Arts & Culture

Woman Holding a Balance

Johannes Vermeer1664 - c. 1664

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

A woman dressed in a blue jacket with fur trim stands alone before a table in a corner of a room. She holds a balance in her right hand and with lowered eyes waits for it to come to rest. Behind her, on the back wall of the room, is a large painting of The Last Judgment framed in black. On the side wall is a mirror. A blue cloth, some open boxes, two strands of pearls, and a gold chain lie on the table. A soft light, which passes through a window and its orange–yellow curtain, illuminates the scene. While the woman is psychologically removed from us, her graceful figure and serene face suggest an inner peace that one often experiences at unexpected and fleeting moments in one's life.

Woman Holding a Balance is an allegorical scene that urges us to conduct our lives with temperance and moderation. The painting within the painting offers an important clue in that Christ's Last Judgment is echoed by the woman's own actions. Before her are earthly treasures; behind her is the symbol of the eternal consequences of her actions here on earth. In waiting for the balance to rest at equilibrium she acknowledges the importance of judgment in weighing her own actions in anticipation of the life to come.

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  • Title: Woman Holding a Balance
  • Date Created: 1664 - c. 1664
  • Physical Dimensions: w355 x h397 cm (overall)
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Widener Collection
  • External Link: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • artist: Johannes Vermeer
  • Theme: profane, allegory
  • School: Dutch
  • Provenance: Possibly Pieter Claesz van Ruijven [1624 1674], Delft; possibly by inheritance to his wife, Maria de Knuijt [d. 1681], Delft; possibly by inheritance to her daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven [1655 1682], Delft; possibly by inheritance to her husband, Jacobus Abrahamsz. Dissius [1653 1695], Delft;[1] (sale, Amsterdam, 16 May 1696, no. 1);[2] Isaac Rooleeuw, Amsterdam; (sale, Amsterdam, 20 April 1701, no. 6); Paolo van Uchelen [d. 1703], Amsterdam. (sale, B. Tideman, Amsterdam, 18 March 1767, no. 6); Kok. Nicolaas Nieuhoff, Amsterdam; (sale, Ph. van der Schley, Amsterdam, 14 April 1777, no. 116); Van den Bogaard.[3] (sale, Maximilian I Joseph (1756 1825), Munich, 5 December 1826, no. 101, as by Gabriel Metsu). Louis Charles Victor de Riquet de Caraman [1762 1839], Paris; (sale, Lacoste, Paris, 10 May 1830, no. 68). Casimir Péreir; (sale, Christie & Manson, London, 5 May 1848, no. 7); Péreir's son; by inheritance to Comtesse de Ségur Péreir; (P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London, and M. Knoedler & Co., New York);[4] sold 11 January 1911 to Peter A. B. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; inheritance from Estate of Peter A. B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; gift 1942 to NGA. [1] The 1683 inventory of goods accruing to Jacob Dissius after the death of his wife, Magdalena van Ruyven, lists twenty paintings by Vermeer. For the complete transactions between her husband, Jacob Dissius, and his father, Abraham Dissius, following her death, see John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, Princeton, 1989, 246 257, 359 361, docs. 417, 420. [2] For this sale see Montias 1989, 363 364, doc. 439. [3] The systematic catalogue for the NGA Dutch paintings published the following information at this point in the provenance: "PP. [initials of consignor]; (sale, Ph. van der Schley, Amsterdam, 11 May 1801, no. 48); bought for Ph. van der Schley by M[errem]." This had been provided by The Getty Provenance Index, but was in error. The painting in the 1801 sale was one of the same subject by Pieter de Hooch, now in Berlin, per 27 October 1997 letter from Burton Frederickson, Director of the Provenance Index, in NGA curatorial files. [4] M. Knoedler & Co. purchased one quarter share in the painting from Colnaghi in October 1910, per 18 May 1995 letter from Melissa De Medeiros, Knoedler Librarian, in NGA curatorial file.

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