The women that Vermeer painted are displayed below in chronological order.
Oil on canvas, 54.3 x 44 cm.
During the course of his brief 20 year career, Vermeer probably painted no more than 60 paintings, 36 (?) of which have come down to us today. Few other Dutch painters produced so few pictures. In Vermeer's compositions, women appear in one guise or another about 46 times, while men make only 14 appearances, mostly in subordinate roles, three times with their backs to us. Two lost paintings by Vermeer portrayed men, a self portrait and a "man washing his hands, both listed in the1696 auction catalogue of 20 paintings by Vermeer.
Critics have often noted that the women in Vermeer's paintings cannot be considered beauties in the conventional sense of the word. Their beauty, instead, derives from the way they are painted and from the harmonic context in which they inhabit. "The qualities that we attribute to Vermeer's work as a whole apply equally to the women they picture: paintings and personages share dignity, equilibrium and an exceptional of both vivid presence and abstract purity. The figures range from girlish to maternal, yet all are youthful, with high curved foreheads, features that evenly balance the individual and the classical, and simple believable postures. Their costuming—its coloring, shapes and associations contributes so much to bodily construction and expression that the absence of nudes from Vermeer's oeuvre hardly seems surprising."1
None of the women who modeled for Vermeer's paintings have ever been identified even though some seemed to have posed more than once. Other than the dresses and jewelry which they wore and the poses that Vermeer instructed them to hold, we know nothing else about their lives. Modern scholarship generally holds that they were not painted as portraits except, perhaps, A Lady Writing in Washington. Even Vermeer's four bust-length figures, including the illustrious Girl with a Pearl Earring, were not intended as portraits, but tronies.
Vermeer's women were protagonists of a type of painting now called genre interior which was pioneered in the Netherlands during the first half of the seventeenth century by artists like Dirck Hals (1591–1656) and William Duyster (1599–1635). In these picture, a number of young people are represented dressed in the latest and costliest fashions engaged in frivolous activities such as drinking, gaming and music-making. During the second half of the century, the number of figures was reduced greatly and the former high-spirited interiors evolved into the kind measured, luminous interiors in which subtle nuances gesture, texture and light were explored. These interiors brought to formal and technical perfection by artists like Gerrit ter Borch (1617–1681) and Pieter de Hooch, and only successively by Vermeer.
"Most of the genre paintings produced in this period take place in an interior, generally inspired by elegant homes of the middle classes. They reflect concepts that were important to the Dutch culture such as family, privacy, intimacy, comfort and luxury, encouraging the spectator to think about issues relevant to his or her daily life, sometimes with touches of humor. Both from an anthropological and viewpoint as well as an architectural and decorative one, they acquired and enormous importance in Holland in the second half of the seventeenth century: the physical space of the of the upper middle classes expanded as the consequence of their growing wealth, dividing itself up into more spaces and offering to its inhabitants greater comfort and more private areas. The way that genre painting moved indoors undoubtedly reflects this new interest on the part of the Dutch at hits time in then space in which the played out their domestic lives. "2 In these private spaces, women acquired a new importance.
"The emphasis on women is logical in the work of an artist who was entirely devoted to the painting of interiors, as the domestic space was the realm which society had assigned to woman. Nonetheless, while for De Hooch and Maes the, home was the setting for maternity and domestic tasks, Vermeer was alert to the appearance of a new type of woman, better educated than her predecessors and more absorbed in her interior life. It is not by chance that among the innovations of interior paintings we find a sensibility towards the intimate psychology of individuals, given that the concept of an interior life was developing at just this time. Street life and family life became more separated in houses at this period and more private spaces and areas for withdrawing begun to appear. Although these were generally reserved for men, Vermeer's women often seem to contain the moral and intellectual intensity which is associated with psychological introspection."3
Even though to the modern eye three or perhaps four women4 in Vermeer's paintings appear to be pregnant, there is good reason to believe that this was not the case. According to the Dutch costume expert Marieke 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"5 De Winkel submits that to her knowledge "there are no examples of or 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." Pregnancy was most likely not seen as aesthetically attractive. However, it should be mentioned that in a full-length pendant of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit painted by Rembrandt in 1634, Oopjen appears to be visibly pregant: she gave birth to her first child shortly after the picture was finished.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. has written that "Dutch fashions in the mid-seventeenth century seemed to have encourage a bulky silhouette. The impression of the short jacket worn over a thickly padded skirt creates in Vermeer's painting in particular may create just such an impression." It is interesting to note that in the 1696 Dissius auction in which 21 paintings by Vermeer were sold, the Woman Holding Balance was described as "A young lady weighing gold, in a box, by J. van der Meer of Delft, extraordinarily artful and vigorously painted." Since pregnancy was not portrayed in Dutch painting of the seventeenth century, it is odd that the catalogue's author would not have noted such an exceptional fact. Afterwards, no mention of the woman's pregnancy in relation to Vermeer's paintings can be found until 1971, despite the fact that the work can be traced in an almost unbroken line to this century.
