Young Woman with a Water Pitcher

(Vrouw met waterkan)
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas
45.7 x 40.6 cm. (18 x 16 in.)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
acc. no. 89.15.21
there are 11 hotspots in the image below
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, Johannes Vermeer

critical excerpt

No signature appears on this work.

Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1664–1665
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr, Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997

c. 1662
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

c. 1662–1665
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

The support is a plain-weave linen with a thread count of 14 x 14 per cm². The canvas has been lined and the original tacking edges have been removed.

The ground is pale gray and contains lead white, chalk, and umber. In the brightly lit areas of the wall is a thin gray layer, slightly paler than the ground, containing some ultramarine. Yellow ocher was added to this layer in the shadows and half-shadows. The left shaded side of the basin has a red underpaint that extends under the adjacent part of her skirt. It is visible as a red outline describing the top edge.

The composition has been altered. There once was a chair with lion's head finials in the lower left foreground and the map on the back wall was located further to the left in line with the left edge of the woman's headgear. The red velvet lining of the jewelry box lid has faded, though the color is still intense where it has been shaded by the frame. Abrasion along all edges and in thin-glazed shadows, as well as scattered flake losses, are present.

* 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 Young Woman with a Water Pitcher with frame

  • Robert Vernon, Cambridgeshire and London (1801?-d.1849);
  • Vernon sale, London [Christie's] 21 April, 1877, no. 97, as by Metsu (to M. Colnaghi);
  • [Colnaghi, London, 1877–1878; sold (as by Metsu) to Wingfield];
  • Mervyn Wingfield, 71th Viscount Powerscourt, Ireland (1878-?87, as by Vermeer);
  • [Agnew, London];
  • [Bourgeois Frères, Paris];
  • [Charles Pillet, Paris, 1887; to Marquand];
  • Henry G. Marquand, New York (1887–1889);
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1889 (acc. no. 89.15.21).
  • London June 1838
    Catalogue of Pictures by Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch and French Masters
    British Institution
    no. 29, as "A Female at a window," by Metsu, lent by R. Vernon, Esq.
  • London 1878
    Winter Exhibitition
    Royal Academy of Arts
    50, no. 267, as "Lady at a Casement," by Jan van der Meer, lent by Viscount Powerscourt
  • New York 1888–89
    Exhibition of 1888–89
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    no. 29, as "Young Woman Opening a Casement"
  • New York April 1906
    Temporary Exhibition
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    no. 40, as "Young Woman at a Window"
  • New York September 25–October 9, 1909
    The Hudson-Fulton Celebration
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    138, no. 137, as "Girl with Water Jug"
  • Rotterdam July 9–October 9, 1935
    Vermeer, Oorsprong en Invloed Fabritius, De Hooch, de Witte
    Museum Boijmans-Van Beuningen
    37, no. 85 and ill. 66
  • Amsterdam October 21–November 3, 1935
    Vermeer tentoonstelling ter herdenking van de plechtige opening van het Rijksmuseum op 13 July, 1885
    29, no. 167 and ill. 85
  • The Hague June 25–September 5, 1966
    In Het Licht van Vermeer
    no. 4 and ill.
  • Paris September 24–November 28, 1966
    Dans la lumière de Vermeer
    Orangerie des Tuileries
    no. 5 and ill.
  • Boston 16 September–1 November, 1970
    Masterpieces of Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    Museum of Fine Arts
    45, unnumbered catalogue
  • New York November 15, 1970–February 15, 1971
    Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    no. 283
  • Washington D.C November 12, 1995–February 11, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    National Gallery of Art
    146–151, no. 11 and ill.
  • The Hague March 1–June 2, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    146–151, no. 11 and ill.
  • New York March 8–Mayn 27, 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    no. 71 and ill.
  • London Junen20–September 16, 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School
    National Gallery
    no. 71 and ill.
  • Madrid February 19–May 18, 2003
    Vermeer y el interior holandés
    Museo Nacional del Prado
    170–171, no. 34 and ill.
  • Boston 19 November, 2003–22 February, 2004
    Dutch Interiors in the Age of Vermeer: A Rare Vermeer Comes to Boston
    Museum of Fine Arts
  • New York 18 September, 200 7–6 January, 2008
    The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    no catalogue
  • New York 9 September–29 November, 2009
    Vermeer's Masterpiece "The Milkmaid"
    Metropolitan Museum of Art
    no. 7
  • Kyoto 24 October–5 January, 2015
    Vermeer and Painters of the Dutch Golden Age
    Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art
    no. 48
Johannes Vermeer's Young Woman with a Water Pitcher in sscale
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

