been with child."

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. also maintains that the young woman is not pregnant, but for a different reason. He observes that Dutch fashions of the mid-17th century seemed to have "encouraged a bulky silhouette. The impression of the short jacket worn over a thickly padded skirt in Vermeer's painting in particular may create just such an impression."

The Money Lender, Gerrit Dou

The Money Lender
Gerrit Dou
Oil on panel, 29 x 23 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

While generally accepted as an allegory, the Woman Holding a Balance has been interpreted in many ways. Early authors assumed that the pans of the woman's balance contained gold or pearls. Consequently, the painting was entitled as either the Gold-weigher or the Woman Weighing Pearls. In this light the Last Judgment was seen as a warning that the woman should not be distracted by weighing earthly goods, but focus on eternal values. Such an interpretation associates the woman with of the iconographic tradition of the goldweigher and its consequential Vanitas connotations (see left). In addition, some contemporary authors speculate that the woman is pregnant while others conclude that her costume reflects a style of dress current in the early to mid-1660s. Others interpret the painting theologically, viewing the woman as a secularized image of the Virgin Mary, who, standing before the Last Judgment, assumes the role of intercessor and compassionate mother.

One scholar argues that the image of a pregnant Virgin Mary would have been understood by a Catholic viewer as an anticipation of Christ's life, his sacrifice, and the eventual foundation of the Church. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. noted that the scales are in fact empty and thus, she is portrayed in the act of balancing rather than weighing. According to Wheelock, who correlates the mood of profound serenity of the picture with this fact, "the essential message is that one should conduct one's life with temperance and balanced judgment. Indeed this message, with or without its explicit religious context, appears in paintings from all phases of Vermeer's career and must, therefore, represent one of his fundamental beliefs. The balance, an emblem of Justice, and eventually of the final judgment; denotes the woman's responsibility to weigh and balance her own action."

Woman Holding a Balance (diagram), Johannes Vermeer

The Woman Holding a Balance is perhaps Vermeer's most successful composition. In no other work does the design so effectively compliment the theme and emotional setting of the painting. The pervasive yet unobtrusive geometry, the interplay of verticals and horizontals against the diagonals, mass against void, and light against dark, create a balanced but dynamic composition. The geometrical center (the point where the two white lines converge) of the painting falls very near the upheld hand of the young woman. Moreover, the vanishing point of the work's perspective system, which is derived by extending the orthogonal lines of the table, mirror and floor tiles (pink lines), falls very near the same point. Thus, the thematic (the act of balancing), geometric and the perspectival centers of the painting coincide, unifying its diverse realities. The composition of the Woman Holding a Balance is all the more admirable because it is achieved with such subtlety that it in no way interferes with a naturalistic reading of the painting.

Painting by Frans van Mieris in a wooden box

In the catalogue of the 1696 Amsterdam auction of 21 works by Vermeer describe the present work as "A young lady weighing gold, in a box." It has been suggested that the description intended a perspective box (erronously called a peep box or peepshow) similar to those surviving by Samuel van Hoogstraten and Carel Fabritius. However, these works display strongly distorted perspectives that allow them function as a part of the device's illusionist purpose. Instead, Vermeer's work shows no distortion at all. The box was mostly probably intended to shield the precious work from dust. One such box has been preserved with a painting by Vermeer's contemporary Frans van Mieris (detail above).

This work is certainly the first painting listed in the 1696 Amsterdam auction of 21 paintings by Vermeer: "A young lo weighing gold, in a box by J. van der Meer of Delft, extraordinarily artful and vigorously painted. "It sold for 155 guilders, slightly less than The Milkmaid, at 175 guilders. The two paintings were, and still are, considered among the finest works by the artist's hand. Even the monumental View of Delft, many times larger, fetched only 35 guilders more. The Woman Holding a Balanceis the only Vermeer that can be traced back to the 17th century in an almost unbroken line.

