Last Updated 20 Jun 2022

Johannes Vermeer: the Procuress and Woman Holding a Balance

Category Painting, Women
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Diego Velasquez and Jan Vermeer were two of the most significant artists of Western Europes Baroque period.  When I first began this research, I envisioned talking only about the many differences in their works. I have since learned that they share many things in common. In this paper will use two works of art, Velasquez Las Meninas (The Ladies in Waiting) and Vermeers Woman Holding a Balance, to illustrate the complex and intriguing styles of these two masters. I will discuss how religion and politics played a role in each of the artists lives, and how one was famous in his own time while the other was lost in obscurity until only a century ago. Although both artists are appropriately categorized as Baroque, I will argue that the lesser known Vermeer displayed more innovation and greater realism.

vermeer woman with a balance

Diego de Silva Velasquez was born in 1599 in Seville, Spain, as a Catholic.1 Jan Vermeer was born thirty-three years later Delft, Netherlands, as a Calvinist but later converted to the Catholic religion when he married Catharina Bolnes, whose mother was Catholic. The mother had opposed this marriage until Vermeer converted.2 Further evidence of Vermeers conversion is shown by his early work Saint Praxedis, a second-century Roman Christian. This was based on the Florentine artist Felice Ficherelli whose painting of the same name was done in 1645.

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Both artists studied under master painters. Velasquez, under Francisco Pacheco, was admitted to the Seville Painters Guild in 1617 and a year later married Pachecos daughter, Juana.4 Vermeers training is less clear. There are several possibilities given, including Hendrik ter Brugghen in Utrecht, where Vermeers mother-in-law had family connections.5 Vermeer may have studied under another master artist, Abraham Bloemart, also in Utrecht. Vermeers early work closely matched Bloemarts style, and Bloemart was related to Catharina Bolnes, then Vermeers future wife. What is known is that Jan Vermeer was a member of the Guild of Saint Luke as a master painter in 1653. Another similarity between both artists is that their early work consisted of mainly religious themes.

This can be seen in Velasquez work, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, painted in 1618. Jan Vermeers work, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, was done in 1654. This was a popular theme at the time and each artist could have been influenced by their respective guilds, whose artists may have visited Italy and copied similar works. Another work of art by Velasquez was The Surrendur of Breda, in 1653. It shows the Dutch general, Justin of Nassau, surrendering to Spanish general, Ambrosio Spinola. Breda, a fortress town in the Netherlands controlled the roads to Utrecht and Amsterdam. When Velasquez painted his work, he consulted Dutch and French engravings of Breda and the surrounding areas. 7 This can be compared to Vermeers work, View of Delft, for its portrait of the Netherlands environment.

As many similarities as there are between these two artists, one of the main differences is that Diego Velasquez was a famous artist in his own time. As the official painter for King Philip IVs court, Velasquez art was seen by some of Europes most powerful and influential people of the time. In contrast, Vermeer seems to have been a recluse, as noted by the art historian Andre Malraux, a view supported by the fact that both his landscapes were done from a window. Vermeer apparently relied more on his activities as art dealer than on the sale of his own paintings. After his death, Vermeer was left in obscurity and not rediscovered until the French critic Theophile Thore published a series of articles about him in 1866. When Vermeer died in 1675, many of his art works were auctioned off to pay debts he accumulated over his lifetime. 9 Anthony van Leewenhoek, the Delft microscopist, was assigned by the city fathers as executor of Vermeers estate. Leeuwenhoek is the scholar depicted in both Vermeers The Astronomer (1668) and The Geographer (1669), and so was apparently a friend of Vermeer.

One of Vermeers most famous paintings is Woman Holding a Balance, painted in 1664 and now hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Here you can see why his rediscoverers called him a master artist. He skillfully uses light to bring our attention to the woman waiting for the balance to come to a rest. The pearls catch the light, allowing us to see that she is about to weigh them. The deeper meaning comes from the painting she partially covers, The Last Judgment. While she is weighing the pearls, the archangel Michael is weighing souls. Thus, we must be sure that earthly treasures and knowledge do not obscure from us the weightier eternal matters of life.

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