Woman with a water jug

Woman with a Water Jug, also known as Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, is a painting finished between 1660–1662 by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in the Baroque style. It is oil on canvas, 45.7cm x 40.6 cm, and is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This painting is one of a closely related group painted in the early to mid 1660s where the artist appears to be moving away from an emphasis on linear perspective and geometric order. He seems to be moving to a simpler form using only one figure and emphasizing the use of light.

The picture is taken from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/young_woman_with_a_water_pitcher.html


The Virtual Reconstruction of the picture

This virtual reconstruction of the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher provides a reasonable hypothesis of the artist’s original pictorial concept. The same map which appears today once occupied more of the background and reached behind the standing woman. Today, if one observes carefully, a barely perceptible shift in tone along the original left-hand edge of the map may be noted. Likewise, the silhouette of the back of a Spanish chair with lion-head finial has left an observable pentimento(NB: a pentimento is an alteration in a painting, evidenced by traces of previous work, showing that the artist has changed his mind as to the composition during the process of painting) underneath the young woman’s outstretched arm.

The changes in composition likely were made during an early phase of the painting procedure, called underpainting, before color and detail had been introduced even though the now-excluded chair seems to have been brought to a good degree of finish. In the simplest terms, an underpainting is a monochrome version (usually brown or neutral gray) in which the artist fixed the layout of the composition, created volume and distributed darks and lights in order to produce an overall effect of illumination. With a minimum of time a great part of the artist’s pictorial ideas could be envisioned. The parts of the painting which did not match the artist’s expectations could be corrected with relative ease.

The virtual reconstruction of this work is based on naked-eye observation and infrared reflectograms which reveal hidden levels of dark paint in the case they contain black pigment. The painting can be virtually reconstructed to an acceptable degree since we know the real dimensions of the two objects that Vermeer altered.

The final composition appears less cluttered and more focused on the central figure of the woman.


Describing the details of the picture

The Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands
published by Huyck Allart (active c. 1650-1670)

This wall map of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands was published by the Dutch cartographer Huyck Allart. The only known example of Allart’s map, which bears the date of 1671, is preserved in the University Library, Leiden. The copper plates used to print the map (originated in the beginning of the century) were acquired from an earlier source. Although Allart’s map is identical in its geographical contents, a few decorative cartouches seen on Vermeer’s version were added to give it a new look.

Originally, Vermeer had placed the map directly behind the young girl. Its vertical edge ran down just to the left of the point where the young woman’s cap meets the shoulder covering.

No convincing iconographic interpretation has been given to the map even though it plays a fundamental role in the composition. Other than for scientific purposes, maps were widely used as a decorative element in Dutch homes and were published in great quantities.

This kind of hanging rod (called rollen) was depicted in countless times in Dutch genre interiors of the time. The weight of the lower hanging rod maintained the map flat and the curious spherical balls on each end kept it from rubbing against the damp wall. In simpler homes, they were simply attached with tacks. Maps were usually glued on cloth to give them more consistency.

In Vermeer’s picture, the hanging rod has a curious blue tone produced by the presence of natural ultramarine. Natural ultramarine, the most costly pigment of all, was used throughout this composition in an almost obsessive quantity, but it is not sure if Vermeer intended it dominate to such a degree or if the pigment has intensified over time. The position of the ball that nestles in the angle of the girl’s headdress was not casual. It appears in the same position in his Woman with a Lute (detail above) of the same period.

This window seems to be the same as the one represented in Vermeer’s earlier Music Lesson. The window frame hinges to the left which means that there is a second frame behind it even though one would imagine that the young girl is very near to the back wall.

Some observers have wished to see the young girl opening the window in order to water flowers outside, although it is unlikely that such a precious gilded-pitcher would have been considered appropriate for such a menial chore.

