Woman Holding a Balance by Jan Vermeer
Analysis, Interpretation of Dutch Genre Painting: The Goldweigher, Girl Weighing Pearls

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Woman Holding a Balance by Jan Vermeer
Woman Holding a Balance
(The Goldweigher)
By Jan Vermeer.
Seen as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever,
and an important work of
Protestant Reformation art
of the 17th century.

Woman Holding a Balance (1662-63)


Interpretation of Woman Holding a Balance
More Analysis
Other Works by Vermeer


Artist: Jan Vermeer (1632-75)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Type: Interior genre painting
Movement: Dutch Realism
Location: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

For explanations of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Education
To appreciate genre painters
like Johannes Vermeer,
see our educational essays:
Art Evaluation
and also:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Interpretation of Woman Holding a Balance

Unquestionably among the greatest genre paintings ever produced, Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance was known - until detailed analysis revealed that the pans of the balance were empty - as The Goldweigher or Girl Weighing Pearls. The absence of gold and pearls in the scales was established by an analysis of colour pigments: there was no lead-tin yellow highlight on the pans - the colour Vermeer normally used to depict gold - and the single layer of highlight on the pan is quite different from the normal 'double layer' of paint (grey plus white highlight) which he used to represent pearls. Nor are there any loose pearls on the table waiting to be weighed. Nonetheless, the small, delicate balance is the central feature and focus of the picture, which is all about the weighing of transitory material concerns against spiritual ones. It is a more explicitly allegorical work than usual, but some elements remain obscure. The work exemplifies Vermeer's style of Dutch Realist genre painting with its blend of painterly technique, moral narrative and, above all, intimacy - a style unequalled by any of the other Dutch Realist artists from Leiden, Haarlem, Utrecht, Dordrecht or Delft.




Like many of his contemporaries, Vermeer's genre pictures included a wealth of symbolism which imparted a serious message to an otherwise mundane subject. The woman is depicted standing quietly, almost Madonna-like, in front of a mirror. On the wall behind her hangs a black-framed picture of the Last Judgment, which represents the spiritual concerns and judgment of Christ; in front of her is a table strewn with pearls, a gold chain and other items of jewellery, which represent Man's material possessions. The empty scale, held lightly between her slim fingers, shows that she is weighing spiritual rather than material considerations. There is a complete lack of tension or conflict in her portrayal: on the contrary, she is utterly serene in the self-knowledge (represented by her reflection in the mirror) that the righteous approach is to lead a life of moderation, in the expectation of God's final judgment. (For a work extolling chastity, see Girl with a Pearl Earring (1664-6, Mauritshuis, The Hague).


Meanwhile, the artistic balance of this masterpiece is maintained by Vermeer's customary and exquisite painting technique. The composition is structured around the woman's fingertips, which is exactly where the picture's vanishing point is. This spot, which is marked by the intersection of the woman's hand and the downward line of the Last Judgment painting, is also the centre of the whole picture. There is also a dynamic relationship between a number of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines, throughout the work. Thus the diagonal lines of the woman's skirt and left arm, as well as the shadow on the wall, contrast with the right-angles of the painting and the table.

Colour and Brushwork

As usual, a wealth of detail allows Vermeer to demonstrate his handling of colour and texture. His trademark palette of blue, grey and yellow lends the scene its cool tonality and harmony, while his virtuoso brushwork - including, for instance, the fine reflections in the balance, the highlights of the pearls, and the contrast between the fine blue fabric in the left foreground and the coarser texture of the woman's yellow wool gown - and subtle handling of light seeping in through a gap in the curtains, makes the whole work a masterclass in fine art painting.

Analysis of The Woman Holding a Balance (The Goldweigher)

"A young woman weighing gold, in a small case ... uncommonly well painted" was how this canvas was described when it was auctioned in 1696 for the hefty price of 155 guilders; of the 21 canvases by Vermeer sold on that day, only the View of Delft and The Milkmaid went for more. Indeed, the fact that it was listed as being in a small case rather than an ordinary frame suggests that either its owner - the Delft bookseller Jacob Dissius - or Vermeer himself especially valued this work. An earlier inventory of Dissius' collection indicated that three of Vermeer's works were treated in this manner, though we have no indication of which paintings the other two were or what the small cases were like.

Pearl Picture

Compositionally, the various elements of this painting can be related most closely to Woman with a Pearl Necklace (c.1662, Staatliche Museum, Berlin). The most important of these are the pearls and the small mirror hanging on the wall. Combined with a coolness of tonality, these elements make this one of the so-called pearl pictures. Additionally, like the Woman Reading a Letter (c.1662-4, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), the model here appears to be pregnant.

Last Judgment

The subject of the balancing scales seems to have been a popular one in Dutch Baroque art at about this time. Pieter de Hooch (1629-84), for example, painted a marvellous painting of a goldweigher - obviously influenced by this Vermeer - in about 1664; it is now in Berlin. Significantly, De Hooch stresses the opulence of the room, with its rich, embossed gilt leather walls, an emphasis to be taken perhaps as a commentary on wordly goods. This theme was explored frequently by Dutch artists throughout the 17th-Century and before. While de Hooch underlines the "treasures," Vermeer, by including a 16th-Century Northern painting of a Last Judgment framing the head of the woman, warns the viewer that another sort of weighing awaits us all, the weighing of the soul at the final judgment. Indeed, the head of the woman seems to fill the space in the 16th-Century composition where traditionally St. Michael would be seen going about precisely this activity.

Vanitas Picture

Vermeer, although including the mirror, the gold, and the pearls, pulls the spectator beyond the more physical world of Pieter de Hooch toward the spiritual implications of vanitas painting - a genre popularized by artists like Harmen van Steenwyck (1612-56), Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-83), Willem Kalf (1622-93), Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1681) and Pieter Claesz (1597-1660). In this light one may wonder at the significance of the woman's apparent pregnancy. After all, Vermeer was not casual about the incidentals in his pictures. Did Vermeer intend some comment on life and death?

For more about Vermeer, see 17th century Dutch painting (1600-80).

Jan Vermeer

On August 11, 1663, a French art collector, Balthazar de Monconys, visited Vermeer's studio in Delft. Not only was the artist not present, de Monconys complained, but there were no pictures to be seen. He was, however, taken to a nearby baker's shop where he was shown a painting of an interior with a single figure, which was valued at 300 guilders. De Monconys thought the price much too high. Nevertheless, it was not much out of line with that asked by other Dutch painters of the time. The popular Gerrit Dou (1613-75), for example, offered de Monconys a picture for 300 guilders, while his Leyden compatriot, Frans van Mieris (1635-81), demanded 600 for one of his. Vermeer clearly commanded a price comparable to that of the best-known painters of his day. De Monconys' story also adds credence to the belief that Vermeer painted relatively few works. In the years that he was head of the Delft artist's guild, Vermeer had not a single work available in his studio either to show or sell!



Other Paintings by Vermeer

Little Street (1658)
Soldier and a Laughing Girl (1658)
Young Woman with a Water Jug (c.1662)
Girl With a Red Hat (c.1666)
The Art of Painting: An Allegory (Artist in his Studio) (c.1666-1673)
The Lacemaker (c.1669-70)

• For more about 17th century Dutch Baroque art, see our main index: Homepage.

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