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The so-called picture-within-a-picture that appears on the back wall portrays a Last Judgment. The artist has remained an enigma and no exact prototype for this composition has been advanced. One possibility - suggested by Pieter J. J. van Thiel—is Jacob de Backer, a late 16th-century Flemish painter and student of Frans Floris, an artist who specialized in similar Last Judgment scenes. One peculiar characteristic of this composition that is often found in De Backer's works is the image of Christ with both arms raised. Vermeer probably owned this painting, or at least had it as a part of his stock as an art dealer.
Mirrors appear four times in Vermeer's slim oeuvre. A smaller one hangs in the same position on the side wall as in the Woman with a Pearl Necklace. Both frames were presumably made out of ebony although Dutch artisans excelled in producing imitations of precious imported woods.
Mirrors have been represented in a great number of Western paintings throughout history. Their iconographic associations are numerous and frequently contradictory, ranging from the sense of sight to indications of pride and vanity.
Some scholars believe that the mirror might, in fact, identify the present picture as a Vanitas. However, most modern scholars, including Edward Snow and Albert Blankert, point out that the pervasive serenity of the painting is more in keeping with positive metaphorical associations traditionally connected with the mirror: self-knowledge and truth.
In his Iconologia Cesare Ripa wrote that a mirror is one of the attributes of Prudence (see$$$$$), for with it the woman achieves self-knowledge. Just as a mirror reflects reality, so does man acheives understanding when he comprehends the true character of the physical world. Otto van Veen related the elements of truth and love to a mirror's reflection in his emblem "Cleer and Pure." Vermeer certainly knew Ripa's Iconologia b ecasue two of his allegorical paintings were composed with its aid.
This curtain appears to be similar but slightly warmer in tone than the one in Woman with a Pearl Necklace(detail left). Its vibrant warm tone is echoed by the two gilt stripes of the Last Judgment's frame, setting off the deep blues which predominate the composition.
The same white cap that is pictured in the Woman Holding a Balance was represented in other paintings by Vermeer (see details left) and in many genre paintings of the time, both tied and open. The Dutch costume expert Marieke de Winkel explains that it was partly ornamental and served to protect the hairdo before and after dressing.
In the inventory of Vermeer's wife, Catharina Bolnes, three such caps were listed (drye witte kappen) although it was also called a hooftdoek in Delft. It was worn in informal situations and typically made of white linen, sometimes of nettlecloth or cotton.
This elegant jacket was typically worn by middle and upper class women. It provided protection to them as they performed household chores against the cold during the long Dutch winters. Houses were warmed by a fire-place, only in the living room and kitchen. The jacket's loose fit permitted freedom of movement. Dutch costume expert Marieke de Winkel explains that these jackets were worn by women at home on weekdays already at an earlier date than that of the present painting and are still mentioned in inventories in the 18th century. Before the 1650s and after the 1660s however, they were no longer depicted in art.
These jackets were frequently lined with fur but sometimes only edged. Occasionally the fur lining was detachable so that it could be taken out in summer. It was a usage to store away fur (garments) in May. Inventories do mention unlined jackets for use during the summer months. A popular misconception regarding the jacket is that the white fur trim was ermine. De Winkel points out that even in the inventories of the wealthiest women this particular fur is never mentioned. It must have been lined with white squirrel, mouse or cat. The jackets were called jack in Amsterdam but manteltge (small mantle) in Delft.
A comparable kind of yellow garment is worn by the seated mistress in Vermeer's Mistress and Maid (see$$$$$). The skirt of the Frick painting can be traced without interruption from the illuminated triangle of opening of the jacket to underneath the inferior band of fur trim immersed in deep shadow, proving that it is a single garment. The red ribbon is not braiding, because at that time braiding would reach to the lower edge of the skirt. The skirt was always closed at the front and tied with two strings. This also explains why at the Frick painting, the two string stand apart a bit and then overlap. This would be very strange for (stitched on) braids.
The deep blue tablecloth massed on the extendableoak table is similar in fold, color and position to the one seen in Vermeer's Woman with a Pearl Necklace, a painting that bares a strong compositional resemblance to theWoman Holding a Balance.
The blue tablecloth creates a large, simple mass which brings additional structure to the composition while at the same time concealing some of the too-many tiles that would have appeared beneath the top of the table. Its thin folds suggest that it is made of a rather pliable cloth, making it unlikely that it would have been able to support its own weight and create the swelling mass to the left, had it not been supported by some kind of object underneath. The graceful contour of its lower edge may have been meant to direct the eye upwards to the figure, while its cascading folds located near the jewelry box above appear to echo the winding rhythms of the jewelry that spills over the box's edge.
Its deep blue color responds eloquently to the similar but not identical color of the woman's fur-trimmed jacket. Before the recent restoration of the painting, it appeared greenish in tone due to the heavy yellow varnish which covered the entire painting. Blue is the most sensitive color to discoloring varnish. The meandering folds provide a counterpoint to the geometric framework of the composition. Laboratory examinations reveal that Vermeer used charcoal black and natural ultramarine blue to render its color.
Three different types of containers lie open upon the table in front of the young woman. The largest one, a jewelry box, appears very similar to those found in two other of Vermeer's works of the same years. The red velvet lining of its open lid recalls that of the Woman with a Water Pitcher (detail left).
