Why’s Vermeer’s painting Young Woman with a Water Pitcher such a big deal?
- Light elevates everyday tasks
- Young Woman with a Water Pitcher – the inner sanctum
- A more iconic shield than Captain America’s
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I’ll never forget my first Vermeer. Seeing Young Woman with a Water Pitcher showed me the light. That’s always the lead story with Jans Vermeer. His brilliant sunbeams illuminate Dutch domestic worlds. But this one’s my favorite. That’s because I relate to the woman in it. Both hands are busy. She’s opening a window and about to pour water. That’s what our woman is doing. She’s immersed in her everyday tasks. This isn’t the plot, though. Vermeer’s light tells a more complex story.
At the time and place of this painting, Vermeer was a closet Catholic in a Protestant world. He shielded his religious beliefs from the community. But we often see it symbolized in his work. Young Woman with a Water Pitcher reveals this most of all. That’s because Johannes Vermeer capitalizes on his luminary genius to spotlight this theme. It’s why the Dutch painter‘s most famous for his brilliant illuminations. He was ahead of his time in light and color artistic science.
For instance, Vermeer infused shadows and reflections with color. He understood that light and shadow are not only white and black. Color blends as sunbeams imbue and reflect surfaces. We see more than light bouncing off a map or a jug. The process of adjoining colors changes them to reveal more about what’s illuminated. Light doesn’t only brighten objects in his paintings. Vermeer’s light plays with colors to create a more realistic vision. After all, in real life we don’t see more white on a lit object and more black in shadows.
Instead we see a different version of the original color. Vermeer’s apt handle on this gives his work a sense of immediacy and clarity. The private Dutch interior scenes from long ago thus feel accessible. We’re transported by his sunbeams. But in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher Vermeer also shields his subject from us. She’s protected from the real world outside her window and the painting.
Spotlight on Protection
There’s an irony to the illumination of Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. She’s not only lit. This woman’s also shielded. Her bonnet and bib are both protective. Though light shines through their stark white linen, these pieces are also a barrier. At first this woman seems open and inviting. She lets in the light and also poised to pour water. These are things we do when welcoming the outside into our world. But she also drops her head to turn away from the window. In fact, her stance reads as prayerful. This room resonates as a silent sanctuary.
The way Vermeer lights her bonnet and bib creates a resonant sense of blessing. When I first saw this piece I wondered at this woman’s placid beauty. She reminds me of a nun in a habit. Not only because the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher seems to be bald. Though that helps. It’s also that humble dip of her chin. She’s ducking under the light rather than lifting her cheeks into the sunshine. Vermeer blends her pseudo nun’s habit into a soft blue tint of light on the exterior. While inside light glows a warm pink hue against her skin. This woman’s protected by her bonnet and bib. But also embraced and blessed by sunbeams that filter through them.
Vermeer’s special sauce delivers many flavors. He combines sensitivity to real details with an idealized woman. So, she seems like an impossibly perfect icon of virtue. But the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher also could be you or me, Vermeer makes her so real. She’s a woman, not an angel. But she feels angelic in this moment thanks to the halo of light around her head. That’s the brilliance of this masterpiece. He brings us both sides of a woman. Vermeer elevates her everyday domestic life all the way to heaven. That’s thanks to his precise portrayal of this moment. He makes it eternal rather than fleeting.
This strikes to the heart of Young Woman with a Water Pitcher‘s appeal. There’s beauty in the contradiction of the idea – an eternal moment. It’s spirituality at its core. This woman seems still and silent. But we also know she’s moving. The window opens. She will pour the water (or wine) in only a moment. Still these aren’t what the painting’s about. Vermeer tells us her internal story instead. It’s her world that matters. In fact, there’s a map behind her to represent this place and time as her whole world. While we stand, stunned and lucky, that Vermeer shared it in our world.
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher – FAQs
What’s that on her head in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher?
This bonnet-like garment was called a ‘hoofdoek’. Dutch women in the 17th century wore them for a few reasons. They protected fancy hairstyles before formal events. In cold weather a hoofdoek provided warmth to the head. Women also wore these headdresses during their morning ‘toilet’. For the painting this garment also parallels the shape of Vermeer’s triangle composition. Some art historians believe the hoofdoek shows us that the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher is Vermeer’s wife, Catherine. Not only does she resemble Catherine. Vermeer’s wife also wore headdresses like this.
It would make sense if this painting were Vermeer’s wife, Catherine. That’s because it’s a bit different from his other domestic scenes. Vermeer gives this woman a soft smile. She seems to float on a dreamy idea, disengaged from her active hands. In Vermeer’s other domestic scenes women tend to focus on the task at hand. While this one’s got a higher calling. So, if this is Catherine, he gave her a contemplative break along with that linen halo. Gifts like these are more likely for a loved one rather than any old model.
Why is Young Woman with a Water Pitcher an important painting?
This painting sets an iconic example of Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer’s, style. He also sets it apart with a spiritual resonance. All Vermeer domestic scenes are a bit idealized. But Young Woman with a Water Pitcher epitomizes this. He gives her a gleaming jug and basin. These both symbolize purity. While sunlight streams through the scene bathing his perfect woman in blessings from above. Vermeer uses the light source to create a triangle around her. This showcases her as the prominent subject in the piece. Our eyes can’t help but land on her sensitive, dreamy face.
It’s also a popular painting from one of the most talked about European painting eras – Dutch Baroque. That’s because this lavish period of figurative works was such a fresh and exciting time in art history. Capitalism burgeoned on the horizon and the art world was right behind. Thus, more people grew interested in luxuries like art. As demand for fine art developed, so did master painters like Johannes Vermeer. His work elevated the mundane with serene portraits of everyday domestic duties. They resonated with nostalgia for a simpler and more spiritual life. Young Woman with a Water Pitcher does this better than all the rest.
What’s on the map in Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher?
Many Dutch homes in the 1600s had maps of the Netherlands. So, this one above the woman’s head in Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher wasn’t unusual. Vermeer was also adamant in his longing for a united Netherlands. Thus, it’s not surprising that he conveys a sense of Dutch pride in his masterpiece. The map also helps define the painting’s triangular composition. It’s just one more example of how he constructed his pieces with thoughtful precision.
ENJOYED THIS Young Woman with a Water Pitcher ANALYSIS?
Check out these other essays on Dutch painters.
De la Croix, Horst; Tansey, Richard G.; Kirkpatrick, Diane (1991). Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (9th ed.). Thomson/Wadsworth.
Arasse, Daniel. Vermeer: Faith in Painting. Princeton University Press, 1996
See Young Woman with a Water Pitcher at the Met
Binstock, Benjamin. Vermeer’s Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery, and the Unknown Apprentice. Routledge, 2008
Cant, Serena. Vermeer and His World: 1632-1675. Quercus, 2009
Liedtke, W. Vermeer and the Delft School (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Yale University Press, 2001
Snow, E. A Study of Vermeer. University of California Press, 1994