Vermeer’s Principle: a balanced life

In the picture Woman Holding a Balance the woman is standing by a table holding a balance with her right hand. The balance is estrategically placed in the middle, so the light flowing from the window illuminates the hand , and as a consequence concentrating the observer’s attention in the balance. The balance is empty and only the light fills its image.

This image of a pregnant woman holding a balance embodies one of the principles that Vermeer defended. He said that there was a need to lead a balance in life. Although nobody knows for sure Vermeer’s methods to paint, it is believed and proved that he used several methods that he tried to remain in mistery. The construction of this picture was carried out with extreme care: “Orthogonal lines to the vanishing point meet precisely at the woman’s finger.The frame behind her reinforces this focus” (National Gallery of Art.


If we look at the technique, we realise that there are many elements in the picture that put an emphasis in the skill and care that Vermeer had while painting. Some of these elements are highlighted in boxes in the following picture.


For example, there were some compositional changes as we can see in the balance. An infrared reflectography made by the National Gallery of Art showed that Vermeer changed the position and size of the balance in order to achieve a better final effect.


Besides, Vermeer used the technique of the camera obscura in order to create some optical effects. For example, some hoglights appear in the picture. They are painted in the pearl necklaces which are on the table. At that time (1660s) Vermeer painted the pearls in two different layers. At one side, he painted a diffused grayish glaze. And just beside that, he painted a thick stroke in order to create a spectacular highlight. These optical effects were usually achieved by using the already mentioned camera obscura.

One of the most important elements in this painting by Vermeer is the light. He used to mixed both dense impastos and thin glazes; “the effect of soft light is achieved through subtle modulations in paint handling” (National Gallery of Art. For example, the face is painted with imperceptable brushstrokes and a finely ground paint.


The paint on the sleeve of the woman changes according to the changes of light: where the light is soft the paint is thin, and where the light is intense the paint becomes thick.


The texture of wool of the jacket is very difficult to achieve. His method was to drag a layer of coarse orange paint over yellow paint, leaving an irregular edge” (National Gallery of Art.


On the whole, just paying a little attention to the picture, we realise that Vermeer was very meticulous about painting with realism, giving optical effects to the painting.


One response to “Vermeer’s Principle: a balanced life

  1. Vermeer was familiar with the various EMBLEM books with their enigmatic pictures and wise admonitions. ALCIATO, in the early part of the 16th century first translated the ancient Greek and Roman sages in his spare hours, had them published and later illustrated. Delighted Europeans became fascinated with this form for two centuries and added many Amor/Love emblem books as well as those based on the Bible.
    In the link above may be seen the possible “link” to the BALANCE in ‘Woman Holding a Balance’ and it’s connection to Vermeer’s main theme in Genre painting – Temperance or Moderation. As the text of the emblem states:
    “”Moderation in things is best,” as Cleobulus said: the tongue of a balance, or level teaches this lesson.” The enigmatic emblem’s picture shows the balance in the top left corner. The horizontal “tongue” from which the pans are hung is the symbol of MODERATION.
    Vermeer was baptised on October 31, which, by reason of the usual quickly-done baptisms following a birth, makes it very likely – almost a certainty, that Vermeer was born in October as well. Accordingly, this would make him a LIBRA, the symbol of which is the BALANCE. In his painting, the Astronomer, the Balance is painted in the exact horizontal centre of the celestial globe on which his hand rests. His Thumb (phallic) rests on Aquarius, which is nine months before Libra.

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