Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–1675)
Oil on canvas
18 x 16 in. (45.7 x 40.6 cm)
Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1889 (89.15.21)
In most of his early paintings, Vermeer offers a sympathetic view of women in service to someone else (whether Diana, Christ, a customer, or the mistress of a household). However, the artist's mature works are mainly concerned with courtship or with the type of woman to whom the seventeenth-century owner of such a picture might pay court. The subject here is an ideal woman in an ideal home, where beauty, luxury, and tranquility coexist. The map and jewelry box suggest worldliness, but the silver-gilt basin and pitcher would have been recognized (despite their expense) as a traditional symbol of purity. The linen scarves covering the woman's head and shoulders were usually worn during a morning toilette.
The change in style between The Milkmaid and this painting of about five years later is considerable and coincidentally reflects their different subjects: an earthy woman described in tactile and sculptural terms, and an idealized beauty treated like a vision, an optical pattern of colors, flat shadows, and remarkable effects of light.