On close inspection it can be seen that the depiction of the glass was broken down into exquisitely shaped abstract patches of opaque paint forming a sort of mosaic of delicately balanced color. Blue ultramarine was used in this area extensively and has even be lightly layered over the lead molding which had been first defined in a neutral gray.

As Vermeer expert Walter Liedtke eloquently wrote: “the woman’s hands and forehead are rendered as if their anatomy were unknown, in the blurred shapes suggesting slight movement and the intensity of daylight. Compared with Vermeer’s other women of the 1660’s, she is somewhat inexpressive, which partially accounts for her universal appeal. She is an icon of domesticity, an intangible figure from a gentleman’s dream.”

A similar white cap to the one worn by the young woman in this painting was represented in four other paintings by Vermeer and in a countless number of Dutch genre paintings of the time both tied and open. It was partly ornamental and served to protect the hairdo before and after dressing. In the inventory of Vermeer’s wife, Catharina Bolnes, three such caps were listed “drye witte kappen” although it was also called a hooftdoek in Delft. It was typically made of white linen, sometimes of nettlecloth or cotton.

One of the most striking technical passages of this painting is the distinctly blue hue of the headdress’ shadows. Vermeer had already exploited this particular effect in his earlier Girl with the Wineglass. Painters of the time invariably used a straightforward mixture white tempered by black or black and umber to create the shadows of white objects and the introduction of the costly ultramarine blue is considered unique to Vermeer’s oeuvre. The headdress takes on freshness and radiance not to be seen until 200 years later when the French Impressionists began to experiment with a similar technique for rendering shadows with clean colors rather than neutral grays.

A similar yellow bodice with black braiding appears in other Vermeer’s including The Music Lesson (see detail left) and A Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. A similar garment may also be worn by the old women sewing in the open doorway of the Little Street. Marieke de Winkel, Dutch costume expert, points out that this type of garment was usually worn in daily circumstances and that it was sometimes called a schort except in Leiden where it was referred to as a wacht. Only a few examples of these bodices have survived.

Although Vermeer was influenced deeply by the themes, compositions and illusionist qualities of the fijnschilders (fine painters) Gerrit Dou and Gerard ter Borch, it is surprising to see how loosely he applied paint in comparison to their truly microscopic renderings.

This gown, rendered with shades of natural ultramarine and black, is painted so broadly that neither the material nor the play of light on its folds can be made out. The artist seems most concerned with conveying the simplicity and purity of its reassuring, bell-like form. Both contours are subtly blended with the white background. In Vermeer’s single-figure paintings of the mid-1660s, detail is always subordinated to the exigencies unified whole and texture is suggested rather than described.

Spanish Chair
1st half 17th century
Purplewood, varnished black, oak and pine,
upholstered in green cloth
105 x 44,5 x 41,1 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Although only a small portion of the chair appears in this composition, it seems to be very similar to ones seen in his earlier works, Officer and Laughing Girl and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. These so-called Spanish chairs probably derived their name from the use of leather instead of cloth as was common practice in Spain. They were so prized that their makers’ regarded themselves as a distinct and superior group within the craftsman guilds. Similar chairs can be seen countless times in genre interiors of Vermeer’s time.

The gilded pitcher and its basin constitute one of the most exquisite passages in the artist’s oeuvre. Its beauty and delicacy would seem to justify one critic who asserts that while Vermeer painted not a single still life, some of the world’s most beautiful still lives are contained within his interior compositions. The pitcher appears as if it had been materially decomposed and then recomposed with the liquid light of the painter’s palette.

Although viewers invariably are stunned by the apparent realism of the objects of the still life, the basin’s rim is not continuous as it passes behind the pitcher and it can be noted that the reflection of the rug’s underside does not correspond with the design of the rug itself. A radiographic reflectogram, which reveals hidden layers of paint, also shows that Vermeer had originally intended the basin to be wider and of a different shape.

The model for pitcher may have been owned by Vermeer’s mother-in-law Maria Thins. Vermeer expert John M. Montias believes that it was probably the one Maria gave to her daughter Catharina in one of her testaments. He argues that a gilded jug was such a rare and valuable object that it is doubtful there could have been another in the Thins household.

