A Maid Asleep, 1656–57
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–1675)
Oil on canvas
34 1/2 x 30 1/8 in. (87.6 x 76.5 cm)
Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 (14.40.611)
This canvas of 1656–57 is the earliest work by Vermeer to depict his usual subject of one or two figures in a domestic interior. The wine glass and unsettled objects on the table suggest that some social occasion has passed. To the upper left, the corner of a painting of Cupid (known from other pictures by Vermeer) includes a mask and recalls Otto van Veen’s emblem of 1608 entitled “Love Requires Sincerity.” Radiographs reveal that Vermeer originally included a man in the background and a dog in the doorway; these motifs were replaced by the distant mirror and the chair with a pillow to the lower right. In changing the composition, Vermeer made its amorous theme less obvious, just as his remarkable passages of observation obscure his borrowing of ideas from other genre painters, such as Nicolaes Maes.
A MAID ASLEEP ON A TABLE
This painting is the earliest indisputable work by Vermeer. The Rembrandtesque influence in this phase of his life can easily be ascertained from the rich and heavily impastoed pigments used in the painting.
In the left part of the composition is showed a table covered with a glowing Oriental rug pulled up in front. On it is a Delftware plate with fruit, a white pitcher, and an overturned glass or roemer in the foreground. At the far end of the table is a young woman asleep, her head resting on her propped-up right arm and hand; the left one lies negligently flat. To the right is the back of a chair, and in the distance a half-open door that allows the viewer to see into another room.
The theme goes directly back to Rembrandt. One of his drawings, A Girl Asleep at a Window, at the Tuffier Collection, Paris, shows a very similar pose. This, and the type of model, were also adopted by Nicolaes Maes in his Idle Servant, dated 1655, at the National Gallery, London, although there the maid sleeps on her left arm and hand. An identical stance can also be found in Maes’s Housekeeper from a year later, at the Saint Louis Art Museum. It has been suggested that Nicolaes Maes stayed in Delft after having left Rembrandt’s studio, perhaps in 1653 or even later, to move to Dordrecht afterward. In any event, there were ample possibilities for Vermeer to have had access to Rembrandtesque drawings, from a possible stay in the Rembrandt studio to Leonard Bramer and Carel Fabritius. The handling of the light, as well as the deep colouring and heavy paste in the execution, derives from Rembrandtesque techniques of the early 1640s.
Technical examinations revealed that Vermeer made major changes in the course of execution. He initially put a man in the second room instead of the mirror, and a dog in the doorway. He also enlarged the picture on the wall, which shows part of a Cupid in the style of Caesar van Everdingen, which is seen in other of Vermeer paintings. There have been various attempts at emblematic interpretation of the scene.
The paint surface of the still life on the table has suffered from abrasions and restorations.
“Dreams” -an story inspired by Vermeer’s painting
It has never been easy to be the eldest daughter, particularly if your mother has given birth to other seven children after you. Since I was very young I have always been forced to behave properly and to grow up too fast leaving my childhood abandoned in a remote space of my unconsciousness. I could only visit it in my dreams where nobody would tell me off for behaving as a child. This technique helped during my first years of consciousness, but, as time passed by and my family grew in number, my chances to sleep were gradually reduced. And even if I got a moment to dive into my dreams, these would not appear due to my exhausted soul.
However, Nature is very clever and it had taught me to resign myself to taking care of my siblings without complaining and also to behaving as young lady would in order to get my parents proud of me.
At the age of fifteen I already had to take care of six out of my seven siblings, and I had to do it without neglecting my studies. I was also in charge of going to the market every morning in order to help our maid with the shops. It wasn’t my favorite task, to be honest, as I had to stand all the market smells that had concentrated in the environment. Apart from that, it was quite nice to see the streets crowded of people from different countries and exchanging different items between them. However, my father always made sure I didn’t get in touch with anybody –I guess it was his technique to overprotect me.
My father, a righteous man, had already organized all my life: what to do, where to go, when, with whom… Even my marital life was settled. He had his own business shared with another businessman whose son had never succeeded in keeping a conversation with a girl due to his shyness. They both had arranged to get us married as soon as I turned sixteen. Sincerely, I wasn’t really looking forward to getting married
because I had only see John –that was “my boy’s” name- a couple of times in some of the parties my father used to arrange for Christmas. And, as both of us shared this “introversion”, we only exchanged a few gentle greetings between us. Anyway, it was my father’s desire and I would do anything in order to content him.
In the other, hand I was in charge of my siblings’ education. Although they were of different age I gave them the class at the same time all together: Science, Maths, Literature, English, Dutch… It was a tough task I enjoyed it though. Fortunately all my brothers and sisters were quite curious kids and they didn’t use to keep a single doubt in their minds, it was so refreshing… If my parents gave me their consent I’m pretty sure I would dedicate my life to the teaching field, but, as you can guess, my already organized future was linked to the house-keeping life.
With such scheduled days I learned to enjoy the little pleasures life offered to me. One of them was staying at home while all my family –parents, siblings and maids- went to spend the whole weekend to the country. Those days I loved to read on the floor opposite the chimney, or to see peasants working in the field, or simply to take a nap on a chair with my arms and head on the table and feeling the warm from the fire caressing my skin. Those little sleeps were a treasure to me; I could dream of doing anything I wasn’t allowed to do when awake: travelling by my own, chatting with everybody from
the village, running down the hills while singing some folk songs… Oh dreams! Without them the human being would be incapable of solving his inner conflicts… They were the best medicine a doctor could ever suggest. Fantasy dreams, love dreams, mystery dreams, passionate dreams. And dream, dream, dream…