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Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, 1664, oil on canvas, 42.5 cm × 38 cm / 16.7 in × 15 in (National Gallery of Art)

Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

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Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
(piano playing) Steven: We're in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and we're looking at one of their Vermeer's. This is Woman Holding a Balance. It's so quiet. Beth: It is quiet and like all Vermeer's it shows a scene of everyday life but Vermeer imbues these scenes with greater meaning. Steven: And art historians have been arguing for years about what those meanings are. So let's just describe what it is that we see. Beth: Well we see a woman dressed up in very fine clothing. Steven: So we know that she's part of the upper merchant class in Holland in the 17th century. Beth: The class that was increasingly buying art, the scale and subject of which is very much like the painting we're looking at. Steven: She's wearing a typical cap probably made of linen, that women would have worn when they were at home. She's also wearing a fur trimmed jacked which was meant to keep people warm because remember, in Holland it gets cold in the winter and you can only have so many fires going in your house. Beth: And she stands in front of a table, on the wall opposite her is a window which is letting in just a tiny bit of light and also a mirror. She's got in her right hand a very fine balance. Interestingly, there is nothing on either side. It's as if she's waiting for the balance to come to rest. Steven: And then on the table before her, we see a number of boxes. One box is open and that would have held the balance and the weights. In the other box are strings of pearls. Beth: And we see some coins so we have an indication of material wealth and perhaps she's about to weigh the valuables that are in front of her. Steven: However we know that there's probably much more going on here because in back of the woman's head you can see that there's a painting with Christ in a brilliant mandorla towards the top functioning as judge over all the souls that have ever lived and you can see those souls down at the bottom. The souls at Christ's right would have been the blessed, the souls on Christ's left would have been the damned, and so this is the Last Judgment. Having that kind of religious image in back of her is a strong indication that this painting is probably about a lot more than simply a woman who is weighing her valuables. Beth: Her head divides the blessed from the damned, the left side of the composition from the right side. The subject is very much the play of light coming into this room through that golden curtain casting a shadow on the wall behind and illuminating her face and the front of her body. Steven: That light is providing the ability for the artist to create a kind of motion, that is this woman is in the process of waiting for this balance to come into alignment, so this idea of time and change. But at the same time the kind of complete static, frozen quality, that intense quiet that pervades the space. Beth: This painting seems to be something very real, very natural. But we also know that it's very carefully planned out by Vermeer. We know exactly where the vanishing point is, right at that pinky finger of the woman's right hand and we also know that the exact center of the painting is where those balances meet. Steven: We can also see that kind of compositional control in the way that color is handled. Look at the subtle modulation from the deep shadow near the light. Look at the way that the gold of the curtain is picked up by the two bars of the frame on the right side and then picked up again by the gold quality of some of the pearls and of her dress. Naturally, art historians haven't agreed on what Vermeer is actually saying specifically, but I think we can clearly say that the painting more broadly is a reminder of the kinds of changes that are taking place in the 17th century. Here we have artists that are painting now for merchant class as opposed to for the church. This is an interior scene, there's a sense of intimacy here. What was the relationship between wealth and piety, between wealth and spirituality? Beth: And perhaps the need to balance those two and maybe the balance signifies that because she's got her worldly possessions on the table but behind her is this image of Christ at the Last Judgment. That idea of weighing, of judging. Steven: These are educated guesses, we really don't know. Art historians have even tried to identify the particular painting of the Last Judgment that's behind the woman. We haven't been able to find it though. Beth: And then there's the question of if it's a mirror, what would it mean and why would it be there? Why did Vermeer put it there? Mirrors are often symbols of vanity and so maybe that relates to the worldly possessions on the table in front of her. A concern for things of the world instead of a concern for the spiritual. Steven: Well that's one of the older readings of this painting, that she is not attending to the spiritual world behind her. She's attending instead to the world of the physical, to the world of wealth that's before her. And so this has been seen as kind of a cautionary vanitas. But mirrors can also signify self knowledge and truth. Beth: The painting could mean all of these things, it could mean something that we haven't yet determined. Art historians think about the context of 17th century Holland when trying to interpret this painting. (piano playing)