Woman Washing Her Hands, Eglon van der Neer

Woman Washing Her Hands
Eglon van der Neer
Oil on panel, 49 x 40 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Art historians have advanced no convincing explanation regarding an eventual symbolic meaning of the present work although all agree that it is one Vermeer's most intensely poetic works. It would seem that by the 1660s Vermeer almost completely removed narrative from his paintings Furthermore, as of yet, no clear-cut composition model in Dutch painting has been found.

The washing of hands could have various meanings depending on the context in which it takes place. For example, the flashy interior painter Eglon van der Neer represented a woman washing her hands (see image left) in what is probably a chic brothel—note the woman in the background attmeptimng to tame a customer—presmably after a customer leaves. Is she washing herself to indicate that the sins of the world are not her responsibility? Or does the fancily dressed boy who holds a sumptuous silver basin and ewer meant to warn the spectator of the dangers of unrestrained luxury?

In any case, in Vermeer's painting the pitcher and string of pearls, which issue from the jewelry box to the right, might be linked to the concept of purity. But such an interpretation would seem to be irrelevant to the background map of Holland, one of the painting's most conspicuous composition elements. Whatever meaning, or lack of it, Vermeer may have intended, as Walter Liedtke pointed out, "a contemporary viewer would have recognized the head and shoulder coverings, the silver-gilt basin and pitcher (with which one would not normally water plants), and the jewelry box as the accoutrements of a well-to-do woman's toilette. That she opens or looks out the window does not disturb, indeed enhances, the sense of unself-conscious activity. Vermeer represents but a moment of private life, and a patrician ideal."

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (diagram), Johannes Vermeer

This virtual reconstruction of the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher provides a speculative hypothesis of the artist's original pictorial concept. The map that today appears to the right of the figure o reached behind the standing woman and occupied more of the background. If one observes carefully, a barely perceptible shift in tone along the original left-hand edge of the map may be noted. Likewise, the silhouette of the back of a second Spanish chair with lion-head finial has left an barely observable pentimento underneath the young woman's outstretched arm.

The changes in composition were may have been made during an early phase of the painting procedure, called underpainting, before final color and detail had been introduced. In the simplest terms, an underpainting is a monochrome version (usually brown or neutral gray) in which the artist fixed the layout of the composition, created volume and distributed lights and darks in order to create the effect of a coherent, overall illumination. With a minimum of effort a great part of the artist's composition ideas could be envisioned. The parts of the underpainting that did not match the artist's expectations could be corrected with relative ease. The virtual reconstruction is based on naked-eye observation and infrared reflectograms which reveal hidden layers of black-containing pigment.

The painting can be virtually reconstructed to an acceptable degree since we know the real dimensions of the two objects that Vermeer altered.

Ultramarine blue paint

Ultramarine blue on canvas.

The use of natural ultramarine, a pigment made of crushed lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan, in Vermeer's oeuvre could easily constitute a study in itself. Although it can be detected in almost every work by the artist, it is truly surprising to what extent he actually employed this most noble of all pigments. Not only is it found in blue-colored objects, but upon close inspection, we find traces of it in areas where it cannot be perceived by the naked eye, such as the shaded portions of white drapery, black marble tiles, green foliage, white washed walls and even in the shadows of the brilliant orange gown in The Glass of Wine. A superlative example of the use of natural ultramarine can be seen in the satin gown of the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. The gem-like depth of the maid's wrap of The Milkmaid is another. In this case, the painting's excellent state of conservation allows us to appreciate in full the chromatic brilliance of the highest grade of pure lapis lazuli.

