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Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance

Vermeer's "Woman Holding a Balance" portrays a quiet scene of a 17th-century Dutch woman weighing valuables. The painting features a Last Judgment scene behind her, suggesting deeper meanings about wealth and spirituality. Vermeer's precise composition and use of light create a sense of time, change, and stillness, inviting various interpretations about the balance between worldly possessions and spiritual concerns. Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, 1664, oil on canvas, 42.5 cm × 38 cm / 16.7 in × 15 in (National Gallery of Art) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • blobby green style avatar for user liz_drummond
    I also feel like the woman looks obviously pregnant. Taking that into consideration, the painting to me becomes a statement on the mother's contemplation of her baby's life. I think she's wondering if her baby will lead a life of wealth that is well-balanced with spirituality, and the mirror in front of her could mean she's reflecting on whether she herself has lead such a balanced life. Perhaps it shows a moment of recognizing shortcomings and striving to be better, as she's anticipating the new life/baby?
    (37 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user michelle
      17th century dresses had several layers of skirts over one and other. The more skirts a lady wore the more wealthy she probably was. Furthermore voluptuousness was considered very beautiful. Even when not pregnant a lady would wear many skirts to appear more 'full'.

      In our modern day society were slim is the ideal anyone who appears not trying to look slim must have a reason for doing so. And we often think, hmm she must be pregnant! However I personally feel that her tummy is most likely a result of her fashionable dress.

      If she would have been pregnant, it is quite possible that she's contemplate such things. Childbirth and childhood were quite dangerous. And in the light of an upcoming birth one can understand a woman being nervous and contemplative of the changes that will soon follow.
      (28 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user Brooke
    Could the woman in the painting represent Mary? She is dressed in blue as Mary often was in paintings in earlier generations. She is also holding a scale, could that be related to god's judgement?
    (19 votes)
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    • leafers seedling style avatar for user writersurprise
      I do not think Mary would ever think twice about whats more important, life or wealth. Let the dead bury the dead is what Jesus said to the people when the rich man could not give up his ,and his fathers wealth to give to the poor. Then become a follower of Christ. Blue is a color royalty,the mother of a King.
      (0 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user Anne Dammarell
    She appears pregnant. She may be balancing her life and death in relation to a new life. Dying during childbirth was a common reality in the 17th century. Has she decided to risk her wealth and life for a child?
    (13 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Doris Bravo
      Though Jan Van Eyck's "Arnolfini Wedding" predates Vermeer's work by over two hundred years, it's a good comparison in terms of the pregnancy question. In Van Eyck's day women wore their dresses bunched in the front as a matter of style: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/jan-van-eyck-the-arnolfini-portrait. The bride in this painting looks much more pregnant than Vermeer's lady, but she's not with child. Fashion only makes sense in its historical context. Who could predict that a few centuries later women would move the gathering from front to back to emphasize their backsides (via bustles, literally a pad to create a protrusion)?
      (7 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Tiramisumandeln
    Am I really the only one who thinks she is obviously pregnant?
    (9 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user tj
    Is it possible the woman is pregnant? The woman appears to be wearing the colors of the Virgin Mary. It looks as if the shadow to the right on her head is a hand holding her away from the damned. The Protestant church was growing and they don't revere the Virgin. However, the Protestants believed the Judgement was near, depicted in the painting above. Vermeer was Catholic.
    I'd love to know your thoughts?
    (5 votes)
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  • starky sapling style avatar for user Sagarika Srivastava
    Am I the only one who thinks she is pregnant?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Look through all of the other questions that have been asked and answered in the discussion about this painting, and notice all the times this question has been asked by others, 2 years ago, 3 years ago. You're not the only one, and you're not the first. You belong to a large community of people with inquiring minds.
      (3 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user mia
    In opposition of those fragile, delicate hands that holds the balance I also see the crude, masculine dark hands that turns into shadow of the scarf that's in the direction of the "damed" figures of the painting. Also, she seems to be pregnant with out a ring on her hand. To provide for the baby soon to be born, without a husband, she is getting ready to sell her possessions to the merchants to provide for the baby she is about to have.
    (2 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Andie Paysinger
      Vermeer often used a camera obscura to compose and complete his paintings, which is why so many of his subjects appear to be left handed. As one who has many times used a scale to weigh gold and other things before digital scales were available, I can tell you that the scale would be held in the left hand and the weights and items to be weighed placed with the right hand so it is very possible she is wearing a wedding band. Another explanation is that in many cultures, the wedding ring was worn on the RIGHT hand and that continues still. She is obviously wealthy as shown by her clothing, the coins and jewelry and the scale itself, which was an expensive item at that time. Also the painting on the wall, particularly its size, indicates wealth.
      (2 votes)
  • aqualine tree style avatar for user Desiraewinchell19
    What culture is this work from?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Stephen Cheney
    Why do Dutch paintings so often have a window only on the left side? I never see it in the far wall or right side of the painting.
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers seedling style avatar for user writersurprise
    I see she has no wedding ring on, or any other jewelry. Is she an unwed mother to be? You would think with pearls ,and gold in her jewl box she would be wearing some type of wealth.
    (2 votes)
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Video transcript

