Girl With a Pitcher of Water

With a few exceptions – The Music Lesson being the most obvious – Vermeer in the early 1660s moved away from the type of interior that he, De Hooch, and other painters (such as Ludolf de Jongh in Rotterdam) had painted in the period about 1657-6, and adopted an approach that in some respects was closer to that of the Leiden artists Metsu and Frans van Mieris. The preoccupation with linear perspective and geometric order diminished in favor of simpler compositions, in which the view is usually brought in closer, only one figure is depicted, and the behavior of light becomes the dominant aesthetic concern.

The description of light on surfaces such as fine materials, metal, and glass had already engaged Vermeer in The Letter Reader,  The Milkmaid, and other paintings of about 1657-58, partly in response to Leiden artists. De Hooch’s style of the late 1650s  offered a different model in that space and light are more broadly rendered, and details are textures generalized. A similar approach is found in the oeuvres of Carel Fabritius and Emanuel de Witte, and from the beginning Vermeer was also  predisposed to an optical rather than a tactile manner. His style of the 1660s is a distinctive synthesis of qualities absorbed from various sources in a highly selective way. Light, broad areas of shadow, and pregnant spaces reveal close observation and a survey of current artistic alternatives. Qualities that might have been admired in the same sources-for example, the precise drawing that commonly accompanies an enthusiasm for artificial perspective (as in De Man’s work) and the dwelling upon surface incident for which Gerard Dou was known-were passed over by Vermeer. Pieter Teding van Berkhout’s appreciation of perspective in Vermeer, expressed in 1669 would have been appropriate for paintings like The Glass of Wine and The Music Lesson, but the “most curious aspect” of the artist’s work after the early 1660s was his consistent description of forms and space in terms of light and color values despite the importance of perspective in his work.

These considerations bear upon the placement of the Marquand canvas in Vermeer’s oeuvre. Recently it was dated to about 1664-65 and interpreted as a mature instance of “Neo-platonic” composition, something of which no other Dutch artist has been accused. Lawrence Gowing more plausibly suggested a date of about 1661-62 and with a surprising but incisive choice of words described the painting as “the most primitive of its type,” which he finds in more mature form in Woman in Blue Reading a Letter and other works that he dates to about 1662-64 and groups together as “pearl pictures” (in honor of Woman with a Pearl Necklace).

The painting’s wonderful sense of order and harmony was achieved by restricting the color scheme mostly to whites and values of the three primaries, by framing the conical figure with rectangular shapes, and by suspending animation through an intense study of light effects. In general terms, the design is a reduction of the De Hooch-like compositions found in the paintings in Berlin, Brunswick, and the Frick Collection, where in each case a standing man hovers over a seated woman; the figures and furniture form pyramids in a Cartesian realm. The admirable but rather deliberate dovetailing of motifs (in The Glass of Wine for example, the ‘bench is slotted between the wall and table like a strip of marquetry) continues in the present picture: the woman’s left arm extends the contours of the pitcher; the map’s wood bar tucks into the angle of her shoulder and head (the map originally extended much farther to the left, so that the head was framed in a corner); and the “negative” shapes within and around the contours of the figure are all given their proper visual weight (which required removing a chair from the corner). The pose of the figure and placement of the table have a noble ancestry descending from Van Miereveld’s state portraits to Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (the cavalier contemplating a young woman in The Glass of Wine has some affinity with Rembrandt’s philosopher). Of course, Vermeer did not derive ideas from these sources but simply shared with them a high regard for the classical tradition.

The painting’s design exquisitely suits its subject, which is an idealized view of feminine beauty and virtue. Dou painted pictures of old women, their heads less elegantly covered, watering plants outside of windows, and also pictures of an attractive young woman opening a window or pushing a curtain aside. Vermeer may have conflated two such images or derived his version from a Leiden model now unknown. That the artist avoids conventional narrative has been stressed by recent writers. However, a contemporary viewer would have recognized the head and shoulder coverings, the silver-gilt basin and pitcher (with which one would not normally water plants), and the jewelry box as the accoutrements of a well-to-do city woman’s toilette. That she opens or looks out the window does not disturb, indeed enhances, the sense of unself-conscious activity. Vermeer represents but a moment of private life, and a patrician ideal.

The following resources were used for this interactive research: