analysis vermeers woman holding a balance

            Johannes Vermeer, born in 1632, was a Dutch genre artist whose works now are treasured, though in his lifetime and for a period after were not well known outside of his native land. His Woman Holding a Balance, an oil painting circa 1664, now in the Widener Collection of the National Gallery of Art, is typical of his style during the later period of his oeuvre.  In this painting of life in a 17th century Dutch home, we see a woman standing by a table holding a balance scale in her hand. The light plays across the face of the canvas illuminating some objects and leaving the others in gloom. On the rear wall of the room is a large painting depicting the biblical Last Judgment of Christ. It is lit and obviously a part of the composition which Vermeer means for us to take into consideration. On the table are gold and pearls, also lit with a soft diffusion of light that comes from a window in the upper left side of the painting ( 2007). The light plays on the whites of the woman’s headdress and on her face and hand, which holds the empty balance scale. Vermeer revels, it seems, in depicting the mundane lives of the people he knew. In this work, interestingly, he chose to leave broad clues as to his not so hidden meaning. “Vermeer was intensely preoccupied with the behavior of light and other optical effects such as sudden recessions and changes of focus,”  ( 2007). The subject of this painting, it can be argued, is the light in the room.

            The composition of this painting is such that the entire focus of the work is designed to draw the viewer’s eye to the woman’s right hand, which holds an empty balance scale. The arms of the woman frame the scene and the light plays strongly at this junction. The little finger of her right hand mirrors the angle of the arm of the balance. The frame of the painted art on the wall ends higher in front of the woman than it does behind her. Orthogonal lines to the vanishing point all meet at the woman’s fingers ( 2007).

            This painting stands out from among the majority of the Dutch Master’s works in that it is far less subjective than, say, Woman With A Pearl Earring.. It has been interpreted over the centuries and by now has been ‘read’ so often that its meaning is accepted by virtually everyone who knows the work. To begin an analysis of the painting we can mention the painting within a painting. On the right rear wall of the room in which the woman stands at a table, there is a religious painting that is vital to the understanding of the scene (Janson 2007). It is a rendition of The Last Judgment of Christ, during which, Christians believe, there will be a reckoning of sinners and the good and the evil will be separated, weighed in the balance of God, so to speak, and sent to their respective doom. The woman’s head is immediately below the figure of Christ in the wall painting. The woman’s face is serene much like a typical image of the Virgin Mary as depicted by countess artists over the centuries, belying the turmoil inherent in the last judgment (Wheelock & Broos  p. 142) In the background of Vermeer’s work a mirror is seen on the wall. It is universally considered to be a symbol of either vanity or knowledge of self. The light, which I maintain is the actual subject of this work, is hazy, buffered by a curtain across the window on the left side of the canvas. Light is used by artists to denote holiness and spiritual enlightenment; it often depicts supernatural events and is a symbol of purity. We see evil as dark and hidden in the gloom, while good is bright and in the light. With all that being said, I do recognize that Vermeer paid homage to his predecessors and he recognized how his work would be interpreted, but a vast majority of his art is of simple scenes, which are just what they seem. I think that Vermeer painted what he loved just for the joy of recording it and allowing others to see.  The Woman With a Balance is obviously more than that. Its symbolism is too apparent to be incidental. On an emotional level, however, I am more moved by the photographic, gemlike quality of the execution than I am of the symbols. Freud is sometimes credited with having said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and I agree with that remark. I accept that this oil has deeper symbolism, I just don’t really care. I love the work for its execution and its artistic merit. I consider it a world treasure. It makes me want to create and for a time it makes me want to be Vermeer.

            During a recent cleaning it was discovered that the frame, which has appeared to be black for years has gold highlights which compliment the gold of the scales. Vermeer’s mastery of color is evident all over the canvas. The transparency which he achieves is stunning and his precision makes it obvious to see why, of late, he is thought to have used the camera obscura. “Like a modern camera without a negative, this box projects an image onto a neutral surface in a darkened room,” (Haber n.d.). The blue fabric enclosing the room, the blue window and the blue dress over the woman’s stomach all are in perfect harmony. There is a definite balance of light and dark on the canvas creating an atmospheric effect.  The composition is masterful with all important lines, points and vanishing points converging on the focal point that Vermeer has designated. The entire composition is designed to lead the eye to the hand holding the scale. The relative small size of this canvas makes composition especially important and what the artist omits can be telling. Vermeer adds the elements he considers essential and renders them with virtually photographic fidelity. The modeling of his contours is masterful and the woman seems to have been caught in the act, as it were, frozen in an instant of time. It is through his use of glazes that the shadows come to life and are not just dark areas of the canvas but integral parts of the work. The formal elements all come together in this masterwork from the hand of a genuine Dutch Master.


Haber, J.  A Delicate Balance Retrieved 5-25-2007 from:


             Janson, J. Woman Holding A Balance (Vrouw Met Weegshaal) Retrieved 5-27-

 2007 from:

            National Gallery of Art  Woman Holding a Balance Vermeer  Retrieved 5-27-07


   Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) Retrieved 5-26-2007 from:


Wheelock, A. and Broos, B.  Johannes Vermeer              Yale University Press


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