The ornate jewelry box and the bright blue cloth draped over the chair counter-balance the strongly centralized composition. A few pearls timidly peep out of the open box and a light blue ribbon gracefully falls forward, perhaps the fastener of the pearl necklace. The box and its content are usually associated with the morning toilette even though recent criticism has stressed that Vermeer tended to avoid conventional narrative. Tones of ochre and brown suggest rather than precisely define the surface decorations of the box.

The red velvet lining has faded somewhat although it is more intense along the edge of the canvas where it has been protected by the picture’s frame. This area most likely had been glazed the deep transparent ruby-red pigment called madder lake over an orange-toned layer of opaque vermilion in order to achieve a deep luminous red.

Husband and Wife (detail)
Lorenzo Lotto
98 x 118 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

The richly designed Oriental carpets with their curious ornaments appealed greatly to European artists and may be considered an intersection of two civilizations. “European painting by the great masters from Giotto and Ghirlandaio to Holbein, Van Eyck, Lotto, and Vermeer constantly depict carpets from Turkey and Iran. Such paintings document the importance that the Oriental carpet had attained by this time as a quintessential symbol of cosmopolitan taste and affluence. So valued were these carpets that there were various attempts to imitate or adapt them in Europe.”* With the rapid expansion of the foreign trade of the Netherlands, colorful oriental carpets became very popular in the 16th and particular in the 17th century as decorative objects, laid on tables or chests. In Europe, these rare and costly carpets were generally used to cover tables, chests or trunks to minimize their wear. It has even been suggested that their colors influenced the palette of Venetian painting. In painters’ depictions they only rarely appear on the floor. Very few of the real carpets have survived.

We do not know if Vermeer represented the design and color of the carpets seen in his paintings with absolute fidelity. For example, the rug that appears in the early Christ in the House of Martha and Mary seems to be identical in design with the one represented in the Maid Asleep. They have in common a broad, light orange border ending in a fringe but the medallion in the former is colored yellow, in the latter green. It is not evident whether Vermeer used one rug as a model and painted imaginary variations on it or, less likely, whether he had two similar but distinct objects before his eyes.

* Nazmiyal News & Information on Antique Oriental and Persian Carpets

Play with colours. The use of natural ultramarine in Vermeer’s oeuvre

One of the most remarkable examples of Vermeer’s use of natural ultramarine can be found in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. Although, as it might be expected, it was the principle pigment used to depict the folded blue drapery on the table, natural ultramarine was also employed to evoke the incoming daylight passing through the glass panes of the open window. Vermeer applied delicate admixtures of opaque and semi-transparent natural ultramarine and white over the warm tone of the canvas preparation in order to register the varying degrees of intensity of light as it plays on and through the surface of the uneven glass. Observed with care, we can see that even the dark brown lead molding has been painted with ultramarine. The contrast between the bluish glass and the warm-toned sunlit portion of the window frame is absolutely natural.

The headdress worn by the young woman presents an even more striking example of this technique. It appears to have been first modeled in shades of white and neutral gray. Once dry, delicate shades of genuine ultramarine and lead white were superimposed over the shadowed areas to render the candid transparency of the starched cloth inundated by sunlight. No other Dutch painter dared so much and yet these passages are striking for their absolute naturalness. Natural ultramarine is even found in the light gray paint of the background wall. The combined effect of the aged varnish and the blue in the wall mixture produce a subtle green undertone which may not have been the artist’s intentions.

Artistic transformation

In the early 1660s, Vermeer turned away from the hollow cube-type painting of Pieter de Hooch and other artists of Southern Holland to a new type of composition which had been successfully pioneered by Gerard ter Borch and Frans van Mieris, both extraordinarily successful in the genre of interior painting.

