I was doing some research on the Internet last month when I came across a very curious painting: Fernando Botero’s Vermeer’s Studio, which is clearly influenced by the Master of Light. Botero is a very well-known Colombian figurative artist who mainly focuses on situational portraiture.
In his painting “Vermeer’s Studio”, Botero depicts a chubby woman who looks very similar to the Girl with a Pearl Earring, and who seems to be leaning on a table with some fruits in it. In the background, we can see a painter’s easel with Johannes Vermeer’s famous work Study of a Young Woman. The meaning of the work is not entirely clear, but it seems to me that Botero wants to make the viewer reflect on the different cannons of beauty, as well as to put into question the importance that we give to our appearance. A very funny and original work!
May 20, 2011
Between light and dark,
between this world and the next,
between maidenhood and motherhood
she pauses, held in balance
like the balance she holds.
Her focus not the gold or
the weighing, but the justice to their still
of her scales, settling to their still
point in a steady hand,
and she herself unadorned,
a lily that needs no gilding
but the points of light that lie
on her veil like jewels on a crown.
If she raised her eyes, she would see
this luminous beauty, drop the scales,
and, like a blushing Eve, break
the balance and forsake
the innocence of her task,
but she does not.
If she turned, she would see
the Last Judgment, saints and sinners
weighed in the final balance, and,
called to think on ultimate things,
lose this moment—
but she does not.
Trained on the object, undistracted,
patient while the instrument swings
to its center and is still, she turns
this little task to prayer— if mindfulness is
prayer— to an exercise of love—if it is love
to be attentive to the thing at hand.
Girl with a Pearl Earring: An Interactive Study. Prof. Claire H. Firth, Universidad de Deusto
May 18, 2011
In Christian theology, the Last Judgment or the Final Judgment is the last and eternal judgment of every nation by God. The scene is found in all the gospels, and is supposed to take place after the resurrection of the dead and the Second Coming of Christ. This belief has inspired numerous artistic depictions of several genres, as is the case of the picture-within-the-picture which appears in the background of Vermeer’s work Woman Holding a Balance, as I mentioned in my first post.
Roman Catholics believe that immediately after death, each soul undergoes a particular judgment, and depending on the actions and good or bad deeds that the person has carried out throughout his life, his soul will go to heaven, purgatory or hell. The Catholic Church teaches that at the time of the last judgment Christ will come in his glory, and all the angels with him, and in his presence the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be laid bare, and each person who has ever lived on earth will be judged with perfect justice.
As the Last Judgment is also called the Weighing of Souls, very often the scene is represented by showing a balance, as the painting below. This scene was often depicted in Romanesque sculpture as a decoration of church tympanums. Once we know this, the connection between the balance and the judgment in Vermeer’s work becomes evident. As Robert Huerta defends in his book Vermeer and Plato: Painting the Ideal, the image has been variously “interpreted as a vanitas painting, as a representation of divine truth or justice, as a religious meditative aid, and as an incitement to lead a balanced, thoughtful life.”
In brief, it is important that we take into account the symbolism that is obviously present in Vermeer’s work, and especially in his painting Woman Holding a Balance, where the scene of the Last Judgment seems to have a clear connotation and connection with the protagonist of the painting who is holding the balance.
- Essential Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance. Retrieved 11:20, April 15, 2011 from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/
- Wikipedia, Last Judgment. Retrieved 12:00, April 17, 2011 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_Judgment
- Google Books. Vermeer and Plato: Painting the Ideal, by Robert D. Huerta. Retrieved 13:28, May 18, 2011
As an additional article to my review on the picture “Woman Holding a Balance”, I thought it would be helpful to write something about the value of money in the 17th century Dutch society. In fact, money must have had a great importance in the Netherlands at that time, since so many painters used to depict people weighing material with scales and balances as, among others, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, and Quentin Massys.