A Woman Drinking with Two Men (detail), Pieter de Hooch

A Woman Drinking with Two Men (detail)
Pieter de Hooch
c. 1658
7Oil on canvas, 3.7 x 64.6
National Gallery, London

Because it cannot be seen the wooden structure of the left-hand corner window represented in this painting cannot be linked with any other of Vermeer's interiors. Such windows were typically composed of four casements. The bottom two casements had shutters on the outside (see the detail of Vermeer's Little Street) and two upper shutters attached on the inside (see detail left). The shutters controlled incoming light and air flow. In Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance it seems that only the top shutters were left open. Presumably, the window faced north. Painters have always preferred a northern exposition for their studios since the cooler northern light is relatively constant throughout the working day. Dutch paintings of the time predominantly represent the left side of the room. The origin of this compositional formula may be linked to the fact that artists usually painted with the light source coming from their left, so that the shadow projected by their own hand did not disturb their work.

Woman Holding a Balance (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Vermeer's women are often associated with the pearls eleven of them wear. In 1908, the painter, poet and art critic Jan Veth articulated a widespread sentiment while observing Girl with a Pearl Earring: "More than with any other VERMEER one could say that it looks as if it were blended from the dust of crushed pearls." In the seventeenth-century pearls were probably an extremely important status symbol. In 1660 Samuel Pepys (an English diarist) paid 4 1/2 pounds for a pearl necklace, and in 1666 he paid 80 pounds for another, which at the time amounted to about 45 and 800 guilders respectively. At about the same time the traveling French art connoisseur Balthasar de Monconys who had been shown a single-figured painting by Vermeer was shocked it that it had been paid 600 guilders.

Johann Sebastian Bach
BWV 639, organ prelude to chorale Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, (I call to Thee Lord Jesus Christ) [3.91 MB]

Gold ducat

A Dutch silver ducat

Although the painting's earlier titles indicate that the woman is weighing pearls or gold, recent microscopic examination has shown that there is nothing on the pans of her scales. Thus, Vermeer has chosen to portray the moments when the scales comes to balance. The only things on the table that could be weighed are coins.

*Using the five coins as a starting point, historian Timothy Brook opened a window out of Vermeer's painting onto the globalization of the world. In the 17th century, coins were much softer than they are today and were also clipped by thieves. The real value of a coin was determined by the weight of its precious metal rather than its face value. Thus, a diligent household periodically weighed all its coins to establish their effective worth. Brook has conjectured that the large silver coin near the four gold coins is a ducat and not a guilder. There were various types of silver coins in circulation but the most common was the ducat. In Europe, two silver ducats were worth one gold ducat.

Vermeer lived in a time, also known as the silver century, when silver had become available in enormous quantities. All over the globe, business transactions were done in silver. Although the practical use of silver was confined to decorative purposes, silver had become the universal measure of wealth. Principal suppliers of silver were Japan and South America. The Chinese accumulated huge amounts of silver since they were not interested in making transactions with European goods but accepted silver pavements for the porcelain, silk clothing and other exotic goods they produced and had become the rage in Europe. Furthermore, in China, one unit of gold could be bought for six units of silver instead of the twelve in Europe.

Although there were some silver mines in Germany and Austria, the great bulk of silver which reached the ports of Amsterdam and London came from Spanish mines in Peru. Much of it came from the desolate boom town of Petosí. Founded in 1546 as a mining town, it soon produced fabulous wealth, becoming one of the largest cities in the Americas and the world with a population exceeding 200,000 people. In Spanish there is still a saying, valer un potosí, "to be worth a potosí" (that is, "a fortune").

* this information was drawn from Timothy Brook's Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (2009)

Midway in the 17th century, paintings had become so common in Dutch households that they became a subject matter themselves. These miniature replicas of real paintings are now referred to as pictures-within-pictures. In the last fifty years, this minor but quintessentially Dutch motif has been the object of intense scrutiny by the iconographic school of art history which assumes that interior painters purposely introduced pictures-within-pictures with symbolic meaning in order to influence the reception of the work as a whole. In regards to pictures-within-pictures in Vermeer's oeuvre, many of the interpretations have been contested. Amidst the dispute, however, little attention has been paid to how, in effect, Vermeer actually went about the more "mundane" chore of depicting them.

First of all, evidence suggests that Vermeer's pictures-within-pictures were copied from real works, which were either part of his mother-in-law's art collection or works of his colleagues in which the artist dealt in to provide supplementary income. For example, a large-scale Cupid, which appeared four times in his oeuvre (painted out by the artist in the early Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window) was listed in the upstairs backroom of his house among other items including "two tapestries, a long low wicker basket with a high back, in which the mother can nurse her baby and a painting of a tronie."

