Johannes Vermeer's A Woman Holding a Balance by Mary Elizabeth Podles

A Thousand Words

Johannes Vermeer's A Woman Holding a Balance

by Mary Elizabeth Podles

Vermeer's small canvas (c. 1662–1664) depicts a woman in informal dress, morning jacket, and untied linen cap, standing at a table in the corner of a room. On the wall in front of her are a curtained window and a mirror, and on the wall behind her hangs a painting. She rests one hand on a table; the tabletop supports a rumpled cover and a jewelry box, out of which spill strings of pearls and gold. In her right hand she holds a pair of scales.

All the compositional elements of the picture direct our attention to that hand: it is at the geometrical center of the picture; the perspective lines perpendicular to the picture plane (the top of the mirror, the table edge) converge at her hand, while the curved lines of the table cover and of her left arm make a semicircle around it. Light falling from the window picks out the placement of her hand, the little finger upraised as she balances the scale. The corner of the painting's frame sets off that hand, too; notice that the painter has raised the frame slightly (compared to the right-hand side) to leave a plain background behind the scales.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.


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