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Johannes Vermeer’s “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher”

The city of Delft was one blessed place to have a great painter born in it midst. On the month of October of the year 1632, Johannes Vermeer was given birth and baptized, soon to become a very famous painter (Huerta, 2003). His works span a lifetime of greatness, capturing subjects, which are mostly women, in great detail and finesse. He was able to extract life from the subject and put it in the canvass using various techniques with extreme carefulness. His manner of painting became known to all because of his ability to manipulate the objects around his subject, making them more pronounce or less obscure if needed to.

One of his well known paintings is entitled the “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher”. This was created at around 1660-1667 on a canvass with a size of 18 by 16 inches. Today, this is part of the Marquand Collection, as a gift of Henry G. Marquand in 1889. Its title is a literal representation of its subject, for the painting centers on a woman in middle of a room holding a water pitcher in her hand. Surrounding her are several objects – such as a table, a box, a portion of a map, and a chair. The woman is wearing a blue dress with a white veil on her.

There also seems to be a yellow jacket worn above the blue overall. Her left hand is holding the pitcher, while her right hand is on the window. The position of her right hand suggests that she is opening the window from the room. Very much catching, the painting is indeed very subtle in attracting attention, the soft texture and the smooth details bestow a relaxing aura for any viewer. Below is a digital image of the painting taken from the web (Janson, 2008). In order to understand Vermeer’s work, one should first note a little about the artist’s background.

He was born during the 17th century, a period of scientific bloom in terms of researchers and inventions. Parts of what was created during this period are the microscope, telescope, thermometer, barometer, and the air pump (Huerta, 2003). While these inventions fascinate the scientific community, it was the lenses that caught Vermeer’s attention. As a tool for examining and viewing things, Vermeer began drawing inspiration from these materials. With the aid for several instruments, he studied light and its properties.

He made several paintings which are deeply rooted in the optical properties of his subjects (Huerta, 2003). Part of his growing interest for light can also be traced back to an issue that bloomed during this period. As science progressed, more and more things were rationalized. Of course these led to the church’s dismay. The church leaders then took actions, preventing scientific progress at any cost. One thing they did is to give a bad reputation for lenses, and for their ability to see things more than the senses can.

This means that since the microscope can see organisms not visible to the naked eye, it is bad for the church. All of these theories led to the glorification of optics, and light became a symbol for God (Huerta, 2003). This drove Vermeer to further study light and incorporate it in his paintings. Until today, all of Vermeer’s painting are solely based on his interplay of light, on how he uses objects to cast shadows and create interesting pattern. In the painting “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher”, light is evident.

One can see it coming from the window on the left side of the painting. And as common sense would have dictated, this is logically correct – for light to come from the window. There are no other places for it to come from, since there are no lights or lamps inside the room. It is also interesting to note that although the painting shows a single window, the placement of the woman’s hand and the hinge of the window suggest that a second half of the window exists, but is covered by the opened one (Jason, 2008).

The center of attention for many is the pitcher and the basin on which it was placed. The design of the pieces could have been copied from a rich man’s property, for it is quite expensive for one to own those kind of pieces during Vermeer’s time. One expert suggests that the pitcher is from Vermeer’s mother-in-law Maria Thins (Jason, 2008). Upon closer inspection, one can see the reflection of the table cloth on the basin. The image however is not quite similar to the cloth’s intricate design. One can also see the shadow that the basin casts on the table.

It is a very small detail but was given much attention by the painter. This shows Vermeer’s intricate touch and discipline in designing his works. Talking about the table cloth, its design is Oriental in nature. Historians believe that the designs became popular with Europeans, who acquired them in their travels or by trades and barters. The design was painted real nicely, although we don’t know for sure if Vermeer diligently copied the design or made it from scratch. There are instances where the same designs can be seen in different paintings of Vermeer.

The style in the “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” is however quite unique and seen only in this particular painting. It is, however known that cloths like these are normally portrayed as floor carpets, or cloths for covering chests (Jason, 2008). Another element that reveals Vermeer’s subtleness is on the face of the woman. The color is very soft to the feeling, even though most of it was covered with light and shadows. The choice of colors blended very smoothly. Aside from this, the face had almost no expression at all. The quiet, timid face tends to express domesticity (Jason, 2008).

For me, the face is absolutely in peace, with no frown or smile, it tends to show a sign of neutrality. Aside from this, the lighting of the whole room adds to the glow and warmth of the woman’s face. Aside from his ability to manipulate light, Johannes Vermeer is also known to employ symbolism in his paintings. As mentioned earlier, his use of light normally denotes glory, or purity in a sense. In this painting, the overflowing light shows a gracious entry, maybe suggesting the purity of the woman in the subject. Another possible symbol is the box on the table, which looks like a jewelry box.

It has a velvet lining, with some blue ribbon slipping out. From its design, it looks like what a rich person would have. Or it may have meaning on the wealth status of the woman. Whiteness is also another symbol Johannes used a lot. Sometimes he would depicts white pearls, and in this painting a great white headdress drapes on the woman’s head (Wheelock, 1995). White is another symbol for purity, which adds to the glory of the woman in the painting. The painting also reveals another thing about Vermeer. His urge to change elements after painting them.

Using a technique called x-ray reflectogram, historians are able to view subjects which were initially in the painting but painted over. In this particular painting, Vermeer initially placed another chair between the window and the table. Its position, however, seemed to obstruct the total picture and block the way of light. Vermeer then probably decided to scrap it out, and painted a wall over it instead, leaving the space blank. Another are on which the painter changed his mind is on the hanging map located at the right most area of the canvass.

Initially, the map covered almost half of the upper side, extending until the woman’s head. The outcome again seems to be cluttered for Vermeer, and removed it as well (Jason, 2008). In effect, the painting became a very light-oriented and soft spoken masterpiece. The interplay of light and shadow became a trademark of Vermeer, and his ability to create figures as if they are real impresses most of today’s painters. Personally, I am very moved by the painting “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher”. It is truly a work of art, one that would give the audience an idea on the life and inspiration of the painter.

Works Cited: Huerta, R. D. (2003). Giants of Delft. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. Janson, J. (2008, October 15). Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. Retrieved February 9, 2009 from http://www. essentialvermeer. com/catalogue/young_woman_with_a_water_pitcher. html Janson, J. (2008, October 15). Young Woman with a Water Pitcher: A Virtual Reconstruction Retrieved February 9, 2009 from http://www. essentialvermeer. com/virtual_restoration/vr_one. html Wheelock, A. K. (1995). Vermeer & the Art of Painting. Connecticut:Yale University Press.

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