This tranquil scene, notable for the simplicity of the forms which define the composition and the relationship between the different shades of red, blue and ochre, presents an idealized vision of feminine virtue and is an excellent example of Vermeer’s exquisite sensitivity in the observation of reality.
From the beginning of the 1660s when this work was produced, Vermeer’s interiors became simpler, and focused less on the construction of the perspective and more on the representation of light, possibly under the influence of Leiden artists such as Metsu and Van Mieris. In contrast to these artists and to his own earlier work, in the 1660s Vermeer painted scenes which do not appear to depict any specific event or activity nor do they offer dues as to what has just happened or is about to happen.
Both the woman’s clothing and the Persian carpet on the table as well as the other carefully arranged objects in the scene identify her as a member of the upper classes, depicted here in a moment of repose. Vermeer’s mastery lies in the way he makes the formal structure of the work correspond to the serenity of the subject matter, allowing the spectator to discover the harmony and beauty beneath the chance events of everyday existence. To achieve this, the details are extremely important, such as the cadence created by the lines of the woman’s arms and her amiable expression which contribute to the warmth and sensation of restraint which the scene conveys. The artist’s care in the design of the composition led him to make changes (right above) as he worked on it beneath her right elbow are traces of a chair, which Vermeer subsequently decided to move back to the wall behind the table. We also know that the map of the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands initially hung closer to the window.
The light is another key element in this work. With great subtlety Vermeer represents the way the light that bathes the scene falls on the metallic objects or the interior frame of the window, while the luminosity of the end wall gives unity to the composition.
It is likely that for a 17th-century viewer, used to looking at religious scenes in which the ewer was an allusion to the Virgin’s purity, the presence of such an object in the present work implies the same connotations of innocence and purity.
The following resources were used for this interactive research: