How to Read Paintings: Young Woman with a Water Jug by Johannes Vermeer

A captivating exploration of light by the Dutch master

Christopher P Jones
5 min readNov 21, 2020

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Young Woman with a Water Jug (1660–1662) by Johannes Vermeer. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image source Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

This painting, made by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer in around 1662, shows a woman stood beside a window. It is most likely morning; her day begins with collecting water in a silver pitcher and basin with which she will wash herself.

Her arm reaches towards the window to open it. From her hand on the window frame there is a continuous line, wave-like, that runs across the image from left to right, through her shoulders to the jug and other objects on the table. The line is completed by the bundle of blue fabric on the right-hand side.

This undulating line is given geometric balance by the three rectangles that enter the image from the sides: the window, the table and the map on the wall. See how these rectangles break through the edges of the painting and create an interesting three-part frame around the figure of the woman.

Detail of ‘Young Woman with a Water Jug’ (1660–1662) by Johannes Vermeer. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image source Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Of the forty-or-so known works that Vermeer made in his lifetime, this painting has to be one of the most appealing. The reason, it seems to me, is the array of textures across the canvas, all of which allow Vermeer to explore the subtle effects of light upon them.

There is the window through which daylight shines, composed of a patchwork of blue and bordered by one of my favourite details: the strip of gold that describes the inner edge of the window frame.

Then there is the white bonnet of the woman — the centrepiece of the painting — which being semi-translucent, permits light to pass through it as well as reflecting from it. The white bonnet has folds and creases, each facet of which allows the artist to feel for a wide array of textures and shades of bluish-white.

And around the model lie numerous objects with alternative textures. Most obviously, there is the metal jug and bowl, which have a silver-gold surface that also reflects and echoes the colours surrounding it.

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