A young woman sleeping


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 Girl Asleep, also known as A Woman Asleep at Table, is a painting by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, 1657. It is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City.

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…

8 responses to “A young woman sleeping

  1. The “Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid” is the same model as the “Sleeping Maid” in Vermeer’s much earlier painting. In fact, reversing the head to a mirror image and placing it beside the sleeping maid proves that it is almost the same head except for the pronounced lighting variance.
    Cesar Ripa in his ICONOLOGIA emblem book, which Vermeer had known, offered an emblem titled IDLENESS. At this link: http://emblem.libraries.psu.edu/Ripa/Images/ripa001a.htm
    It describes an old hag with her head resting on a left hand supported at the elbow by her knee. He also describes her as having her HEAD wrapped in a BLACK CLOTH. The numbing effects of a torpedo fish (which appears to be a small MANTA RAY known for deadly sting) The numbing makes her hand unfit for work. In Vermeer’s painting the numbing effect of the fish is represented/replaced by WINE. The Lady leans on her hand as described and she wears a BLACK WIDOW’S PEAK CLOTH over her blond hair. This item denotes “senseless thoughts”. She does not wear rags , as in the the emblem suggesting the poverty that follows sloth.
    As for the model of the sleeper and the lady writing a letter with her maid; I believe her to be Catharina about 15 years apart.

  2. The following is the copied introductory page to Cesar Ripa’s ICONOLOGIA and gives a sense of the important addition to the societies in Europe that these literary pastimes afforded their readers and especially the artists for two hundred years from annum 1633 onward:

    To the Reader
    This work is owing to the Noble Idea’s and Fancy of Sig. Cesar Ripa, an Italian, who applied himself with indefatigable Study to make a Collection of the Figures of the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and to produce others of his own and other celebrated Authors in this Science: These Images are Representatives of our Notions; they properly belong to Painters, who by Colours and Shadowing have invented the admirable Secret to give Body to our Thoughts, thereby to render them visible. The Ancients were much taken with those Images; witness such varietyof painting their Gods, by which they have so ingeniously concealed the Mysteries of Nature and Philosophy, yea and of Divinity and Religion. This is that Source from whence Poets have drawn their Fables with their Explications; for Example, by the Image of Saturn they represented Time, which devours its own Children; that is to say Days, Months and Years. By Thundring Jove, they signified that Part of the Heavens where the greatest part of the Meteors are form’d. By Venus they express’d the Union of the Materia Prima, with the Form; from whence springs the Beauty and Perfection of all created Beings, &c. The Invention of this Scienceis ascribed to the Egyptians, from whence Pythagoras brought it from the farthest part. Plato tookthe greatest part of his doctrine from those Hieroglyphic Figures. The Prophets themselves veil’d their sacred Oracles with Enigma’s: and our Saviour himself compris’d most of his divine Mysteries under Similitudes and Parables. These Emblems are very properly drawn under human Figures, since Man being the measure of all things, so likewise his exterior Form ought to be lookt upon as the measure of the qualities of his Soul.Here you will findabundance of Figures and Emblems of every thing imaginable; accompanied with curious and solid Morals, owing to very learned Authors. The understanding Peruser of this Book will meet therein Things not only to divert the Mind, but to instruct it, and to inspire him with the Love of Virtue, and Hatred of Vice; and to regulate his Manners, Behaviour and Conduct. This Work has been printed in six several Languages, and is esteem’d the best on the Subject of which it treats, yet extant, for the Instruction of Artists in their Study of Medals, Coins, Statues, Bassorelievo’s, Paintings and Prints and to help their Invention. Upon these Accounts it has been much desired to have the same n ENGLISH, which now we have done for the Public Benefit; not doubting but that it will be acceptable to the Lovers of Art, as well as instructive to all sorts of People whatsoever.

    Many Universities, world-wide are preserving digitally, historically studying, and appreciating the context and richness of the Emblem Books, which can now be enjoyed through the enhanced search and comparative means provided at the University links.

