Text by Deanna MacDonald
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It is surprising to learn that Vermeer, today one of most widely admired artists in the western world, fell into obscurity after his death. Even in his own lifetime he was not as successful as many of his celebrated contemporaries, such as Rembrandt or Pieter de Hooch. We do not know who his teacher was and, evidently, Vermeer did not have any pupils himself. He did have some success; at one point Vermeer was head of the painters’ guild in his home town of Delft and his meticulously detailed paintings fetched high prices. However, he was not prolific (he is believed to have produced only about 45 paintings in his life, mostly for a small circle of Delft patrons) and died in debt; his wife, Catharina Bolnes, and 11 children declared bankrupt the year after his death.
Today 34 authenticated Vermeers survive (a remarkable eight of which are in New York City: five in the Met and three in the Frick), thanks in part to French art critic Théophile Thoré, who wrote a series of articles after visiting Holland in the 1860s in which he championed the long-forgotten artist as a poet of the everyday and a master of ‘Realism’ (a style in vogue at the time). Suddenly Vermeer was ‘rediscovered’ and became popular with collectors in Europe and the USA: the masterful Young Woman with a Water Pitcher was the first of 13 Vermeers to enter the United States between 1887 and 1919.
A mature work, it is the last in a group of paintings of single females alone in scenes of absolute compositional rigour that Vermeer painted from the mid–1660s. Like most of his paintings, there is no narrative; rather it depicts a timeless scene of domestic harmony, a ‘still-life’ world derived from acute observation mixed with conscious design. The exquisitely balanced composition is typically Vermeer: a modestly dressed woman with downward looking eyes is pictured inside a room occupied in some unspecified domestic activity. Light enters from a window to the left and illuminates the scene in a silvery blue glow. Each object and texture is meticulously depicted, from the woman’s starched coif to the plush Turkish carpet that is reflected in the burnished underside of the basin.
Vermeer designed his paintings to explore formal relationships and the effects of colour and, in particular, light. He was fascinated by the transforming power of light and shadow and in scenes like this attempted to capture that fleeting second as natural light floods a space; you can almost sense the warmth of the sun on the woman’s skin or the shimmer of dust in the air, so precisely does Vermeer render its effects. To the modern eye, Vermeer’s use of dramatic perspectives and contrasts in light and texture can appear almost photographic and this has led scholars to suggest Vermeer may have used a camera obscura, an experimental optical device sometimes used by painters to help with perspective and composition. True or not, it detracts nothing from his extraordinary technical ability and painstaking attention to detail.
Vermeer’s pictures are often regarded as the culmination of realism in Dutch art. However, it must be remembered that while the objects depicted are indeed startlingly real, the ideals presented are just that: idealised. Domestic scenes were immensely popular in 17th-century Holland and were connected with bourgeois Dutch ideals of the home and female virtue. To be considered a good housekeeper was the height of female accomplishment and moralising scenes of household concord (as well as discord) were found everywhere from emblem books to art. Many household objects held symbolic significance; for example, a basin and pitcher are symbols of purity, suggesting this young woman’s virtue. Images like this one both reflected and reinforced gender roles and offered a comforting scene of a well-run home. Like many of Vermeer’s pictures there is also the suggestion of a relationship between the viewer and the scene, as if the spectator were a spellbound voyeur, privileged to be party to an edifying domestic moment.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1661 Rembrandt: Saint Batholomew, Malibu, J Paul Getty Museum
1661 Gerrit Dou: Old Woman with a Candle, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum
1664 Claude Lorrain: Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid (The Enchanted Castle), London, National Gallery