The misbehavior of unsupervised maidservants was a common subject for 17th-century Dutch painters. Yet in his depiction of a young maid dozing next to a glass of wine, Vermeer transfigured an ordinary scene into an investigation of light, color, and texture that supersedes any moralizing lesson.
While the toppled glass in the foreground (now abraded) and rumpled table carpet may indicate a recently departed visitor...
...Vermeer chose to remove the male figure he had originally included standing in the doorway, heightening the painting's ambiguity.
According to curator Walter Liedtke, the presence of the dog would have alluded to "the sort of impromptu relationships canine suitors strike up on the street." The man and the dog were replaced with a mirror on a far wall, suggesting how the experience of the senses quickly passes...
...and a chair left at an angle with a pillow on it, possibly signifying indolence, together with a hint of recent company.
The Chinese bowl with fruit is a symbol of temptation, and for a Vermeer contemporary familiar with the symbolism of Dutch art of the time, the knife and jug lying open-mouthed under a gauzy material would have brought to mind more than social intercourse.
The painting was very likely owned by Vermeer's patron Pieter van Ruijvan, who also owned The Milkmaid, which has a similar tension between the symbolism of sexual or romantic relations with maids and their presentation in a way that was more sympathetic than the established tradition.
A Maid Asleep by Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft)The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.