Vermeer’s former preoccupation with three-dimensional space, created by a complex orchestration of architectural features, linear perspective and overlap, suddenly gave way to four compositions of the incomparable simplicity. Each of these works presents a single female figure absorbed in some mundane activity captured unaware in a shallow middle ground inundated by natural light. Motifs, whether they be animate or inanimate, are treated impartially and stripped of any anecdotal detail which might distract the viewer. Contours are no longer uniformly sharp as in the early works but softly blurred and daringly simplified. The aesthetic result is a tender, luminous tremor unequalled by his contemporaries whose works seem motionless and frozen by comparison. The shapes described by the contours of the individual objects, which Vermeer notable Walter Liedtke eloquently terms “luminous silhouettes,” are gauged and aligned one to another on the painting’s surface rather than in depth as if they were a part of some grand, meaningful puzzle.

The surface qualities of the motifs lose much of their textural qualities assuming a curious optical character which many experts credit to Vermeer’s experimentations with camera obscura vision. Like few other artists, Vermeer was able to progressively adapt his painting technique to the new artistic vision. Gone are the uneven textures of the canvas surface and the knotty build-up of impasto paint. To evoke the new uncluttered optical world, form is slowly built up by applying sequential layers of thin, semitransparent paint. The canvas surface resemble the sheen of the luxurious materials worn by the artists models.

In each of the works, the figure strikes a pose that in reality could be held for considerable length of time in order to avoid coming into conflict with the inherent stillness of the painted reality. However, if attentively observed, the figure in the present work nonetheless leans to the right-hand side of the composition, a bit off balance in real life. Her unbalanced posture introduces a tension and expectancy into the rectangular composition. The “imbalance” is properly anchored by a strong, axial line which runs down from the vertical edge of the map through the standing jug (see left).

That Vermeer’s compositions are among the most highly determined in the history of easel painting is rendered more astonishing by the fact that they never interfere with the naturalistic reading of the scene.

“Negative space” and pictorial design

Vermeer’s sensitivity to pictorial design finds no parallel in Western art. Each and every element of the picture plane is determined with the utmost care in order to create a perfectly balanced, yet subtly dynamic composition, which, unlike abstract paintings of today, were not meant to appreciated in themselves but to focus and activate the scene which is represented. The value of a composition can be judged by how successfully it relates to the motif.

One of the highest achievements in Vermeer’s composition was the pervasive manipulation of the so-called negative spaces, or those areas of an image between the solid objects that are perceived as empty spaces. Normally, the viewer senses these negative spaces as leftovers. Their presence is not sensed as meaningful. Oppositely, Vermeer lends each one a clear simple, yet interesting shape capable of exerting its own visual power subliminally vying for the observer’s attention. For Vermeer the artist, everything component of a painting merits equal attention.

The negative shapes, represented in the present work by the light gray background wall, and the positive shapes (the objects) interlock as if some sort of grand puzzle creating a sense of inevitable pictorial unity lending unsuspected resonance to the temporal gesture of the woman.

Technical description of the picture

The support is a plain-weave linen with a thread count of 14 x 14 per cm². The canvas has been lined and the original tacking edges have been removed.

The ground is pale gray and contains lead white, chalk, and umber. In the brightly lit areas of the wall is a thin gray layer, slightly paler than the ground, containing some ultramarine. Yellow ocher was added to this layer in the shadows and half-shadows. The left shaded side of the basin has a red underpaint that extends under the adjacent part of her skirt. It is visible as a red outline describing the top edge.

The composition has been altered. There once was a chair with lion’s head finials in the lower left foreground and the map on the back wall was located further to the left in line with the left edge of the woman’s headgear. The red velvet lining of the jewelry box lid has faded, though the color is still intense where it has been shaded by the frame. Abrasion along all edges and in thin-glazed shadows, as well as scattered flake losses, are present.

* Johannes Vermeer (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis – Washington and The Hague, 1995, edited by Arthur Wheelock)

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