Art historians concur that Johannes Vermeer was an enigma. He did not leave any written word about his inspiration or his commentary on his artworks. However, what is clear, is that Vermeer had a fascination with light. He wanted to demonstrate his skill with light and almost always used natural lighting from a window, usually on the left side. Vermeer usually focused the light on the subject matter of the painting, generally by hitting their faces. Women were a popular subject of his, and he often showed a variety of women completing a diversity of tasks. However, these tasks did not represent a person, like in history painting. His women were partaking in chores that ordinary women would do every day. This subject matter is called genre painting. It is a complete mystery to art historians who these women were and what role they played in Vermeer’s life. However, they play a part in history by modeling what the “normal life” of a woman would be like in the everyday. Women, while not allowed equality with men, still lived suitable and productive lives. Vermeer wanted to show the amazingly ordinary things that women do every day and he did that by shining a light on the everyday tasks of women that were often taken for granted.
Johannes Vermeer, Woman Reading a Letter, 1663, oil on canvas, 46.5 × 39 cm, Eregalerij Collection.
Vermeer focuses in on a woman reading a letter. She gazes down at the letter, with almost a sorrowful
expression claiming her face. The chair is pushed back behind her, almost as if she has stood up
suddenly, perhaps from the shock of what she is reading. She is wearing a light blue top hanging very
loosely over a greyish skirt. The style suggests that she could be pregnant, though that is not clear.
Vermeer paints the light coming through an unseen window from the left. It hits her face, but her
back hides in the shadow. An unknown scroll picture hangs from the wall, a familiar background for
a Vermeer painting. The chairs with its metal circles were prevalent in Vermeer’s artworks as well as
the simple layout of the room. The room appeared to be small and focused on the objects in the room
adding to the scene being portrayed.
Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace, 1662, oil on canvas, 45 x 55 cm, Gemaldegalerie Collection.
Vermeer positions the woman facing to the left with her eyes gazing straight out of the window. Light streams through the window, hitting the woman’s torso. She is dressed in gold and fur, perhaps showing that she is wealthy. Her hands pull the necklace around her neck straight out to clasp it. Ordinary objects such as a brush, a box, and fabric grace the table. The room is simple, with simple decorations, following the pattern that Vermeer had set for most of his paintings. Despite the brightness of the light and the woman’s gold and fur top, the composition has a heaviness to it, possibly from the dark, menacing shadow lurking below on the left-hand side. This darkness compared with the bright of the light and the woman putting the necklace on suggests that it was the beginning of another day in the life of this mysterious woman.
Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1660, oil on canvas, 45.5 x 41 cm, Eregalerij Collection.
The focal points of this painting, like many of Vermeer’s paintings, is the woman doing a daily task with light coming through a window. In this painting, the light fills more of the room, leaving the shadow to not cast on the back of the room, but mostly from underneath the window itself and the wall that holds the window. The maid is pictured pouring milk from a pitcher into a bowl. Bread surrounds the bowl along with another pitcher like container, this suggesting that the maid is preparing a meal. Her dress is a simple yellow top with a red skirt, but the brightest color belongs to the blue on the apron/overskirt around her waist. The walls are blank; only a nondescript picture adorn the walls. A basket hangs by the window, implying a kitchen as the setting.
Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, 1662, oil on canvas, 18 x 16 in, 89.15.21
Vermeer draws attention to the woman who appears to be doing two things at once. She is gazing out the window with a downward gaze, with one hand on the window sill, and the other grasped around a water pitcher. The light softly hits the woman’s face, traveling throughout the room slowly getting darker. The woman is dressed while standing in a small plainly furnished room with a small table to her left with a chair tucked behind. The water pitcher perched in a bowl, with blue fabric and a box containing jewelry sit on top of the table. The woman appears to be taking a moment to watch a scene taking place below her, or perhaps, enjoying a gentle breeze hitting her face. The painting is saturated in blues and has a very calming presence about it. The piece communicates this calmness in the daily life of work.
Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, 1670-72, oil on canvas, 51.7 x 45.2 cm, NG1383.
This painting carries the themes that Vermeer had in many of his paintings: the light flowing through the window and hitting a young woman who is completing an everyday task. However, this particular painting is different because the young woman’s back is to the window, rather than her face it. This makes the woman’s face darker, instead of illuminated. The room is simple as in most of his paintings, but there are more paintings on the wall which are very descriptive, allowing the viewer to see the subject matter. The room is furnished with only the virginal and a chair. Despite this, her dress and the paintings address her as a wealthy lady who is about to play the virginal. Her face is not happy, making her look irritated that she was interrupted from playing and the darkness gives a feeling of melancholy.
Johannes Vermeer, Woman with a Lute, 1662-63, oil on canvas, 20.25 x 18 in, 25.110.24.
The focal point is a woman dressed in yellow gazing out the window. Very little light comes through the closed window, but what does hits her face directly. She holds a lute in her arms, her right-hand strumming, while her left appears to be adjusting the tune. The small room is cloaked by shadows with dark fabric on the table and curtains makes objects near it indecipherable. The chair in the corner and the map on a scroll hung on the wall appear dark as well. The only light is focused in on the young woman and then fades to nothing as the viewer’s eyes move to the right. Her face has an eagerness like she is looking out the window waiting excitedly for someone to visit her. Though the room is dark, the young woman’s face is full of happiness.
Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, 1664, oil on canvas, 39.7 x 35.5 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.97.
The woman in the picture is looking concentrated on her task at hand. With one hand, she is holding the table like she is about to fall over, yet with the other hand, she is holding a set of scales with nothing on it. Perhaps she is trying to stop herself from swaying so that her motion will not upset the scales. On the table before her, coins lay there, possibly what she was going to measure. Jewelry and crumpled fabric, both common themes in Vermeer’s paintings, rest on the table as well. The light is coming into the room through the high window, but it does not illuminate the whole setting, but only the woman herself and part of the wall. The room appears to be small, and two pictures hang in the room, one depicting the Last Judgement. Dressed in a skirt and robe type top, the woman appears pregnant, but it’s not clear whether she is or if that was the style. The piece communicates somber concentration based on the dark color palette and the concentration on the young woman’s face.