  3. This link also relates an Emblem to the Sleeping girl. Wine and Idleness combine to contribute to LUST.

  4. The May 31, 2009 and the June1, 2009 posts, above, each have links to Cesar Ripa’s Emblems – the former to “Idleness” and the latter to “Lust”. Each have elements in common. They are women with black head coverings (hair and cloth), and resting heads on hands supported by elbows, which denote “senseless thoughts” and “idleness”. The last line of Ripa’s “Lust” emblem is referencing another Emblem writer’s fully illumined allusion to the Venus, the Mother of Cupid (seen, partially, in the background painting-within-a-painting of Vermeer’s Sleeper). That Title or phrase “Sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus” is explained in that emblem in its description here: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mikro020.jpg
    MODERATION is the theme in the phrases found there:

    “Where sobriety reigns, pernicious lust freezes and does not start wars against the Curii [i.e. moderate men]. Wherever drunkenness reigns and abundance, the mother of adultery wages abominable wars.” The link following admits the abundance of contemporary paintings on this mythical story and its moralizing theme:
    The addition of the myth adds the element of the dangers of prosperity through Ceres and her Cornucopia filled with fruit and foodstuffs, which is seen in Vermeer’s fully laden table and the Lady fashion plate, who, fully-clothed, except for a loosened collar or head piece, has dismissed a lover (indicated by the fallen Roehmer glass and consumed nut and fallen asleep on her hand. Formerly Vermeer had painted the husband’s return, apparently, in the adjoining room, with their dog (symbol of faithfulness and fidelity) entering and finding his mistress. Vermeer, despising the obvious and the judgmental, painted out these telling elements. Again and again in his works, Vermeer preaches MODERATION and IEMPERANCE.

  5. The madonna figure in the traditional blue and white dress in Vermeer’s “Allegory of Faith” seems to strike the melodramatic pose of some over-acting silent screen star. It fails to convince. If this figure, with her expression was placed in the context of another baroque painting, such as Ruben’s or Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin” it would gain credibility:
    Vermeer’s prowess and ascendant technical mastery cannot be denied, but only causes grief when I find that I resist the woman’s failure. Both globes are favourite passages. The glass globe reflecting the entire universe, showing man’s ability to believe in God. The allusion to Christ in the Screen behind the crucifix and Bible(Church symbol of the torn curtain of the Temple at His death making God available to man) and to Christ and antichrist in the man on white horseback are beautifully thought out. But that woman…
    Vermeer may have seen such paintings of the Virgin, but none were, to him, as available as the Titian or the Rubens are to us. All that he may have had to view could have been the Goltzius Venus in the etching below:

    It is the Venus from the Sine Cerere et Baccho Friget Venus. Vermeer, as he researched the Sleeping Maid, may have put her away, in memory, for her use in the Allegory. The heads are very like one another in attitude and expression.

