Woman Holding a Balance
In Vermeer's' Woman Holding a Balance, a representational painting, the name reveals much about the subject matter. The viewer sees a young woman in her dressing room at home. She is wearing a yellow dress and a dark blue jacket trimmed with white fur. Her gaze is pointed downward and her face reveals a peaceful expression. Her clothing and jewelry, such as her pearls and gold, show that she has material wealth. She is standing before a mirror, pondering a balance that she is holding. It appears as though she is weighing something, but the trays of the balance are empty. Behind the woman is a painting of Christ at the Last Judgment where every soul is weighed.
In this painting Vermeer used a palette full of cool tones in order to set the proper scene. The colors create a peaceful and serene mood, and the color palette sets the scene of a cold, quiet morning. However, the use of warmer colors for the light and the woman's dress give them energy and life. There are strong vertical and horizontal lines which meet at the woman's fingertips and the tip of the balance which reveal the balance to be the focal point of the painting. Though the lines are strong and prominent, they are countered by round and untidy forms such as the woman, the pearls, the light around Christ in the painting on the wall behind her, and especially the table draping. The vanishing point and focal point of the painting however remain at the balance, which rests at the peak of a pyramid shape within the painting. There are also many triangular and circular shapes in the painting which repeat to provide unity. As seen in the shape of the woman herself, even the round forms often compose triangles.
From this painting one can perceive countless meanings. One such consideration is that the woman is holding an empty balance as a symbolic reference to weighing the material things in life against a person's religion or humanity. This can be interpreted by the valuables on the table to the left of the scale, and the painting of Christ's Last Judgment behind her. Another sign of this possibility is that the light gleaming into her still room, which could be a symbol of religious revelation. However, my opinion is that the painting simply portrays that a person should live a well balanced life of moderation, with a full understanding of a final judgment day, knowing that any excess can tip the scales. This theory can be seen by the fact that the woman does not appear to have any stress, as if there is no question as to the balance. The balance itself is simply there to show that she herself lives a well balanced life and knows the proper place in her life for her possessions and her spirituality. Her appearance of peacefulness also supports this theory, as balance brings a sense of tranquility. However, Vermeer did not paint anything that specifically details or gives explanation of the painting, thus there is no certainty on the meaning behind subject matter.
The composition of Woman Holding a Balance exudes just that, balance. The composition has a centered focal point, which is the hand holding the balance. The viewer however is led throughout the complete composition by the use of lines, and strong diagonals and verticals which were formed by Vermeer's use of perspective. When looking at the bottom of the picture frame, it is apparent that the frame is lower on the right side than on the left. This appears to be a calculated measure on Vermeer's part to bring attention to the painting behind the woman. It can also be seen that the woman's head covers the area of the painting in which St. Michael weighing the souls is typically seen. Soft light shines in from a partly open window and illuminates her face and cap. By placing the woman in a shallow space, the viewer is brought near enough to get a feeling of intimacy. It gives the viewer a feeling of witnessing a quiet and private moment the woman is having in her room. By his use of shape, space, and color, Vermeer created a very proportionate, well balanced, and united composition.