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_Woman Holding a Balance_ is a superb example of Johannes Vermeer’s exquisite sense of stability and rhythm. A woman dressed in a blue jacket with fur trim stands serenely at a table in a corner of a room. The scales in her right hand are at equilibrium, suggestive of her inner state of mind. A large painting of the Last Judgment, framed in black, hangs on the back wall of the room. A shimmering blue cloth, open boxes, two strands of pearls, and a gold chain lie on the sturdy table. Soft light comes in through the window and illuminates the scene. The woman is so pensive that the viewer almost hesitates to intrude on her quiet moment of contemplation.


The visual juxtaposition of the woman and the Last Judgment is reinforced by thematic parallels: to judge is to weigh. This scene has religious implications that seem related to Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s instructions, in his Spiritual Exercises, that the faithful, prior to meditating, first examine their conscience and weigh their sins as if facing Judgment Day. Only such introspection could lead to virtuous choices along the path of life. _Woman Holding a Balance_ thus allegorically urges us to conduct our lives with temperance and moderation. The woman is poised between the earthly treasures of gold and pearls and a visual reminder of the eternal consequences of her actions.


Vermeer emphasized this message through his superbly refined composition and lighting. The hand holding the balance, for example, occupies a position directly in front of the frame’s dark corner, while the scales are set off against the bare plaster wall—an effect that Vermeer created through subtle spatial manipulation. Note, for instance, that the bottom of the Last Judgment’s frame is slightly higher to the left of the woman than it is behind her back, creating room for the balance.

Details

  • Title: Woman Holding a Balance
  • Creator: Johannes Vermeer
  • Date created: c. 1664
  • Physical Dimensions: painted surface: 39.7 x 35.5 cm (15 5/8 x 14 in.) stretcher size: 42.5 x 38 cm (16 3/4 x 14 15/16 in.) framed: 62.9 x 58.4 x 7.6 cm (24 3/4 x 23 x 3 in.)
  • Provenance: Possibly Pieter Claesz van Ruijven [1624-1674], Delft; possibly by inheritance to his wife, Maria de Knuijt [d. 1681], Delft; possibly by inheritance to her daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven [1655-1682], Delft; possibly by inheritance to her husband, Jacobus Abrahamsz. Dissius [1653-1695], Delft;[1] (his sale, Amsterdam, 16 May 1696, no. 1);[2] Isaac Rooleeuw [c. 1650-1710], Amsterdam; (his bankruptcy sale, Amsterdam, 20 April 1701, no. 6); Paolo van Uchelen [c. 1641-1702], Amsterdam; by inheritance 1703 to his son, Paolo van Uchelen the Younger [1673-1754], Amsterdam; by inheritance to his daughter, Anna Gertruijda van Uchelen [1705-1766], Amsterdam; (her estate sale, B. Tideman, Amsterdam, 18 March 1767, no. 6); Kok.[3] Nicolaas Nieuhoff [1733-1776], Amsterdam; (his estate sale, Arnoldus Dankmeyer, Amsterdam,14 April 1777 and days following, no. 116); Van den Bogaard.[4] Maximilian I Joseph, King of Bavaria [1756-1825]; (his estate sale, Munich, 5 December 1826, no. 101, as by Gabriel Metsu); Louis Charles Victor de Riquet, duc de Caraman [1762-1839], Paris; (his sale, Salle Lebrun by Lacoste, Paris, 10-12 May 1830, no. 68). Casimir Pierre Péreir [1777-1832], Paris; his heirs; (his estate sale, Christie & Manson, London, 5 May 1848, no. 7);[5] purchased by Péreir's son, probably Auguste C.V.L. Périer, later Casimir-Périer [1811-1876];[6] probably by inheritance to Auguste's daughter, Marie Thérèse Henriette Jeanne, comtesse de Ségur [1844-1916, née Périer];[7] purchased 1910 by (P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London); one-quarter share purchased October 1910 by (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); sold 11 January 1911 to Peter A. B. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania;[8] inheritance from Estate of Peter A. B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; gift 1942 to NGA. [1] The 1683 inventory of goods accruing to Jacob Dissius after the death of his wife, Magdalena van Ruyven, lists twenty paintings by Vermeer. For the complete transactions between her husband, Jacob Dissius, and his father, Abraham Dissius, following her death, see John Michael Montias, _Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History_, Princeton, 1989: 246-257, 359-361, docs. 417, 420. [2] For this sale see John Michael Montias, _Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History_, Princeton, 1989: 363-364, doc. 439. [3] The archival sources in the Gemeentearchief, Amsterdam, for the painting’s provenance from Rooleeuw through the Van Uchelen family are detailed in Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., and B.P.J. Broos, _Johannes Vermeer_, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague, New Haven and London, 1995: no. 10, 143, 145 nn. 19-22. [4] The 1995 systematic catalogue of Dutch paintings in the NGA published the following information at this point in the provenance: "PP. [initials of consignor]; (sale, Ph. van der Schley, Amsterdam, 11 May 1801, no. 48); bought for Ph. van der Schley by M[errem]." This had been provided by The Getty Provenance Index, but was in error. The painting in the 1801 sale was one of the same subject by Pieter de Hooch, now in Berlin, according to a letter dated 27 October 1997 from Burton Fredericksen, then director of the Getty Provenance Index, Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., in NGA curatorial files. [5] The 1848 sale catalogue says the painting came “from the Delapeyriere collection,” but this information is not correct. This collection is probably that of Augustin Lapeyrière (1779-1831), who owned at least two Vermeers, but neither was the Gallery’s painting. [6] Théophile E. J. Thoré (William Bürger), "Van der Meer de Delft," _Gazette des Beaux-Arts_ 21 (October-December 1866): 555-556. [7] Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, "A Newly Discovered Picture by Vermeer of Delft," _The Burlington Magazine_ 18 (December 1910): 133-134. The author incorrectly identifies the comtesse de Ségur as the sister of Casimir Périer. [8] The painting is number 12167 in Painting Stock Book 5, stock numbers 8800-12652, April 1899-December 1911, p. 204, and in Sales Book 9, May 1907-January 1912, p. 287 (M. Knoedler & Co. Records, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles; copies from digitized records in NGA curatorial files). In both entries the painting is listed as by "Jan Ver Meer."
  • Medium: oil on canvas

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