Vermeer realized early in his career that by admixing discreet quantities of natural ultramarine in the grays (traditionally composed of lead white, charcoal black and raw umber in varying proportions) used to depict the shadows of white objects, he could effectively enhance the effect of natural daylight, which is generally cooler than painters acknowledge. An analogous technique was to be employed many years later by the French Impressionists.

One of the most remarkable examples of Vermeer's use of natural ultramarine can be found in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. Although, as it might be expected, it was the principal pigment used to depict the folded blue drapery on the table, natural ultramarine was also employed to suggest daylight passing through the glass panes of the window. The artist applied delicate admixtures of white and semi-transparent natural ultramarine over the warm tone of the canvas preparation. Observed with care, we can see that even the dark brown lead molding has been overpainted with a deep shade of ultramarine. No other Dutch painter dared so much and yet these passages are striking for their absolute naturalness.

Natural ultramarine has been detected in the light gray paint of the background wall. The combined effect of the aged varnish and the blue in the wall mixture produce a subtle green undertone which may not have been the artist's intentions.

The Card Players, Gerrit ter Borch

The Card Players
Gerrit ter Borch
Oil on canvas, 46.7 x 36.8 cm.
Private collection

Although scores of scholarly studies have been penned about the symbolic content of Vermeer's motifs, no one has ever addressed the symbolic meaning, if any existed, of color in his art. Did the artist select his colors according to purely aesthetic concerns or because they might confer extra meaning to his motifs? Or did he simply paint the real colors of the objects he observed?

The following is drawn from an interesting study of color symbolism by the art historian Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

Color symbolism, which goes back to antiquity, was still very much alive in the 17th century. Two important Dutch artists/art theorists, Karel van Mander and Samuel van Hoogstraten, drawing largely on antique and Italian sources, devoted significant attention to color symbolism. Cesare Ripa's Iconologia, an important emblem book well known to Dutch artists, offered detailed advice on how to adopt color in painting to enhance meaning.

Van Hoogstraten noted that white means innocence, purity, and truthfulness. He associated red with highness, courageous and boldness, blue with fidelity and skillful science (the intellect), green with beauty, greatness and joy and black was equated with evilness and melancholy. In his assessment of yellow, for example, he explained how the ancient Greeks used this color in the interiors of temples because of its association with the sun. Yellow, thus, means wisdom, nobility, or high-mindedness. Many of these associations have remain surprisingly stable through the ages and in geographical distribution.

However, the most intriguing example of interest in color symbolism in the Netherlands is a list of color symbols which has been found amidst a large number of drawings, sketchbooks and letters of an important family of Dutch artists, the Ter Borchs of Deventer. This record, compiled in the mid-to-late 1650s by Gerrit ter Borch's step-sister, Gesina and her brother Harmen, list a series of colors and their symbolic associations.

In the sheets penned by Harmen, appropriately colored hearts introduce each line. The hearts refer to the types of symbolic associations given to the colors, those related to love. Light blue means constancy, green hope, black steadfastness, grey spitefulness, white pureness, blue jealousy, carnation revenge or cruelty, pink love, yellow gladness or joy, seagreen instability and unsteadfastness, brown discretion, prudence and truth. Finally, ash gray means sorrow and suffering.

Gesina had a very close relationship with Gerrit and became his favorite model by the early 1650s. She was an accomplished poetess and draughtsman profoundly enthralled by Petrarchan concepts of love and the complexities, worries and disappointments that accompanied the search for a true and lasting love. It seems certain that the great painter and his step-sister saw artistic matters eye to eye. It seems likely that Gesina very well transmitted, or at least shared, her concerns with Gerard whose delicate interiors paintings constitute some of the most lasting pictorial tributes and subtle variations on the fine points of contemporary love. According to the Dutch art expert Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., the symbolism of the colors given to the remarkable silk dresses worn by Ter Borch's women seem to directly relate to the narrative scenario being depicted in agreement with Gesina's color list.

