How to Read Paintings: Young Woman with a Water Jug by Johannes Vermeer
A captivating exploration of light by the Dutch master
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.
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.
Jan Vermeer was one of many Dutch artists of the 17th century who made a style of work known in art history as “genre” painting. The term has a somewhat derogatory ring to it — perhaps because genre paintings tended to be made to sell directly to individual buyers or for sale on the general market. Genre subjects were typically home and tavern life, domestic scenes of every day people in familiar settings.
What I think stands out about Vermeer is the jewel-like quality of his images. Few other artists explored the various possibilities of atmosphere so avidly. Moments in time are paused, captured in a perpetual silences that seem to promise peace and tranquility in an enduring form.
Anyone who is familiar with Jan Vermeer’s output will have noticed how many of his works have a similar set-up: a view into a small room, the left wall almost always visible, the right wall never, a window bringing light into the scene, and always a figure lit by the window light, busy with some domestic duties or other occupation.
One simple reason for this regularity is that Vermeer generally painted inside his own studio, into which he brought models and props in order to invent a scene of his own design. Undoubtedly he was comfortable in this room and felt at liberty to construct his subjects with his own unique style.
Another reason Vermeer used this setting again and again is because of the device he is thought to have used to compose his works, known as a camera obscurer. This was a piece of apparatus that projected an image of a scene onto an interior screen of a darkened room or box, so that the image could be accurately traced.
When Vermeer’s reputation was re-examined in the 19th century, one area that interested art critics was the likeness of his paintings to photographs, which was an emerging technology at the time. Since then, the supposition that Vermeer used a device like a camera obscurer has gained wide acceptance. For it seems to have enabled him to make his work with exceptional attention to detail.
Vermeer’s use of a device like this shouldn’t detract from the artistic achievements of his work. As this painting demonstrates, Vermeer’s ability to create a scene of enigmatic beauty is a rare thing. The interplay of different surfaces and the way that light operates upon them, some being entirely reflective whilst others being partially translucent, allows the artist to fully demonstrate his acute sense of light, space and volume in painted form.
My name is Christopher P Jones and I’m an art historian and critic. I’m also the author of How to Read Paintings. Read more about my art writing on my website.
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