Modern scholars generally believe that Vermeer systematically drew upon fellow genre painters of the time such as Gerrit ter Borch, Frans van Mieris, Gerard Dou for both his compositions and themes. He did not substantially subvert or even significantly widen established iconographical boundaries but rather seemed completely absorbed in realizing their fullest expressive potential. In this light, it seems doubtful that Vermeer addressed such an unconventional theme such as that of a pregnant women.
The following interpretations range from finely reasoned contextual studies of the life and times of Vermeer by Mariët Westermann, to the ultimately subjective, but nonetheless indispensable, interpretations of Lawrence Gowing and Edward Snow. Too, what now seems a remote "art-for art's-sake" view of Vermeer's models as nothing more than illuminated surfaces, are also included and perhaps should not be dismissed so easily by the information provided by the lasted 20 years of intense iconographic studies. The entries are arranged in reversed chronological order.
"Vermeer and the Self Aware Interior," in Vermeer and the Dutch Interior, ed. Alejandro Vergara, Madrid, 2003, p. 229.
Even if Vermeer gives us hints about the narrative that may have led to the moment represented in his pictures of readers and writers—pregnancy in the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, a crumpled letter on the floor in front of the desk in the Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid—he gives us no dues as to its denouement. As so often in Vermeer's work, we have a sense of proto-cinematic suspense, in that we have no indication of what the next frame will show. What all his writing and reading women have in common, however, is a capacity for absorption in a text, and thus for independent thought. This mental ability is figured not merely by the theme of writing and reading or by averted gazes. Vermeer established the seriousness of these women about literate activity with great pictorial subtlety, as it were making his own thoughtful compositions stand for the mental activity of his actors. It is surely no accident that the vanishing point in the Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid lies precisely in her left hand, which is rigorously focused on the task of writing. The figure in Woman in Blue Reading a Letter is anchored in a geometrically calibrated composition, restricted in color, that forces our focus on the woman's face and letter, thus on her act of reading.
Vermeer: A View of Delft, New York, 2001, pp. 121–123.
Rather than feeling the need to rebel against women in his house, Vermeer seems rather to have been absorbed in them. The feminine enveloped him and he was a willing and happy victim. Although not all the women he painted are conventionally good- looking, he apparently liked painting women's skin and their clothes and accoutrements. Did he say to them, 'Please wear such-and-such a dress', 'Those pearl earrings today', or 'Do your hair with those blue ribbons -they make you look so pretty'? Or did he take them as they come, perhaps already dressed for the occasion, dressed for him? He enjoyed catching the self-regard of a young woman looking in a mirror as she put on a necklace. The challenge of portraying the folds in the much seen yellow jacket or the sheen, shadows and creases of the red dress worn by the Girl being offered Wine clearly excited him. (The result was art, otherwise one might have said it sexually excited him.) His repertoire included many of the means women employ to hold on to male interest, from the devoted care, both practical and spiritual, that Martha and Mary had shown, to more enticing types of attraction, such as subtleties of hair-do. Hair is pulled straight back from the forehead, held in place with bows, tied in a bun or braided in a chignon -these are the ways of arrangement in A Lady Writing; in the young woman playing the keyboard instrument, a clavecin, in The Concert; of the mistress in the Mistress and Maid; and in the Woman with a Pearl Necklace. Ringlets are the favored style in The Lacemaker, in the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (who also has a chignon), and in The Guitar Player. Other women have their heads modestly covered with scarves or hoods, or wrapped in a silk turban, like the Girl with a Pearl Earring.
