The Girl with a Pitcher of Water



“It’s Mathieu again! I told him to leave me alone.” This could be what she is thinking. It is clear for me that she is observing something that has captivated her. It might be something transcendental or just a look to the streets. That’s why I spent five minutes looking at her position the first time I looked to this painting. Her head slightly down, her hand grabing the window and her expressive face overcame me with emotion.

When I first approached Vermeer’s paintings I thought they were all just the same. He took a model, usually a woman or young lady, and he just painted them doing a domestical something. I never seek farther than this. I lived in Holland for a year and there was a course called ”An Introduction to Dutch Culture”.  At first nothing speciall happened with the course, there was a skinny teacher and a huge class full of dutch students. That was what I actually expected. I thought we were going to be taught the tipical things, spanish and british influences to the culture, german influence to the language and, of course, mills, Van Gogh, tulips and cheese.

Here was when all my clichès brakedown; “Now, listen everyone, we are going to start with a painter”  said the teacher, I look to my best friend there and I told her half disappointed  “Alana, me parece que el Van Gogh me esta empezando a rallar desde ya…” She turned to me and smiled to me motivated, then the teacher continued speaking “…let’s start then with Johannes Vermeer, make note of the outline, please…” Alana looked at me with the kind of expression of someone who knows that I am a whinger; there was the course I dreamt with, something new about Holland.

The magnificent approach we made to the dutch culture was something I never expected in a course like this. When we were told to find a secret in every Vermeer’s painting I was about to laugh. This was one of our final projects, we had to find the secret in every picture, we had to guess what was the thing that Vermeer didn’t paint but suggested.  So, my group and I started the research. Suddenly I secretly fell in love with this painting above.

It is, in my opinion, the picture that best captures the secretism we lead with in the course. Now, the course I took there it is going to be complemented with this I am taking in Bilbo. I am told now to be creative, to let my mind enter the painting.

Let’s try.


Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999)

Spring has come and early sunlight

pools on polished surfaces, splays

into color on silver and glass, touches

her fingers and face and arms,

an unction of reawakening.

Perhaps a box of geraniums hangs form the sill

and, preparing their moring draught, she finds

that one has blossomed in the night.

The passing clouds bring no rain now, only

bear the light along, casting benevolent shadows

on lanes and fields, drawing the eye upward again

that has been bent all winter to the book or the fire

as the huddledbody conserved its warmth

and early darkness drove the spirit inward.

Look how her body opens now:

arms that were body opens now:

arms that were folded spread wide, face

turned to the light like the sturdy petals

of the northern flowers that peek from thick stems

and heavy leaves, reasserting color

after months of drab – pinks and yellows

and mottled greens that bless the eye as light

submits in them to the terms of form and subtance.

And this solid girl, radiant flesh emerging

from skirts and stays, veil and cuffs and collar,

reaches for air and water, forsaking her worldly task

to choose the better part- to pray

the prayer of the grateful body, drink in

 the light that illumines her, and reclaim the moment

from its dailiness, hushed like an acolyte who hears

the sacred gifts and awaits the transformation.



The scholar John Michael Montias has shed the most light upon Vermeer ’s social and economic situation. His seminal research has shown there were at least a small number of people who acquired Vermeer’s paintings during his lifetime or shortly thereafter and that at least one of these, a wealthy collector named Pieter Claez van Ruijven, may have been a significant patron, protecting Vermeer and his family during his lifetime from the vicissitudes of the national economy.

Below, in alphabetical order, is a list of those known to have owned Vermeer paintings during the 17th and early 18th c., with brief commentary for each. By clicking on the descriptive information about each painting in any collector’s inventory, you will view what the consensus of Vermeer specialists believe is the probable painting as it has survived to the present.


It is not an easy chore to reconstruct with precision how Vermeer painted. What we now know of contemporary Dutch 17th c. painting methods is based largely on information gleaned from contemporary painting manuals integrated with the results of modern scientific analysis. Period painting manuals were more apt to discuss theoretic issues of the art of painting rather than practical side of every day studio practice. Even though basic methodology was occasionally outlined and recipes were given for specific palettes, the actual craft of making a picture was largely transmitted from masters to aspiring young artists through years of apprenticeship (normally from 4 to 6). Few historical records of studio practice survive. None of them regard Vermeer.

Although Vermeer experimented ceaselessly with specific techniques to render the effects of natural illumination, evidence points to the fact that he worked largely within the boundaries of traditional studio methods of Northern European artists. These methods were very different than those used by artists today. Modern painters usually execute their works a unified whole. They work while standing so they can walk back to envision the totality of the painting. The painting is worked up directly with full color on a white or off-white canvas. Their palettes usually contain every pigment which will likely be present in the finished work. Experimentation and improvisation play vital roles in the working process. Since craft is not is retained an indispensable component of artistic expression there no longer exists uniform instruction in regards.

Instead, 17th c. painters proceeded according to a relatively fixed step-by-step method which they had assimilated in a master’s studio. The work load was divided into distinct phases in order to deal with the principle pictorial components one at a time. The rationale behind this division of labor was based on both technical and economical reasons. It must be remembered that paintings of the 17th c. were generally far more complex in composition and great attention was given to perspective accuracy, naturalistic illumination and fine detail. Once the drawing and lighting scheme had been worked out in the drawing and underpainting stage, artists worked up their compositions in a piecemeal fashion, completing one restricted area at a time.

Almost all representations of artists at work showed them at work seated holding small palettes. The pigments they possessed were very few compared to those available to any modern painter and usually had to be hand ground each day before setting out to work. Moreover, some pigments were not mutually compatible and had to be used separately. To overcome the scarcity of pigments and the inherent limitations of available materials, artists had learned to compensate through the use of complex pictorial techniques such as monochrome underpainting, glazing and by varying paint consistencies and methods of application.

“Research into painter’s terminology has revealed that for the seventeenth-century painter there were three or four main stages: “inventing”, the “dead-coloring”, and the “working-up”, followed (according to Lairesse) by “retouching”.1

The term “inventing”, corresponds to the modern terms drawing or sketching, “dead-coloring” to underpainting and “working-up” to finishing or the application of color and detail. Each phase, along the preparation of the painting’s support, is discussed in depth on separate pages which can be accessed below. Glazing, a separate technique, is analyzed by itself.


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.


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.


  1. Essential Vermeer (2001) Consulted March-May 2009, from

3 responses to “The Girl with a Pitcher of Water

  1. The Pitcher picture can be read like a secret love-letter. It has the code of symbols of its iconography to tell the tale. The ewer or pitcher and basin are about Purity. Christian art painted the Virtues and this was one. The pitcher and bowl of the Milkmaid has the same meaning, but no other writer will say it, because the meaning of both of these paintings points, not to purity, only, but also to impurity. The Ermine, with it’s black-tipped tail, was for the kings of Europe the symbol of purity, but as is pointed out by by Alcaito in his emblemata, the Romans viewed it as denoting impurity amongst their young women. Vermeer paints a highlighted ermine, I believe on the side of the jewelry box in the Pitcher painting. If it is not an ermine, then he made up for this lack in many of his pictures, with the white fur trim on the yellow jacket!
    I find it sad and dishonest that the experts (to name them is unecessary, as they are legion) will try, in Vermeer’s case, to side-step his moralizing, and considering only other genre painters guilty of “morality” narratives in their preacher paintings. They would ascribe only sweetness and light to their hero. The truth, for them, is hard to swallow when it goes counter to their admiration for the great artist. Do they defend their previously naive statements before new knowledge was obtained? Some lack of perception would embarass, but truth must be owned to make an expert.

  2. 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?

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