The only surviving work which Vermeer's inserted in his own compositions is Dirck van Baburen's Procuress (or a close copy) that can be seen in the backgrounds of The Concert and the later A Lady Seated at a Virginal. Vermeer's version is accurately represented in drawing and dimension. This example should not encourage us to believe that Vermeer unthinkingly adhered to the reality of his studio setup. The cabinet-sized Finding of Moses in the background of The Astronomer makes a second startling appearance in almost mural-like dimensions in the later Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid. The Cupid too, whatever its original dimensions may have been, was given a virtual coat of yellow varnish in order to mitigates its uncensored brashness.

Allegory of Painting, Gerrit van Honthorst

Allegory of Painting (detail)
Gerrit van Honthorst
Oil on canvas, 138 x 113
Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento

When depicting pictures-within-pictures the vast majority of Dutch painters often took a nonchalant attitude and adopted the stylistic register of the work in which they were inserted. This oversight occasionally gave rise to some rather amusing effects. For example, in a portrait by Gerrit van Honthorst, a consummate technician, the face of the picture-within-a-picture sitting on the easel glares out at the viewer and seems no less real than the that of the painter herself (see image left) with the consequence that both confusedly vie for the viewer's attention. Although Dutch painters excelled in the description of appearances, and especially textures, we have the impression that they did not fully grasp that fact that unfaltering attention to detail does not necessarily guarantee the most natural effect in all cases. While they did question themselves how to produce accurate portrayals of the brilliance of shiny metals or the opaque roughness of a lemon peal it seems that the essential visual quality of a painting-with-a-painting, its flatness, had substantially escaped their attention.

Woman Holding a Balance (detail), Johannes Vermeer

On the other hand, Vermeer seems to have been well aware of the picture-within-a-picture's characterizing structural properties and experimented with various techniques to make this clear to the viewer. First of all, he drained the pictures-within-pictures of their color, painting them in dull ochres and browns (see detail left). But most importantly, he obliterated continuous modeling of light and shade (a technique that would have gone against the grain of any self-respecting Dutch realist) and drastically reduced the range of chiaroscural values. The original image is broken down into a sort of pictorial puzzle where each piece sets firmly along side the other on the picture plane annulling the sensations of light and depth, the raison d'être of the original work.

A Woman Weighing Gold, Pieter de Hooch

A Woman Weighing Gold
Pieter de Hooch
Oil on canvas, c. 1664
Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

The origins of this work has been traditionally linked to Pieter de Hooch, whose Gold Weigher matches Vermeer's work very closely. Since neither of the paintings is dated, critics have hypothesized who influenced who on the basis of style. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. tentatively attributes the original idea to De Hooch, who was at the time living and working in Amsterdam. But it is probable that De Hooch, who had lived in Delft, did not make the break to the more promising Amsterdam permanently but continued to frequent Delft during where the two painters could have presumably met, exchanged views and shown each other examples of their current work.

Given that De Hooch's composition originally contained a second figure seated on the far side of the table Wheelock believes that "it seems unlikely that De Hooch would have introduced the figure of the man, and then removed it, had he derived his composition from Woman Holding a Balance. De Hooch probably cancelled the second figure before Vermeer saw the painting." However, Walter Liedtke argued: "That De Hooch considered adding a seated figure in the background hardly suggests...that his composition must precede Vermeer's."

Recently, Adriaan E. Waiboer has reexamined the problem and offered good reasons for challenging Wheelock's position. He writes: "The direction of influence is suggested by the fact that single-figure scenes are exceptional in De Hooch's oeuvre, not in Vermeer's. Moreover, De Hooch's painting includes an open window in the left foreground and a bundled up tapestry on the table, two elements new to De Hooch, but previously explored by Vermeer." Although Waiboer admits that Vermeer's art had no comparable influence to that of the most influential Dutch artists of the time, his impact has nonetheless been underestimated. "He may not have had a large group of younger followers, but several key Dutch genre painters after 1660 responded to Vermeer's work, even if it was only once in their career. Vermeer's art enjoyed more than a short-lived hype and even provided an example for a handful of artists at the end of the century. It would take another 250 years, though, before Vermeer's impact became a global phenomenon."