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  • Johannes VermeerOct 31, 1632 - Dec 15, 1675
  • Woman Holding a Balance - Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch Baroque painter who specialized in exquisite, domestic interior scenes of middle class life. Vermeer worked slowly and with great care, using bright colours and sometimes expensive pigments, with a preference for cornflower blue and yellow. He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.
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Woman Holding a Balance
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  • Woman Holding a Balance

  • Johannes Vermeer
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  • c. 1662-1665
    Oil on canvas
    National Gallery of Art - Washington, United States.

    Mark Harden:

    "This painting has been known until recently as "The Goldweigher" or "Girl Weighing Pearls". Microscopic analysis, however, has revealed the pans of the balance to be empty. The highlight on the pans is not rendered with lead-tin yellow, which is used elsewhere on the canvas to depict gold. Vermeer represented pearls with a thin gray layer topped with a white highlight. The pan highlight is a single layer. In addition, there no loose pearls on the table that would indicate other pearls waiting to be weighed.

    This seemingly trivial analysis as to what is being weighed actually bears importantly on the meaning of the work. For "Woman Holding a Balance" is overtly allegorical. The woman stands between a depiction of the Last Judgment hung in a heavy black frame and a table covered with jewelry representing material possessions. The empty scale stresses that she is balancing spiritual rather than material considerations. Vermeer's portrayal does not impart a sense of tension or conflict, rather the woman exudes serenity. Her self-knowledge is reflected in the mirror on the wall. Vermeer's point is that we should lead lives of moderation with full understanding of the implications of a final judgment.

    The composition is designed to focus attention on the small and delicate balance being held. The woman's arms act as a frame, with the small finger of her right hand extended to echo the horizontal lever of the balance. The bottom of the painting frame is even altered to provide a partial niche for the scales. The frame ends higher in front of the woman than it does behind her. The complex interplay between verticals and horizontals, objects and negative space, and light and shadow results in a strongly balanced, yet still active composition. The scales are balanced, but dynamically asymmetrical. A cleaning in 1994 revealed previously undetectable gold trim on the black frame that provides a tonal link to the yellow of the curtain and the woman's costume.

    "Vermeer has endowed "Woman Holding a Balance" with more overtly allegorical context than his other domestic scenes. As such, it loses some of the invitingly subjective interpretation of a less direct work such as "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter". Nevertheless, Vermeer's masterful composition and execution produced a powerful and moving work."

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Johannes VermeerThe life and art of Johannes Vermeer are closely associated with the city of Delft. Vermeer was born in Delft in 1632 and lived there until his death in 1675. His father, Reynier Jansz., was a weaver who produced "caffa," a fine satin fabric. In 1631 he also registered in the Saint Luke's Guild in Delft as a master art dealer. By 1641 he was sufficiently prosperous to purchase a large house with an inn, the "Mechelen," on the market square in Delft, where he probably also sold paintings. When Reynier died in 1652 Johannes apparently inherited his father's business. By that time he must have already decided on a career as a painter. It is assumed that he trained in Delft, perhaps with Leonaert Bramer (1596-1674), who seems to have had close associations with Vermeer's family, or with Carel Fabritius (1622-1654). No documents, however, exist about his artistic training or apprenticeship, and he may have studied elsewhere, perhaps in Utrecht or Amsterdam.

Vermeer, who was baptized on 31 October 1632 in the Reformed Church in Delft, was raised a Protestant. In April 1653 Vermeer married into a Catholic family and seems to have converted to Catholicism shortly before that date to placate his future mother-in-law, Maria Thins. Maria Thins lived in the so-called Papists' Corner ("Papenhoek") of Delft, adjacent to one of the two churches where Catholics could worship, the Jesuit church on the Oude Langendijck. Vermeer and his wife, Catharina Bolnes, eventually moved from the "Mechelen" into her house. They named their first daughter Maria, in honor of Maria Thins, and their first son Ignatius, after the patron saint of the Jesuit Order.

Vermeer became a master in the Saint Luke's Guild on 29 December 1653. His aspiration at that time seems to have been to become a history painter, for his first works were large-scale mythological and religious paintings. Shortly thereafter he began to paint the genre scenes, landscapes, and allegories for which he has become renowned. While Vermeer's subject matter changed in the mid-1650s, he nevertheless continued to imbue his later works with the quiet, intimate moods of his early history paintings.

Although very little is known about relationships with other painters who might have influenced the thematic and stylistic direction of his art, Vermeer apparently knew Gerard ter Borch II, with whom he co-signed a document in 1653. Another artist who may well have had an impact on his work during the 1650s was Pieter de Hooch, who painted comparable scenes in Delft during that period. Vermeer remained a respected artist in Delft throughout the rest of his life. He was named hoofdman of the Delft St. Luke's Guild in 1662, 1663, 1670, and 1671.

Vermeer's few works--they number only about thirty-five--were not well known outside of Delft, perhaps because many of them were concentrated in the collection of a patron in Delft who seems to have had a special relationship with the artist. When Vermeer died, however, he was heavily in debt, in part because his art dealing business had suffered during the difficult economic times following the French invasion of the Netherlands in the early 1670s. Vermeer was survived by his wife Catharina and eleven children, eight of whom were underage. His wife petitioned for bankruptcy the following year. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the famed Delft microscopist who was apparently a friend of Vermeer, was named trustee for the estate.