Ter Borch's ground breaking treatment of interior themes must have been a direct and profound influence during the course of Vermeer's pictorial evolution. However, since color has a deeply personal and complex function in the art of painting it is uncertain how far-reaching his interest in color symbolism was.

What we do know is that Vermeer generally favored the three primary colors, blue, read and yellow, for the colors of the principal protagonists of his interiors. These colors are perceived as unambiguous and positive and generally communicate strength. Ter Borch, on the other hand, along with the primary colors, gaily experimented with ethereal shades of pale velvety colors combining them in an original and evocative manner that Vermeer never approached.

Woman Washing Hands, Gerrit ter Borch

Woman Washing Hands (detail)
Gerrit ter Borch
c. 1655
Oil on canvas, 53 x 43 cm.
Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

Although art historians are undecided on exactly how to interpret all the motifs of this work, they generally agree that Vermeer intended to represent a moment of the young woman's morning toilette. This subject had been previously exploited by other genre painters including one of the most refined compositions by Gerrit ter Borch, a work of utmost delicacy that would have appealed to Vermeer's sensitivity. In Ter Borch's workcomposition (see detail left) a young servant attends with a pitcher and basin (similar to the ones in Vermeer's work) for the final touches of the her toilette. In pictorial and emblematic tradition, the wash basin and pitcher evoke innocence purity and cleanliness. The washing of hands had Biblical associations with the concept of spiritual cleansing. The idea of cleanliness is reinforced by the young lady's hooftdoek and nightrail as well as the bright light streaming through the window casting its clear blue light on everything it encounters.

Vermeer evidently attached a particular significance to the act of hand washing. In the Amsterdam Dissius sale of 1696 in which 21 Vermeer paintings were auctioned, item no. 5 was described as, "In which a gentleman is washing his hands in a perspectival room with figures, artful and rare." This lost composition must have been highly considered since it fetched the handsome sum of 95 guilders or about half the price of the large-scale View of Delft and more than double of the Officer and Laughing Girl, today, both retained among the artists finest works.

Curiously, no Dutch picture of a man washing his hands has ever been discovered and one cannot help but wonder how Vermeer conceived and executed such a theme especially if we consider that the man was not alone but "with figures." The "perspectival room" most likely refers to a common see-through device Vermeer had first experimented in his early A Maid Asleep and later refined in the late Love Letter.

Interior with a Family and Two Nurses before a Fire, Cornelis de Man

Interior with a Family and Two Nurses before a Fire
Cornelis de Man
Oil on panel, 52 x 45 cm.
Private collection

A contemporary visitor to the Netherlands once noted that the Dutch prized three things above all else: first, their children, second, their homes, and third, their gardens. From Pieter Brueghel onward, Netherlandish painters portrayed children more than any of the European nation. Anyone familiar with Dutch painting is aware of the empathetic treatment reserved for children by Jan Steen, who has studied the relations of children with grown-ups with great insight and charm, and, closer to Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch, who explored the theme of maternity with evident participation.

Many Vermeer enthusiasts wonder why Vermeer never included his own children in his interiors, if his works are truly "slices of daily life." After all, Vermeer's wife, Catharina, gave birth to 15 children. A meticulous inventory of household goods taken after Vermeer's death describes a different picture of the Vermeer household full of cribs and worn furnishings. The simplest explanation for the lack of children in Vermeer's art is that his paintings were never intended to be snapshots of an extant reality. As Vermeer expert Walter Liedtke writes, "In a broad view, the essential subject of Vermeer's mature work is an ideal woman in an ideal home. The image, of the intended male viewer, was an icon of private life and personal feeling, concerns that flourished in a time of postwar prosperity and peace." In his house full of children, it is obvious that Vermeer drew from art and literature for his motifs rather than from his day-to-day life experience.

The scenes that Vermeer depicted were carefully composed in his studio on the top floor of his well-to-do mother-in-law's house, away from the bustle of his oversized family. The true appearance of Vermeer's down-stairs household must have been much more similar to a painting by Cornelis de Man (see above).