A gold chain, which appears only once in Vermeer's oeuvre, hangs over the lid of the box near a pearl necklace.
The extendable table seen in the Woman Holding a Balance various times in Vermeer interiors, as was represented many times in Dutch painting of the time and would have been considered a luxury item. One painted example is featured in A Man Weighing Gold (c. 1670) by Cornelis de Mann (detail left).
The Rijksmuseum possesses a similar table. The legs have a striking bulbous form. The remarkable bun-shaped feet later provided the Dutch name of this style of furniture—balpoot. In the 17th century, however, this type of table was known as a draw-leaf table because it could be extended by pulling out extra leaves. The frame below the tabletop is decorated with volutes. Under this, the legs are joined by a double Y-frame stretcher. A thin veneer of rosewood has been cemented to the oak. Some parts have been decorated with ebony. The table measures 78.5 x 125 x 84. cm.
Tables were very expensive in the seventeenth century. Many families made do with a few planks placed on two barrels.
For a long time each district of the United Provinces had its own system of weights and measures. In order to prevent fraud it was necessary to keep a constant check not only on the amount of goods but also on coins. Weighing coins prevented unscrupulous merchants from clipping the edges of the coins to save money.
During a period when the actual value of a coin was based on its material value (or metal content) rather than face value (or denomination), weighing coins was necessary to correctly evaluate the real worth of one's coins. Money scales followed a standard form, with two pans, in the Netherlands. One rounded pan held a brass weight appropriate to the denomination of the coin to be weighed and a triangular pan held the coin itself. A box carried the weights, the balance and the maker's name. The government regulated the manufacturers of money scales, and to further encourage their prudent use, many of the boxes were marked with biblical passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus that emphasized just weighing.
Microscopic examination of the scales in Vermeer's painting has resolved one of the principal disputes regarding the painting: the woman is not weighing gold as was suggested by the first description of the painting in the catalogue of the Jacob Dissius auction in 1696. What have been long interpreted as glints of golden substance are in reality, yellowish highlights on the fore edges of the scale's two pans. Accordingly, Vermeer expert Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. believes the young woman is waiting for the two pans of the scale to come into balance. However, Walter Liedtke asserted that the absence of anything on the scale does not outweigh the evidence of the gold coins on the corner of the table, near the stack of weights (which like the balance, has been taken from its box). Liedtke believes that it is evident that she is about to weigh gold. Nonetheless, both conclude that the central message of the painting is that one should conduct one's life with temperance and balanced judgment. This assertion is born out by stylistic evidence as well. Both the geometrical center and the vanishing point of the painting lay very close to the woman's out-held hand directing the viewer's attention to the balancing scales.
On the table lies a pearl necklace, an open jewelry box, a pear necklace, assorted gold and silver coins, and a smaller box which opens up towards the young woman, The small box most likely held the balance and the weights. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. pointed out that personifications of conscience appeared as engraved labels on coin-weight boxes. In one example the figure of conscience is a woman holding scales and a flaming heart. According to Wheelock the balanced scales signify the internal workings of one's conscience and the moral decisions made by men and women on earth that will be weighed in heaven. A third, very small box whose lid lies detached to the right, may have contained the coins which lie near the edge of the table. There are four coins, one silver and three gold. Curiously, the upper surface of the coins are barely visible and do not appear correct from a perspective point of view
Although the tones and colors of the cast shadows in Vermeer's painting are carefully described, he must have been aware of their expressive potential as well. In his influential manual for painters, Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst, Samuel van Hoogstraten dedicated an entire chapter to the study of shadows. In a revealing engraving (see$$$$$) he illustrates the expressive power of the menacing shadows cast onto a wall by a group of tiny figures to the lower right. Obviously, Vermeer manipulated the cast shadows in a more subtle manner than in Van Hoogestaten's engraving, as was harmonious with his overriding naturalist goals.
Nonetheless, of all the cast shadows in Vermeer's oeuvre, this one is of the most "evocative" and, for a moment, the otherwise austere master of geometrical order seems to have nodded to the twist and torment of the Baroque.
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.
(Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)
Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015
(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).
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.)
(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in their frames).
(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).
(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in scale).
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.
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.
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.
Rembrandt depicts himself as a bit player in his painting The Raising of the Cross.
Jan Steen paints The Drawing Lesson.
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.
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.
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.|
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.
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.
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." However, it should be noted that in a pendant of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit painted by Rembrandt in 1634, Oopjen appears visibly pregant: she gave birth to her first child shortly after the picture was finished.
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."
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$$$$$). 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."
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.
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.
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$$$$$). 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.
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]
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.
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$$$$$) with the consequence that both confusedly vie for the viewer's attention. Although Dutch painters excelled in the description of appearances, and especially textures, we have the impression that they did not fully grasp that fact that unfaltering attention to detail does not necessarily guarantee the most natural effect in all cases. While they did question themselves how to produce accurate portrayals of the brilliance of shiny metals or the opaque roughness of a lemon peal it seems that the essential visual quality of a painting-with-a-painting, its flatness, had substantially escaped their attention.
On the other hand, Vermeer seems to have been well aware of the picture-within-a-picture's characterizing structural properties and experimented with various techniques to make this clear to the viewer. First of all, he drained the pictures-within-pictures of their color, painting them in dull ochres and browns (see$$$$$). 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.
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."