On the Road Again: Woman Holding a Balance in Dublin

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Coming into this world in the seventeenth-century Holland during the golden age of the Dutch East Asia Company, it is not surprising that this woman from Delft became a world traveler. We are talking about here not a real person but a female figure depicted in Woman Holding a Balance by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), which he painted around 1664 and is said to be purchased initially by Pierter Clasz Ruijven (1624-1674) in 1674, the principal patron for Vermeer in Delft. Woman Holding a Balance then traveled to Amsterdam in 1696, to Nymphenburg Castle in 1825, to Paris in 1830, and from London to New York to Philadelphia in 1911. Privately owned by Joseph E. Widener of Philadelphia since 1915, Woman Holding a Balance finally found her permanent residence in Washington DC in 1942 as one of the prized possessions of National Gallery of Art at the bequest of the Widener family.

Finding her permanent residence in the US was not the end of travels for the woman in Woman Holding a Balance. As the reputation of Vermeer as a great artist became firmly established among art historians in the twentieth century, as exemplified by the first solo exhibition of his work in Rotterdam in 1935 with an accompanying statement like, “Next to Rembrandt the figure of Vermeer rises above all other artists of the great age of the seventeenth century,”1 the woman in Woman Holding a Balance has attracted great demand for her presence at exhibitions all over the world. In this capacity as a great attraction at exhibitions, Woman Holding a Balance started travelling again from her home in Washington DC to such cities as Philadelphia, Berlin and London in 1984, the Hague in 1996, Osaka in 2000, New York and London in 2001, Madrid in 2003, Amsterdam in 2009, Munich in 2011, and Detroit in 2012. This year, 2017, she has traveled to Paris and Dublin before returning to her home in Washington DC in October.

Such high demand for her presence is understandable, considering that Woman Holding a Balance, despite its small size measuring 40.3×35.6 cm, is no doubt a great work of art by a great artist. Indeed, Woman Holding a Balance is one of those paintings by Johannes Vermeer, which is universally admired today by art lovers all over the world for its masterful representation of exquisite balance between light and darkness and its well-structured composition of the things depicted in the painting. Though considered only a minor painter at the time, Vermeer painted Woman Holding a Balance around 1664 at the height of his artistic creativity when he painted such masterpieces as: Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (c.1663-64), Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (c.1664-65), Woman with a Pearl Necklace (c.1664), A Lady Writing (c.1665), The Girl with the Red Hat (c.1665), and Girl with a Pearl Earring (c.1665-66).

Indeed, the only other woman more popular than the woman in Woman Holding a Balance among female figures Vermeer painted may arguably be the girl in Girl with a Pearl Necklace. Depicting a young girl with a charming profile, Girl with a Pearl Necklace is often called Vermeer’s Mona Lisa, and has been made into a novel and a movie.2 If it is so popular, what is the reason behind the popularity of Woman Holding a Balance? What was the message that Vermeer wanted to convey to us viewers?

It is to be noted that Woman Holding a Balance used to be called Woman Weighing Gold because of the remarkable similarity between this painting and Woman Weighing Gold Coins (c.1664) by Pierter de Hooch (1629-1684). Art historians have long debated whether it was Vermeer or de Hooch who first got an idea for painting a woman in the act of weighing. Besides the remarkable similarity between the two paintings, what adds to the debate is the fact both artists were working in Delft as members of the Guild of St. Luke, though de Hooch was in Amsterdam in 1664. Another factor that needs to be taken into account in settling the debate is the fact that de Hooch originally had the figure of a man seated at the far side of the table, which he later painted over. Whether it was Vermeer or de Hooch who borrowed the idea from the other, the current title of Woman Holding a Balance stems from the discovery made at the restoration work in 1994, in which microscopic analysis showed nothing sitting on the scales, although gold and pearls are distinctively painted as lying on the table.

Art historians have also debated about whether the woman in Woman Holding a Balance is pregnant, because of her bulging belly, or whether she was just wearing the costume fashionable in Delft around that time. It has also been suggested that the painting depicts the secular image of the Virgin Mary, who intercedes on behalf of the faithful Christians on the occasion of their final judgment. This interpretation is made plausible by the picture of The Last Judgment on the wall. Moreover, it is known that Vermeer had converted to Catholicism before his marriage to Catharina Bolnes in 1653. According to this interpretation, the painting is an allegorical depiction of the last judgment, which Vermeer symbolically represented by the figure of a woman in the act of weighing.

Whatever it was Vermeer intended to represent, what is remarkable about the woman in Woman Holding a Balance is the sense of serenity exuded by the calmness of her body and the concentration of her mind on the act of weighing. In fact, she appears as if she is meditating while totally immersed in the act of weighing. While depicting a similar scene, this type of spirituality is missing from de Hooch’s Woman Weighing Gold Coins. Perhaps Vermeer was seeking the sense of serenity that was lacking from his turbulent daily life, which included his dealing with his sometimes-difficult mother-in-law, the death of his children, and paying off the debt left by his father. Perhaps it was his faith in Catholicism that prompted Vermeer to paint Woman Holing a Balance. Whatever may be the background behind it, Woman Holding a Balance is hugely popular and is attracting a sold-out crowd of her admirers daily in Dublin, which is understandable as Ireland is a Catholic country that promotes tourism today as a spiritual undertaking.3

  1. Ben Broos and Arthur K. Wheelock (eds.), Johannes Vermeer, Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1995, p. 60.
  2. Chevalier, Tracy, Girl with a Pearl Necklace, London: HarperCollins, 1999.
  3. “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting,” 17 June - 17 September 2017, National Gallery of Ireland.