Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, Johannes Vermeer
In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; use the zoom or download icons under the image on the museum’s website.
Of the 35 or 36 Vermeer paintings acknowledged to exist, I’ve had the good fortune in my time to have seen perhaps 20 in person. Young Woman with a Water Pitcher is my favorite, which is to say one of my favorite paintings by anyone in the history of art.
Unfortunately, reproductions can’t really do justice to the jewel-like quality of the original, which is relatively small but arresting beyond its physical size. Even amid nearby Rembrants and the four other Vermeers in the Met’s superb collection, this painting captures a disproportional amount of my time and attention whenever I visit the museum.
It serves as a prime example of why I find Vermeer so extraordinary, even compared to arguably greater and more important artists.
There is an uncanny quality here — not just of light, which seems to have a physical presence as it makes its way though and around the widow like a mist of atomized honey — but of suspended time. The light, the atmosphere, the actions of the woman, all seem to have gently paused, as though the universe itself was caught up in a moment of reverie and grace.
Vermeer’s window — which can take many forms but is in a common position in a number of his compositions — here is of clear leaded glass, but it assumes the character of stained glass as it captures the sky and clouds and carries them into the room like a Baroque hologram.
The woman’s face, at once plain and angelically serene, is gently lit beneath her translucent linen headdress. In the hands of other painters of the time, the linens would have been rendered in carbon grays or umbers, but Vermeer has used an etherial blue; painting the shadowed tones with genuine Ultramarine (lapis lazuli) — a pigment more expensive by weight than gold — and anticipating an approach to optical color that would not be common among other painters for another 200 years.
The multi-faceted planes of the pitcher and basin are subtly aglow, as if gilded with sunlight, and rendered with a surprisingly painterly finesse — hardly an approach I would call “photographic”.
They also capture the room’s other colors, like an analog of the artist’s eye. Along with the other objects in the room, they demonstrate Vermeer’s seldom credited role as one of history’s great still life painters, even if his subjects were always presented in the context of an environment for figurative works.
This is obviously a household of some means — and it is assumed the objects, including the recognizable chair and table covering that appear in several of his works, are from Vermeer’s own house — but the suggestion here is of the ordinary made extraordinary. An everyday moment has been lifted from time and distilled into eternal clarity by the artist’s contemplative vision.
Did Vermeer use optical devices to assist in visualizing and composing his paintings? I think it’s likely (as did many artists throughout history). But for those who suggest that this in some way lessens Vermeer’s genius, or diminishes his power as an artist, I can only sigh, shake my head, and say I’m so sorry to hear you have no poetry in your soul.