A Lady Washing her Hand, Caspar Netscher

A Lady Washing her Hand
Caspar Netscher
Oil on panel, 49.3 x 40.3 cm.
The Kremer Collection, Fondation Aetas Aure

Historians have ruled out the possibility that the young woman is watering plants outside the half-opened window. The elegant gilt pitcher, instead would have been employed at the end of the young girl's morning toilette to wash her hands. Caspar Netscher depicted an analogous scene of hand-washing when he was still working in the studio of Gerrit ter Borch (see left).

While the Romans and Greeks associated well-washed hands with clean bodies, in the medieval and Renaissance times there was little interest in washing beyond the wrist.

Monastery cloisters featured a stone trough for hand-washing, and medieval paintings of interiors often show a ewer, a basin and a cloth for drying hands in a corner of the room. Etiquette books ordered hand-washing before and after meals, and people who neglected it inspired scorn. Among the upper class, unless you washed your hands, you had no claim to gentility.

That belief persisted through the 17th century, even as body cleanliness worsened. Doctors assured people that they were more susceptible to the plague if they opened their pores in warm water, and terrified Europeans shunned water and washing, except for their hands. Since forks were not in general use until the 18th century, hand-washing still had a practical function as well as a symbolic one: the Dutch in the age of Rembrandt scandalized French visitors by eating without first washing their hands.

Old Woman with Jug at a Window,  Gerrit Dou

Old Woman with Jug at a Window
Gerrit Dou
c. 1660–1665
Oil on panel, 28.3 x 22.8 cm.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Vienna

There is good reason to believe that the woman was not watering flowers as has been occasionaly suggested in the past. The gilt silver jug and basin would have been a prized luxury item maladapted for such a mundane task. For that purpose a rustic terracotta jug such as the one depicted in Gerrit Dou's Old Woman with Jug at a Window would have been utilized.

The theme of giving water to plants is rare in 17th-century Dutch painting prior to Dou's treatment although the many copies and versions of Dou's composition attest to its subsequent popularity. Watering plants most likely had a moral meaning in 17th-century Netherlands. In a French emblem book of 1553, a verse teaches us that "Just as too much water makes plants die / Too much labour destroys many a thing / but, if moderate, brings relief."

One of the most extraordinary aspects of Vermeer's art is the way light is channeled, diverted, reflected with total logic from one surface to another, infusing space, color, and form with a luminous unity. Although Dutch painters of the Golden Age had distinguished themselves from their European counterparts precisely for their scrupulous rendering of natural appearances, Vermeer took Dutch naturalism one step further. We might say that light itself had become his subject.

With Vermeer light is always clear and transparent diffusing itself evenly in the space. Never once did he succumb to the flicker of a candle, torch or the ghostly moonbeams of night as did so many of his colleagues. Vermeer also avoided painting the characteristic patches of direct sunlight on floors or walls as his contemporaries De Hooch and Pieter Janssens Elinga had done.

Although rarely considered, it is amazing that Vermeer was able to describe Dutch light with such extraordinary fidelity. Then as today, on the average there are more than three hundred rainy days in the Netherlands. Furthermore, the natural light that could have penetrated into the depths of Dutch homes must have been extremely limited, particularly during the winter. Windows were made as large as possible, sometimes occupy two thirds of a wall, but intense direct sunshine must have been a rarity. Thus, we must admire all the more Vermeer's powers of observation and his ability to extrapolate such accurate renderings of a specific lighting conditions which would have only sporadically presented itself before the artist's eyes.

In the early 1660s, Vermeer turned away from the hollow cube-type painting of Pieter de Hooch and other artists of Southern Holland to a new type of composition which had been successfully pioneered by Gerrit ter Borch and Frans van Mieris, both extraordinarily successful artists.

