As I look out the window at a patch of grape hyacinths and yellow daffodils, I'm reminded of Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century painter from Delft. In almost every painting of his, yellow and blue play central roles. Yet, I'm reminded of Vermeer's work for another reason. His images of solitary figures within domestic spaces, wrapped in quietude, seem to speak to today's realities.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher" may not be the most famous of Vermeer's paintings - that title goes to "The Girl With a Pearl Earring" thanks to a novel and a film about it - but it's a perfect example of the delicacy, intimacy, luminosity and ravishing beauty that make him one of our most beloved artists.
It was painted in 1662, a period during which the artist tightened his vision, shifting from scenes with multiple figures populating large rooms with checkered floors and musical instruments, to scenes of women, usually alone, by a window. They're characterized by one thing above all: light. Vermeer worked slowly. During a career of more than 20 years, he created a scant three dozen firmly attributed works. In them, he studied how light moved, how it changed, fell, reflected, colored and shaped objects. In doing so, he anticipated and inspired much. This painting, and so many others that echo it, are lessons about the snippets of time that make our days and how to observe them and feel their weight and presence. They're also about their fleeting nature, and the added value that imparts.
Struggle with Finances
His message wasn't the most popular during his own time, the Baroque period. It favored big scenes filled with dramatic events and expressions of intense emotion. Think of "Judith Slaying Holofernes" by Artemisia Gentileschi, or Rembrandt's starkly lit biblical scenes filled with pathos. Even when household scenes became popular in Holland, it was lavish dinners, complex interiors with doors leading into other spaces, and drinking parties that were in demand. Though Vermeer was respected and had devoted collectors, he struggled with finances. Shortly after his death, his paintings were sometimes sold as having been done by other, more popular painters.
"Young woman with a Water Pitcher" was purchased in 1887 in Paris for $800 by Henry Marquand, a small price compared to other Old Master works. It was the first Vermeer brought to America. Marquand gifted it to the Met while other collectors were focused on Italian Renaissance works and one-name wonders like Velazquez and Rubens. Perhaps he'd heard about Vermeer from the French modernists of the late 1800s, who responded to Vermeer's quotidian beauty. Later, when the rest of the world became comfortable with photographic images and their ability to freeze time, it became clear that there was a great genius who'd done this exquisitely, centuries earlier.
Marcel Proust, in "Remembrance of Things Past," wrote about a viewer overcome by the beauty of "a little patch of yellow" in Vermeer's "View of Delft." Countless such patches, balanced by blue, make up this painting. Let your eye travel from the golden brass pitcher to the cobalt blue hanger weighing down a yellowed map. See how the woman's azure dress leads your eye to a shawl of the same color leaning over the back of a chair. Pale blue light at the window sends a thousand shades of tint across a warm white wall. The window panes reflect sky blue and clouds; similarly, her white linen scarf is dappled in blue shadows. There's even, on the gilded pitcher, a tiny reflection of a figure looking towards us, likely Vermeer himself, dressed in blue.
Yellowy pearls dangle out of jewelry box of golden wood, off to the side. They're likely the most valuable thing in the painting, but clearly not the most valued. All of Vermeer's efforts draw attention to the light that streams in the window, bathes the woman's face and figure, and arrests time, even as it attests to its passage. Shadows spill down from the window ledge. Light creates motion, time, and change, even in the perfect stillness.
Women at Domestic Tasks
The young woman in the painting has been deemed by scholars a symbol of domestic wholesomeness. But she's also recognizably human, perhaps, especially to Vermeer. The artist worked in a studio in his home, which he shared with his wife and ten or eleven children at least seven of whom were daughters (records from the time are imperfect). Women at domestic tasks were pretty much pictures of his world.
Vermeer's young woman reaches across the span of the small painting, touching both water and light. Although the water inside the pitcher is not visible, we know it's there. Similarly, we don't see the source of the light, just its gorgeous play on the window and the highlights it strews throughout the space. Her gesture – one hand extended towards the sky while the other touches water, symbolically reaching out to heaven and earth, above and below – has been used to signify humanity's relationship with the divine in many cultures.
We don't know what she's thinking. And that's part of why, after more than 300 years, Vermeer's work still engages viewers. They're almost cinematic moments. We know something is going on, has happened and will happen, but the artist doesn't provide the story. He just presents a glimpse. While we don't have the details of what she's doing (finishing washing up or opening the window to water flowers have been suggested) here's what I think Vermeer shows us - an individual, not interacting with the artist or the viewer, for the moment alone with her thoughts, gently smiling.
She's bridging the interior and exterior, the mundane and transcendent, touching and touched by light. To me, it's a moment that feels spiritual, perhaps even sacramental. There's no question isolation can bring loneliness, but Vermeer's young woman tells us it can also bring awareness, appreciation and a quiet and lasting form of joy. As Emily Dickinson wrote almost exactly 200 years later, "Forever is composed of nows."