If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 9

Lesson 4: Dutch Republic

Vermeer, The Glass of Wine

Jan Vermeer, The Glass of Wine, c. 1661, oil on canvas, 67.7 x 79.6 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: There's nothing subtle about 17th century Dutch genre painting. So often, we're shown interactions that are wonderfully bawdy and wonderfully explicit. There is an exception, however. Jan Vermeer's paintings often are riddles. They give us suggestions of narratives. DR. BETH HARRIS: And in this painting, it's true. We're not really sure exactly what's about to unfold. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: What we're seeing is a man who is still wearing his hat and outer cloak. He stands beside a table with a beautiful carpet on it, and he has his hand on a jug of wine. He looks like he's ready to refill the young woman's glass. She's got it up to her mouth, and she's just finishing it off. DR. BETH HARRIS: Well, and he looks impatient to pour her another glass, as though the goal of this whole interaction is to get her drunk. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But across from her at the window that is ajar, we can actually see a rendering in the stained glass of temperance, of moderation, in a sense an instruction to her to watch her step. And so the painting is about possibility. It's about her choice. And the man whose face is shadowed by his hat is a little bit sinister in that way. DR. BETH HARRIS: There's a sense of distance between the two figures, a sense that they're not terribly familiar with one another. And I almost wonder whether the wine is going to make that happen. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: One of the reasons that the flirtation doesn't have an opportunity to be represented is because he's in shadow. We can just barely make out his eyes. And her eyes are completely obscured by the shine in the beautifully delicate glass that she holds in front of her face. She can't speak now. She's drinking. And she can't even see beyond that glass, or at least we can't see. And yet that shine is all about vision, and it's held right at her eyes. This is an early Vermeer, but already we can see his fascination with soft light. Look at the way it infuses the space, comes through that blue curtain. And the delicacy that he's lavished on the tonality of the back wall and the other forms in this room is just spectacular. DR. BETH HARRIS: So while Vermeer is interested in light, we also have that characteristic geometry in the composition, the square of the window that's open, the rectangle of the frame on the back wall, the square on the back of the chair, and the squares that move back and the perspective on the floor. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: There is this kind of checkerboard pattern that does create a clear, structured interior. And then we have objects that are placed askew of that. So you've got the line that the window should trace. But the window is open so that there's a diagonal that interrupts it. You've got the careful rectilinear tiles on the floor, but then you've got the chair, again, that's at an angle and is offset from it. In some ways, this painting is about the disruption of order. And the way objects are placed in this space are about the tension that's created when things are not aligned. And perhaps that functions as a kind of metaphor for the interaction between the two figures. DR. BETH HARRIS: Or a kind of foreboding about what may happen. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: There are ways that the figures are linked. Look at the concentric rings that fall from the man. You have his collar. Then you've got a series of folds in the drapery that catch the light and sort of expand as they move down towards his arm. And that motion is picked up by the beautiful gold brocade in the woman's dress and then the folds on her hip. And so there really is a kind of harmony between those figures. And in some ways, this painting is about harmony and disharmony. It's about alignment and things being askew. DR. BETH HARRIS: And that's also symbolized in the musical instrument, which is used in Vermeer's paintings to suggest both harmony and frivolity. So which way is this going to go? DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: I'm not sure. I think Vermeer is leaving that question open for the viewer. DR. BETH HARRIS: By leaving this question open, Vermeer creates an image that is really poetic. [MUSIC PLAYING]