Vermeer's former preoccupation with three-dimensional space, created by a complex orchestration of architectural features, linear perspective and overlap, suddenly gave way to four compositions of the incomparable simplicity. Each of these works presents a single female figure absorbed in some mundane activity captured unaware in a shallow middle ground inundated by natural light. Motifs, whether they be animate or inanimate, are treated impartially and stripped of any anecdotal detail which might distract the viewer. Contours are no longer uniformly sharp as in the early works but softly blurred and daringly simplified. The aesthetic result is a tender, luminous tremor unequaled by his contemporaries whose works seem frozen, rather than motionless. The shapes described by the contours of the individual objects, which Walter Liedtke eloquently termed "luminous silhouettes," are gauged and aligned one to another on the painting's surface rather than in depth as if they were a part of some grand, meaningful puzzle.

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (diagram), Johannes Vermeer

In Vermeer's paintings the surface qualities of objects lose much of their natural textures and assume a curious optical character that many experts credit to Vermeer's experimentation with camera obscura vision. Like few other artists, Vermeer adapted his painting technique to his themes. Gone are the uneven textures of the canvas surface and the knotty build-up of impasto paint. To evoke the uncluttered optical world, form is built up by applying sequential layers of thin, semi-transparent paint. The canvas surface recalls the sheen of the luxurious materials worn by the artists models.

Vermeer's figure strikes poses that could be held for considerable length of time. However, if attentively observed, the figure in the present work leans to the right, a bit off balance introducing a note of expectancy into the rectangular composition. The "imbalance" is anchored by a strong, axial line which runs down from the vertical edge of the map through the upright jug (see left).

That Vermeer's compositions are among the most highly determined in the history of easel painting is rendered more astonishing by the fact that they never interfere with the naturalistic reading of the scene.

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (diagram), Johannes Vermeer

Vermeer's sensitivity to pictorial design finds no parallel in Western art. Each and every element of the picture plane is determined with the utmost care in order to create a perfectly balanced, yet subtly dynamic composition, which, unlike abstract paintings of today, were not meant to appreciated in themselves but to focus and activate the scene which is represented. One of Vermeer's most notable achievements was the manipulation of the so-called negative spaces, or those areas of in between the solid objects, which are generally perceived as empty spaces. Normally, the viewer senses these negative spaces as leftovers, and thus, without meaning. Oppositely, Vermeer lends each one a clear simple, yet interesting shape capable of exerting its own influence.

The negative shapes represented in the present work (areas of light background wall) interlock with the foreground objects as if some sort of grand puzzle. The resulting unity lends an unsuspected resonance to the temporal gesture of the woman.

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Of the ten or so stylistic features which have been marshaled to link Vermeer's painting with the image of the camera obscura, only the pointillés are universally accepted. These globular dots of light paint, which presumably imitate the camera's sequin-like halations, or disks of confusion as they are alternately termed, are produced when a pinpoint highlight passes through the camera's lens and spreads out onto the camera's translucent screen. Disks of confusion occur only when strong light shines upon polished materials such as silk and metal. They cannot be observed in shadows. Their circular form is a product of the camera's imperfect lens.

Pointillés make their debut in Vermeer's early Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window and are liberally scattered through his works that followed. Their most dramatic presence is in the View of Delft, The Milkmaid and The Lacemaker. Many pointillés which Vermeer painted would have not logically occurred on the camera obscura screen such as those along on the bottom side of the shadowed hulls of the boats in the View of Delft. We must presume that the artist did not intend to make a literal transcription of what the camera showed him but applied them according to an aesthetic criteria, at times accepting the "optical truth" of the camera and sometimes not.

Vermeer's pointillés appear to dissolve the tactile substance of the underlying motif and transform it into light. The underside of the sun-kissed silver pitcher in the Young Woman Holding a Water Pitcher seems to be literally painted with liquid light, the pointillés dancing upon the surface of the canvas. When seen from life, the passage is of a breathtaking delicacy no reproduction can match.

We do not know why Vermeer would have chosen to reproduce, rather than repress, a "defect" of the camera obscura, which very probably would not have been understandable outside the small circle of cognoscenti and art collectors familiar with the workings of the camera obscura. Today, Vermeer's pointillés are less striking becasue we are used to the quirks and peculiarities of a wide range of mechanically produced images.