(piano playing) Steven: We're in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and we're looking at one of their Vermeer's. This is Woman Holding a Balance. It's so quiet. Beth: It is quiet and like all Vermeer's it shows a scene of everyday life but Vermeer imbues these scenes with greater meaning. Steven: And art historians have been arguing for years about what those meanings are. So let's just describe what it is that we see. Beth: Well we see a woman dressed up in very fine clothing. Steven: So we know that she's part of the upper merchant class in Holland in the 17th century. Beth: The class that was increasingly buying art, the scale and subject of which is very much like the painting we're looking at. Steven: She's wearing a typical cap probably made of linen, that women would have worn when they were at home. She's also wearing a fur trimmed jacked which was meant to keep people warm because remember, in Holland it gets cold in the winter and you can only have so many fires going in your house. Beth: And she stands in front of a table, on the wall opposite her is a window which is letting in just a tiny bit of light and also a mirror. She's got in her right hand a very fine balance. Interestingly, there is nothing on either side. It's as if she's waiting for the balance to come to rest. Steven: And then on the table before her, we see a number of boxes. One box is open and that would have held the balance and the weights. In the other box are strings of pearls. Beth: And we see some coins so we have an indication of material wealth and perhaps she's about to weigh the valuables that are in front of her. Steven: However we know that there's probably much more going on here because in back of the woman's head you can see that there's a painting with Christ in a brilliant mandorla towards the top functioning as judge over all the souls that have ever lived and you can see those souls down at the bottom. The souls at Christ's right would have been the blessed, the souls on Christ's left would have been the damned, and so this is the Last Judgment. Having that kind of religious image in back of her is a strong indication that this painting is probably about a lot more than simply a woman who is weighing her valuables. Beth: Her head divides the blessed from the damned, the left side of the composition from the right side. The subject is very much the play of light coming into this room through that golden curtain casting a shadow on the wall behind and illuminating her face and the front of her body. Steven: That light is providing the ability for the artist to create a kind of motion, that is this woman is in the process of waiting for this balance to come into alignment, so this idea of time and change. But at the same time the kind of complete static, frozen quality, that intense quiet that pervades the space. Beth: This painting seems to be something very real, very natural. But we also know that it's very carefully planned out by Vermeer. We know exactly where the vanishing point is, right at that pinky finger of the woman's right hand and we also know that the exact center of the painting is where those balances meet. Steven: We can also see that kind of compositional control in the way that color is handled. Look at the subtle modulation from the deep shadow near the light. Look at the way that the gold of the curtain is picked up by the two bars of the frame on the right side and then picked up again by the gold quality of some of the pearls and of her dress. Naturally, art historians haven't agreed on what Vermeer is actually saying specifically, but I think we can clearly say that the painting more broadly is a reminder of the kinds of changes that are taking place in the 17th century. Here we have artists that are painting now for merchant class as opposed to for the church. This is an interior scene, there's a sense of intimacy here. What was the relationship between wealth and piety, between wealth and spirituality? Beth: And perhaps the need to balance those two and maybe the balance signifies that because she's got her worldly possessions on the table but behind her is this image of Christ at the Last Judgment. That idea of weighing, of judging. Steven: These are educated guesses, we really don't know. Art historians have even tried to identify the particular painting of the Last Judgment that's behind the woman. We haven't been able to find it though. Beth: And then there's the question of if it's a mirror, what would it mean and why would it be there? Why did Vermeer put it there? Mirrors are often symbols of vanity and so maybe that relates to the worldly possessions on the table in front of her. A concern for things of the world instead of a concern for the spiritual. Steven: Well that's one of the older readings of this painting, that she is not attending to the spiritual world behind her. She's attending instead to the world of the physical, to the world of wealth that's before her. And so this has been seen as kind of a cautionary vanitas. But mirrors can also signify self knowledge and truth. Beth: The painting could mean all of these things, it could mean something that we haven't yet determined. Art historians think about the context of 17th century Holland when trying to interpret this painting. (piano playing)