The balance traditionally symbolizes justice; after all, to judge is to weigh. However, it seems that the pans of the balance in Vermeer’s work are empty, and they are almost in equilibrium. For a long time, every district in the United Provinces had its system of measures and weights. Weighing coins was actually a way to prevent falsifiers from clipping the coins in order to save money. Money scales had to follow a standard form in the Netherlands at that time. One of the pans of the balance had to be rounded so as to weigh the appropriate denomination of the coin, whereas the other pan had to be triangular to hold the coin itself.
The box where scales were kept included the name of the maker and the weights of the balance. Vermeer depicted every single object to detail in his paintings. It was the government’s duty to regulate manufacturers of money scales to make sure they were prudently used, and many of these boxes were marked by passages from the Bible which emphasized fair and just weighing as, for instance, passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus.
Coins in the 17th century were much softer than they are today, and it was very common and easy for thieves to clip and falsify them. Rather than for its face value, a coin was worth the weight of its material, usually precious metal. Therefore, it was the duty of household ladies to count their money periodically, weighing all the coins in order to establish their real worth. Although there were various types of coins in circulation during that time, the ducat was the most common one. In Europe, two silver ducats were worth one golden ducat.
Silver had indeed become available in huge quantities all around the world, and that is why the period of time was also known as the Silver Century. Silver had become the universal measure of wealth, although it was mainly used for decorative and ornamental purposes. The main suppliers of silver were Japan and South America, and business transactions were normally done in silver.
The Chinese were not interested in making transactions with Europeans, so they accumulated huge amounts of silver, because they accepted the material as a mode of pay for their porcelain, silk and other exotic goods they produced. Curiously enough, the silver that came to the ports of Amsterdam and London came from the Spanish mines in Peru, rather than from the mines in Germany and Austria.
- Essential Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance. Retrieved 11:20, April 15, 2011 from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/
- Wikipedia, Dutch Guilder. Retrieved 13:00, April 15, 2011 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_guilder
- Life in the 17th century. Retrieved 1o:45, April 16, 2011 from http://www.localhistories.org/stuart.html
I decided to choose Woman Holding a Balance because it is probably one of Vermeer’s most harmonious and peaceful paintings, and because it conceals many curiosities, secrets and symbols. The work of art has received many other names, as Woman Weighing Gold, Woman Testing a Balance and Woman Weighing Pearls. The reason why it has got so many different names is that, although at first experts thought the portrayed woman was weighing some kind of precious material, later X-rays and microscopic examination proved that the balance she is holding is actually empty, and this aroused a great controversy. There are different opinions about the theme and symbolism of the work of art, as the woman is viewed as a symbol of holiness and earthiness.
This composition is thought to have been made between the years 1662 and 1665. The material Vermeer used is oil on canvas and its size is pretty small (42.5 x 38 cm) if compared with the idea I had of the painting. Currently, the piece is located at The National Gallery in Washington DC.
In the painting, we can see a young woman, seemingly pregnant, who is holding a balance before a table where there are three containers like an open box of jewelry, and some pearls and gold coming out of it. There is a blue cloth in the left foreground, as well as a curtain and a window through which light enters the scene. We can see a little mirror in the wall that is just in front of the woman and a picture of the Last Judgment scene in the wall right behind her.
The origins of this work have been traditionally linked to the also Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch, whose painting Gold Weigher matches Vermeer’s picture very closely. Since neither of the paintings are dated accurately and since both artists were contemporary, “who influenced who” has been a subject of debate for critics. It seems that de Hooch was living and working in Amsterdam but lived in Delft for some years, so it is very likely that the two artists met and exchanged ideas. However, it seems that de Hooch’s Gold Weigher originally had a male figure in the scene, which later was erased by the artist himself. If this were true, the paintings would not look so alike.
Regarding the woman’s appearance, the same white cap that she is wearing was represented by the artist in other paintings too, both tied and opened. According to Dutch costume experts, the cap was partly ornamental and it served to protect the hairdo; it was typically made of white linen, sometimes of nettlecloth and cotton.