"Perspectives on Women in the Art of Vermeer," in The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer (Cambridge Companions to the History of Art), edited by Wayne Franits, Cambridge, 2001, p. 62.
Regarding the concept of figuration in the Woman Holding a Balance, it is useful to consider some remarks made by Vermeer's fellow painter, Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–1678). In his long treatise on art, Van Hoogstraten writes that if a painting is to reach the highest level (the third level, in his scheme), then it must show the noblest emotions and desires of rational human beings. The talent needed to depict more than "mere animal passions," Van Hoogstraten feels, is spread very thin. Interesting in this context is the fact that he cites painters of "the loveliest young women in every town." He writes (abruptly turning to portraiture): "Indeed, those portrait painters who make reasonable likenesses, and imitate eyes and noses and mouths all prettily, I would not wish to place…above the first grade, unless they make their faces overflow with the quality of the intellectual soul…" The Woman Holding a Balance demonstrates that Vermeer's achievement is of the highest rank, because through his figure's display of womanly judiciousness, her seemingly blessed maternal state, her visual associations with Mary, her confidence in the face of Judgment, we do indeed get a sense of what Van Hoogstraten called "the noblest emotions and desires of rational human beings." Further, as in all of Vermeer's paintings (and this separates them from works by his contemporaries), here the window reveals no view outside. The woman's resulting privacy within the enclosed interior becomes a metaphor for her own interiority, her own soul within.
Reviewing his cast of female characters, we can easily see how often Vermeer suggests through them the workings of the mind and the cultivation of the spirit that come together in the course of commonplace yet highly civilized activities. Not surprisingly, his women express habits of mind, hand and heart akin to those we imagine the artist himself exercising as he planned and painted his pictures. This certainly pertains to the Woman Holding Balance. For example, Edward Snow, prompted by the fact that the pans of the scale are empty except for gleams of light, observes of the woman's action: "It seems appropriate that a gesture so paradigmatic of Vermeer's art, should appear concerned with the weighing and balancing of light itself." Indeed, the gesture requires precise coordination of delicate physical and mental calculations the same capacities that Vermeer's art demanded from him. In The Milkmaid, the figure's act of directing a stream of liquid straight downward brings to mind one of Vermeer's own most distinctive pictorial habits: the assured, mimetic application of paint (here representing milk) over carefully plotted straight lines. No wonder his perspectives on women tend to strike viewers as sympathetic; consistently, the figures' gestures refer back to the very processes of his art. Even in the case of male characters, Vermeer avoids actions more readily associated with masculinity, those requiring physical exertion, vigorous motion, forceful contention.
A Study of Vermeer
Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1979, pp. 35–36.
In the majority of the early paintings, the depicted situation itself provides the occasion for what tends to be a negative identification on the part of the artist: men either paying court to or supervising women, waiting upon them-worldly, overshadowing, equivocally motivated visitors who are usually encumbered and ill-at-ease in a space that tends for the woman to be a natural, often aggressively protective habitat.
Vermeer's capacity for negativity is uncomfortably evident in the three closely related genre scenes, Woman Drinking with a Gentleman, Gentleman and Girl with Music, and the Brunswick Couple with a Glass of Wine. In these paintings, the attention that man pays to woman—acutely isolated by Gowing as the theme of all Vermeer's work—elicits from the painter a deliberately acid response. All three give the impression of unhappily willed failures, rather than just immature or otherwise inadequate attempts at a conventional genre scene.
† FOOTNOTES †
- Lisa Vergara, "Perspective on Women in the Art of Vermeer," in The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer (Cambridge Companions to the History of Art), ed. Wayne Franits, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 54–55.
- Alejandro Vergara, "Vermeer: Context and Uniqueness Dutch paintings of Domestic Interiors, 1650–1675," in Vermeer and the Dutch Interior, Madrid, 2003, 204.
- Alejandro Vergara, "Vermeer: Context and Uniqueness Dutch paintings of Domestic Interiors, 1650–1675," in Vermeer and the Dutch Interior, Madrid, 2003, 206
- The Woman with a Pearl Necklace, Woman Holding a Balance, The Concert, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.
- Marieke de Winkel, "The Interpretation of Dress in Vermeer's Paintings," in Vermeer Studies, eds. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker, National Gallery of Art Washington D.C., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, 327.