Woman Holding a Balance
National Gallery of Art, Widener Collection
Light flows from a window, accentuating a hand, a sleeve, a face. It washes across the wall, revealing a painting of the Last Judgment. It shimmers across gold and pearl jewelry.
In the center hangs a balance, empty but for the light itself.
Woman Holding a Balance embodies a spiritual principle that is often manifest in Vermeer’s work: the need to lead a balanced life. Though Vermeer’s working methods remain a mystery, it is clear that he constructed this composition with extreme care. Orthogonal lines to the vanishing point meet precisely at the woman’s finger.The frame behind her reinforces this focus.
In 1994 conservators at the National Gallery cleaned the painting, removing discolored varnish from its surface. Their work revealed that at some point in the past, the painting had been extended by a half inch on all four sides. To restore it to its original size, conservators removed the added paint.
Vermeer’s Woman with a Balancecontains multiple levels of meaning. Much of its significance depends upon the emotions and experiences of the viewer.
Caught in a moment of reverie, a young woman steadies her scales before weighing her gold and pearls. A framed painting of the Last Judgment silhouettes her serene figure. Just as Christ weighs souls, so the woman tests a balance and is held in balance herself. God’s divine light shines through the window directly on her peaceful face, and the mirror on the wall in front of her reflects a search for self-knowledge.
The subtle meaning is reinforced by Vermeer’s exquisite refinement of composition and lighting. For example, the hand holding the balance occupies a position directly in front of the picture frame’s dark corner. By contrast, the scales are seen clearly against the bare plaster wall—an effect created by manipulating reality. Note that the bottom of the Last Judgment’s frame is slightly higher to the left of the woman than it is behind her back.
The apparent simplicity of the muted color scheme is deceptive, too. Multiple layers of translucent paint are brushed together softly and, then, touched with tiny points of opaque highlights along the jewels, balance pans, fur robe, and satin scarf.