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Vermeer had an obsession with painting portraits of women. Girl with a Pearl Earring, Woman with a Water Jug, and Woman holding a Balance are some of his better-known examples. His series of love letter paintings make up nearly one fifth of his entire oeuvre. During the seventeenth century, there was a boom of letter writing not just in the public sphere but also in the private realm. These love letter paintings of Vermeer typically portray a woman receiving a letter or writing one herself, like in A Lady Writing. This reoccurrence of women dealing with letters marks the beginning of “women empowerment” in the Netherlands. They were no longer merely housewives, maids or mistresses but rather independent beings who were slightly more equal to men and who were gaining the power of the word.
In almost all of his paintings Vermeer explores the complex idea of light. In A Lady Writing, he creates a heavenly aura on the girl’s face and yellow coat. He achieves this by giving texture to his first layer of paint and using strong brushstrokes. He also includes midtones and highlights all along the canvas with the exception of flesh tones. In order to achieve the eye catching affect of light, he used lighter pigments in the under paint, which is the first layer of paint on the canvas. This light that has a somewhat majestic quality about is quite apparent on the ribbons and pearls lying on the blue cloth. The lighting catches the viewer’s eye because without it, it would just be a girl writing a letter. It is more than a girl writing a letter because there is a statement behind it: female literacy. The intensity of the lighting also correlates with the intensity of the girl’s gaze. This painting was completed during a time when women were just starting to become literate and even in the public eye, the lighting can also refer to the new era for women in the Netherlands. There can be a parallel drawn between the empowerment of Dutch women and the age of enlightenment that took place in the eighteenth century in that in both periods there were new ideas being brought to the table.
There are also many subtle parallels within the painting itself. The way the woman has her arm bent is similar to the fold of the blue cloth on the table. Also, there is a comparable quality between the contours of the yellow ribbons and the “woman’s outstretched hand.” Along with these parallels there is a curiosity about the actual woman. After Johannes Vermeer passed away there were some “household items” lying around including the “yellow satin jacket trimmed with white fur.” Considering this particular item was found amongst other items that belonged to Vermeer, there is a theory that the woman, Catharina Bolnes, was Vermeer’s wife. Some also believe this is true because of the woman’s gaze at the viewer; her look seems to one of which someone was just interrupted. However, the same jacket was painted in Mistress and Maid and Woman with a Pearl Necklace and because of that the theory is just a theory
The first word that comes to mind when looking at this work by Vermeer is virtue. The sunlight coming in from the higher window on the wall has a heavenly quality on the woman. Especially the fact that her eyes are closed, her face is serene and her white hood is even more illuminated under the sunlight. This great attention to lighting is what Johannes Vermeer is famous for and one can recognize the painter’s qualities while looking at this work and also looking at A Lady Writing. Although one woman is writing a letter and the other is holding a balance, the sense of women empowerment is similar to the sense of female virtues. Being a virtuous women does not necessarily make her empowered because being considered virtuous could just mean being a maid who keeps her house clean. However, being empowered or in other words being an independent thinker does make someone honorable and righteous. Nonetheless, Woman Holding A Balance is more than an illuminated painting of a peaceful woman. It is a portrait of a woman whose own attire and actions tell us she has “no fear of the consequences of the final day of judgment.” This work by Vermeer is another example of which he portrays Dutch women in the seventeenth century expressing their own thoughts and in way, freedom of opinion.
After looking at the focus of the painting, the woman and the balance, one acknowledges the painting behind her; the Last Judgment. Not only do the dark hues contrast with the orange and white pigments of the women, but her mere stance and expression as well are opposing to the painting in the background. Christ’s “gesture, with both arms raised, mirrors the opposing direction of the woman’s balance. His judgments are eternal; hers are temporal.” Regarding more of the temporal aspect, she is weighing something in particular. Some argue that the pans of the balance are empty but others suggest she weighing pearls or gold seeing as there are pearls and gold chain in the open jewelry box. These objects were often considered precious and of the “temporal world.” Because these objects, especially the pearls, are precious they were also considered materialistic. However, the woman is not interested in the pearls she is interested in the balance itself. Judging from her apparent serenity, harmony and decline to temptation, this woman is truly virtuous. Taking a closer look, there is a mirror in front of the woman which most likely resembles “self-knowledge.” By putting all the pieces together, this person is judging herself and her own action and is aware of the consequences. She wants to make sure of her salvation.
It is evident that the central theme of this painting is balance. There is a comparison drawn between the spiritual and materialistic parts of the scene. An interesting perspective is that everything on the table is a treasure. “All the treasures on the table, together with youth, beauty, happiness, and life itself, will come to nothing in the end, or at the beginning of eternal life.” This statement, along with other things, is regarding the beauty of the woman which is an example of the transient things in life. Just as a rose will wilt and people will grow old and lose their beauty, everyone (in this time period believed so) will be judged.