Richard A. Smith on Girl with a Pitcher of Water

Vermeer is speaking to the main theme of his body of work, which is Temperance, or Moderation based on pure motives. The young woman in the Pitcher painting is prepared to wash herself and has poured the water to the basin for that purpose. The act of purification from the grit and grime of the world would appear to be Vermeer’s assignment to the lady in this work, but her progress is interrupted by what may appear to be, at first sight, thoughtful inactivity. Yet Vermeer leaves clues to his real intent for this painting, by the means of the woman’s physical connection to the symbol of purity–the ewer and basin, but also to the open window. Open casement windows in dutch genre painting have iconographic significance and are meant as a warning to women of the dangers of not paying attention to household matters (minding ones own affairs), and the lures of the outside world to social and moral ills to which she may be attracted. The lady has departed from her original intent, however briefly, and, we may assume, to dwell on innocent household matters to which her new days efforts will be spent addressing or just a pleasant interlude. Vermeer does not leave that interpretation open to the observer. The lady holds the window open, but does not look out to the street. Physically, the open window is behind her, and, as her downcast eyes to the floor are not actively engaged or focused on anything that we can discern, why would we assume that the symbolism of the casement window, being open, is a problem? The answer is not apparent at first, but one troubling observation with regards the lady’s other hand on the pitcher is very revealing about the state of her mind and, symbolically, the moral state of the woman. Vermeer shows and indicates that the absorbed mind of the woman is involved in an intemperate activity when he pictures the lady’s absentmindedness. For, it is not logical that the lady would put down the pitcher in the bowl of the basin after she had filled it! Vermeer cleverly shows the viewer that the woman is not attending to her work as she should.
What, then is she attending to? It is true that her eyes do not betray her, by peering out of the window, but that does not preclude the woman from engaging the world outside with her ears. Is it plausible, then, that Vermeer is addressing her penchant for eavesdropping on her neighbours. After all, isn’t listening a prime activity of the gossip?
Twice, in his ouvre Vermeer used the visual device of the ebony map weight in an identical fashion. In this picture and the Luteplayer, he placed the map weight in close proximity to the crook of the women’s necks. It has the visual effect of slowing down the movement of the viewers eye, as it passes through the space behind their heads. In both cases, it has the effect of freezing their heads in their respective places. The lady with the lute is tuning her lute and listening as she turns a peg on the head of the instrument. Is it not likely that Vermeer has used the same painterly device to portray a woman listening at an open window?

One response to “Richard A. Smith on Girl with a Pitcher of Water

  1. Thanks, and mazel tov! Maialen.
    I believe that you and I have agreed with Vermeer!

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