  6. http://emblems.let.uu.nl/v1608028.html Emblem Project Utrecht

    Love requyres sinceritie. //////////////////////////\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\ Love requires Sincerity
    Love in what ere hee doth,//////////\\\\\\\\\ Whatever a person who loves does, he
    doth not disquise his face, ///\\\\ Does not disguise or mask true feelings
    His harte lyes on his toung, ////////////\\\\\\\\\\\ His heart is revealed in his speech
    unseen hee never goes, ////////////////////\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\ unseen motives don’t drive him
    Hee weares no Giges ring, ///////////////\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\ He wears no Gyge’s ring
    http://academics.triton.edu/uc/gyges.htm (Plato’s “invisability” ring)
    hee is not one of those, //////////////////////\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\ He is not duplicitous
    Hee doth unclose his thoghts, /////\\\\ His thoughts are spoken transparently
    to gayn unfayned grace ////////////////////////////\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\ to be known as Sincere.
    The transcription of the four line text above to its sense in modern English is mine and should be seen in emblem form with Amor pictured holding a ring and with the mask underfoot, to clarify. Plato’s Republic inserts a story for ethical discussion, which illustrates a view that man, bent on evil benefiting himself, will do evil. In C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”, the author makes a flawless case, to my mind, for a “Moral Law” that is extant and other than Man, but that Man’s evidence is shown to support it, long before an Apology of Christianity and a specific Judeo-Christian God is offered for the evil propensity to which Plato speaks. This emblem of Sincerity in Love had another version stating that it is not possible to hide one’s love in a romantic context; his face and speech would give him away. Perhaps, but the Golden Rule of Christ insists that Love will modify Expression of Truth. Love trumps truth-saying (not Truth) in the same way Confucius’ “…Do to others as they do to you” is nothing like Jesus’ “..Do to others what you would have them do to you.” Temper your truth with love. He told his disciple’s to walk away from those who rejected His gospel and intrinsic judgment. And should a man tell the truth about his love for his neighbour’s wife? Better, it is, to clam up and take the “i” from that claim, altogether! A third and similar emblem has Cupid’s foot on a hare or rabbit, indicating thereby, that only forthright declaration is proper in love of the beloved.
    The Cesaer van Everdingen painting “Amor Holding a Glass Orb” mentioned, in relation to its semblance to wall-occupier in Vermeer’s painting of the maid asleep, can only be offered for its Cupid-like figure and Vermeer’s use of a similar Everdingen in three other works. Everdingen may only be alluding to an aspect of allegory with the bow and quiver for the element of love that Amor allows. He is painted with other putti or (non-Biblical) “cherubs”. These beings flit about, perhaps showing that the Cupid-esque figure is not that singular being of Myth and son of Venus, but only a type or personification of Love. A dissimilar putto is seen tying the hands of a gray figure emerging from or representing death and the grave. Unlike any of Vermeer’s versions, the Amor putto rests a foot on a scull. The foot on something is a denial of an aspect related to that object. That aspect of denial is missing from Vermeer’s oeuvre! Even in the painting of the maid, he does not rest the foot on the mask. Then, Everdingen shows Love holding a glass orb. Daniel Hensius apparently spoke of this orb in an emblem, referring to it as representing Faith. The Orb in Vermeer’s Allegory of (catholic)Faith is said to be a Jesuit symbol showing not only Man reflected, but that it is a mirror of the entire Universe, imaging Man’s ability to gain knowledge and believe in God. Everdingen is declaring Christian Faith, which is the only faith to offer salvation through the conquering of the grave and that the God of Love is the One who holds the hope of that Faith.
    In Vermeer’s picture, a mask, that even seems to be attached to a head in the shadows, is not made an object of denial, as in the emblems, but the opposing view must be considered. This strange image of a sleeping mask, that mimics, as in a dream, the sleeping girl’s dilemma, reveals the maid’s undeniable moral duplicity in the realm of Love.

  7. Sorry to have copy/pasted this post, which is also on Daniel Vergara’s Milkmaid page, due to both paintings having the gateleg table reference, but which included an important addition to the “Sleeping Maid” regarding NUTMEG.

    June 24, 2011 at 10:35 am
    The table onto which Vermeer has painted his wonderful still-life of the basket, the loaf, pieces of bread, a bowl and decanter, has been correctly deduced and its clarity enhanced by a linear drawing. This is the same table – half octagonal in shape – that is seen against a wall beneath a mirror in the far room of “A Young Maid Sleeping”. It is described as a gate-leg, which would indicate that it is hinged at the underside centrally to swing a fourth leg out at the back, to support another half of the tabletop. In the painting at the following link, also, Pieter de Hooch uses a similar, or the same, three-legged side-table and includes two spanish chairs furnished with lion head finials and the diamond-losenged leather-backs: http://www.intofineart.com/usa/oil-painting-picture-07614-HOOCH,%20Pieter%20de-The%20Bedroom%20sg.html Vermeer symbolizes a recent male presence in the darkened room of the sleeper by an almost identical chair that is turned away from her.
    It is quite conceivable, that the artists may have loaned each other items of interest to be used in their works; but each one uses a different number of brass tacks in their construction. At any rate, the table was not a common element in the paintings of that era, which makes the neighbourly loan idea seem more likely.
    It is, I suppose, impossible to identify the two intriguing objects on the table before the girl and beside her wineglass, but they appear to be nuts of some kind. The colours and the shape of the reflection painted in the wine of the maid’s glass may be a clue. The red circle surrounded by a beige shape would mimic the open seed of the nutmeg from the Myristica tree. There is an intoxication and stupification that has been known with the use of a form of nutmeg. There is also toxicity which can kill a human. Van Leeuenhoek was one of the first to study nutmegs pharmacological properties using his microscopy in 1676, the year after Vermeer’s death. Freshly shaved pieces in a glass of wine were said to cause the narcotic effect. The second Anglo/Dutch war (1665-1667) was fought to secure the island of Rhun (Run) in the Indonesian Banda Islands that was the only place that this spice was known to grow. Who can say if this wine and nutmeg combination is the cause of the lady’s stupor.

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