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Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 9

Lesson 4: Dutch Republic

Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher

Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, oil on canvas, c. 1662 (Metropolitan Museum of Art) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker, Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And we're looking at "Young Woman With a Water Pitcher" that dates to about 1662, by Johannes Vermeer. It's one of the real treasures in New York. BETH HARRIS: It's a lovely, small painting, so typical of art in Holland in the 17th century-- small images, domestic scenes, still lifes, landscapes, family scenes, genre painting, images that reflected the middle-class culture of-- STEVEN ZUCKER: The new Protestant culture, right? BETH HARRIS: Of the 17th century republic of Holland. STEVEN ZUCKER: Where there was a middle class, or what we would recognize as a middle class, and where possessions were important expressions of one's place in society. BETH HARRIS: Yes, but also a very deeply religious culture. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's interesting, because if this is a Protestant culture, and of course, the Roman Catholic Church had for so long in the West been one of the primary patrons of an artist. When the Church is no longer a primary patron, artists do have to look for different and to different kinds of subject matter. BETH HARRIS: Artists have to find another way to make a living, right? STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right. And so you have here an image that really reflects a kind of idealized domestic life. BETH HARRIS: And it would've been commissioned or purchased by wealthy businessmen. And although we're in the 1600s, the period of Baroque in Italy and Spain and France, this is a kind of Baroque that's very different in Holland, because of the Protestant culture there. STEVEN ZUCKER: It is different. And when I think of Baroque in Holland, I usually think of the first half of the 17th century. And I think of the work of Rembrandt. And this is so different. Here there's a kind of delicacy, and a kind of awareness of light, and of the fleeting, I think, that is very, very different. BETH HARRIS: This is a very poetic moment, where the simple act of opening a window, holding a water pitcher, maybe looking to water some flowers that are out the window, takes on a timeless quality. You can feel the love of the domestic here, the love of small rituals, the love of the everyday. To me, in a way, a Vermeer is always a reminder of the beauty of what's around us every day. It's not Christ on the cross. It's not something monumental and heavenly, but in a way the presence of the divine in the everyday, which speaks to us in a very modern way. STEVEN ZUCKER: It is absolutely poetic. You see this woman against a white background. But there's no white in that wall behind her. BETH HARRIS: No, that's true. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's a whole prism of colors that's filtered through that leaded glass. You have those warm whites of the wall against those cruel, sharp, blue whites of the linen headdress that she wears. BETH HARRIS: And the way that she's very characteristically for Vermeer locked into that space by the rectangle of the window-- STEVEN ZUCKER: Of the map. BETH HARRIS: And the rectangle of the table and the chair behind her. There's a sense of a very controlled composition. At the same time, it's something very spontaneous, and something very caught-- a caught moment in time. STEVEN ZUCKER: And so even as he's portraying this really beautiful, delicate representation, we also have a lot of evidence of what was valued in the 17th century in Holland. BETH HARRIS: We do. STEVEN ZUCKER: You've got, as a tablecloth, this heavy carpet, which would have been a very expensive item of luxury. You've got the brass. And I'm especially taken, I have to tell you, with the ellipse of that basin, which just is so extraordinarily convincing, almost more than if I had seen that thing in person. BETH HARRIS: Yeah. Well, I think that's the thing. In a way, it becomes more real in Vermeer. It's so carefully observed, every little millimeter of the way that the light plays on the reflective surfaces of the basin and the box-- even the brass nails in the chair behind. It makes us see things that in our everyday vision we don't see and we don't pay attention to. STEVEN ZUCKER: And I have the sense that the woman who is portrayed in this image is, in fact, as visually attentive as we are, in a sense modeling for us, the audience. This kind of visual attentiveness, this awareness of her place in the world, her place in space. Vermeer is brilliant, I think, in creating that kind of love and sensuality of space and time and light. BETH HARRIS: And color. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's just so gloriously beautiful.