One of the greatest mysteries is who posed for the young lady in the painting. Maybe because of the intimate nature that Vermeer’s paintings usually have, there has been a tendency to link the painter’s family members to the sitters of his paintings, some of whom seem to have posed for him more than once. This makes a lot of sense, for employing professional models at the time was very expensive. Most people believe the woman holding the balance is his wife Catharina, who apparently also posed for The Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.
To modern viewers, it looks quite obvious that the woman is pregnant but, according to experts, pregnancy was not a common subject in art and there were actually very few depictions of women in maternity clothes. Even in religious paintings such as the Visitation, where depictions of pregnant women were required, the bodies were usually completely hidden by draperies. In addition, apparently, Dutch fashion in the 17th century encouraged bulky silhouettes.
The two most important elements of Woman Holding a Balance are, no doubt, the picture-within-the-picture and the balance. The picture-within-the-picture shows the Biblical scene of the Last Judgment –the final eternal judgment of every nation by God, where he decides which souls will go to Heaven and which souls will go to Hell. The artist of the painting remains an enigma, but he is thought to be Jacob de Backer, as Vermeer was an art dealer and he was thought to have a similar painting in his possession. A detail that gives evidence to the fact that Backer’s work was a model to Vermeer is that Christ is depicted with both hands raised and outstretched, which is not very common in the depictions of the Last Judgment.
Another interesting element of the work of art is the mirror, which appears four times in Vermeer’s whole oeuvre. Iconographic associations to mirrors are numerous; for instance, sometimes they represent pride, other times vanity, prudence, self-knowledge, and truth. It seems that the mirror in this painting is the same as the one in Woman with a Pearl Necklace, as both are said to be of the same size and presumably made out of ebony. Painters depicting someone gazing into a mirror often also show the person’s reflection, although this is not the case, as we see the mirror from the profile. This is a kind of abstraction, as in most cases the angle of view is such that the person’s reflection should not be visible.
On the other hand, the balance the woman is holding is probably very closely connected to the idea of judgment and the Weighing of the Souls, so Vermeer clearly wants the viewer to see the link between the picture-within-the-picture and the balance. Besides, scales were really important at that time in order to prevent fraud; it was necessary to keep a constant check not only on the amount of goods one had, but also on coins.
The curtain seems to be very similar to the one in Woman with a Pearl Necklace, but warmer in tone. The same yellowish color is used in the two golden stripes in the frame of the Last Judgment picture, as well as in the woman’s dress. One should also pay attention to the stained glass window that was so typical of the period and that the painter used in many other paintings.
In addition, the wooden extendable table seen in the painting appears to be the same as the one Vermeer used in other interiors. This kind of table was considered a luxury item in Dutch painting of the time. The legs have a beautiful bulbous form, and in the 17th century, this piece of furniture was known as a draw-leaf table –because it could be extended by pulling out extra leaves.
The floor tiles are also worth taking into account, as they are the typical black and white chess-like tiles that Vermeer often used. Likewise, Cornelis de Mann, who was also contemporary to Vermeer, depicted the same table and the same floor tiles in his works.
To sum up, it is well worth noting that Woman Holding a Balance is one of Vermeer’s most interesting and mysterious paintings, due to its great symbolism and its several possible interpretations. I will go posting additional information about the painting in order to make the overall study of the work as complete as possible. For more information, I leave my Powerpoint presentation here:
- Wikipedia, Woman Holding a Balance. Retrieved 13:28, April 15, 2011 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woman_Holding_a_Balance
- National Gallery of Art, Woman Holding a Balance, a Moment Captured. Retrieved 17:32, April 20, 2011 from http://www.nga.gov/feature/vermeer/moment1.shtm
- Essential Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance. Retrieved 20:13, May 1, 2011 from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/