How a Small Painting Can Engulf You

Part of the “What Makes a Masterpiece?” series.

Vermeer's Young Woman with a Water Jug
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft 1632–1675 Delft),
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher
, ca. 1662. Oil on canvas; 18 x 16 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1889.

Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Jug (c. 1662) is a painting that continues to fascinate me. As a beginning art student on the West Coast, I would dwell on reproductions of it as I flipped madly through art books. Something about it entranced me. It seemed somehow perfectly realized. Its technique and balance in the composition amazed me, but I was struck, too, by some ineffable quality that goes way beyond this: the ability to raise the commonplace to the divine, of finding the transcendent within the everyday.

Not until I moved to New York City to train at the Art Students League was I able to see the original painting firsthand. My first reaction was shock by its small size. I knew that Vermeer was a painter of small pieces, but still I wasn’t prepared for such sublime power to be emanating from a canvas of only 18 x 16 inches. Yet, it was just this small size of Young Woman with a Water Jug that serves to amplify its effect. Where a large canvas can consume a viewer by engulfing that person into the world inside the frame, there remains a more intimate and contemplative quality with a small painting. As meditators choose small objects like roses and candle flames to focus on, the smallness of the piece allows a viewer to remember oneself while slowly merging with it. Neither overwhelmed nor overtaken by the painting, we are first calmed, our attention focused, and then we’re put into accord with it.

In Vermeer’s painting, the Dutch woman possesses an essence, which, I believe, begins to cultivate a quality of meditation in the viewer. She embodies such a palpable balance of calm and composure that you can feel these qualities being awakened as you reflect on the small work. This seventeenth-century woman seems so completely connected with her surroundings and the present moment that a very ordinary scene begins to be elevated to a whole new level.

Aside from her serene expression, the way in which Vermeer painted her features reinforces this effect. She appears generalized and non-specified. Instead of becoming distracted by personality and uniqueness, we are aware only of a larger undercurrent of human presence and connectedness given full attention.

This seventeenth-century woman seems so completely connected with her surroundings and the present moment that a very ordinary scene begins to be elevated to a whole new level.

This effect is amplified throughout the rest of the painting. Every part serves the larger whole. With one hand at the window and the other to the pitcher, the woman becomes, both compositionally and metaphysically, a set of scales in equilibrium. There is no tension to infer any next movement or preference of direction. The eternity of the moment prevails. Her gesture combines with the other elements in the painting to create a harmonious flow. Everything is connected. A series of horizontals and perpendiculars merge beautifully with flowing diagonal transitions. Feel the flow of movement as your eye travels along the rod at the bottom of the map to her right arm, up the edge of the window, and then note how even the edge of light on the back wall brings the flow back down to her head and through to her left arm and downward toward the pitcher. Shapes are joined and echoed wonderfully. Imagine how less effective the picture would be without the diagonal of the fabric on the back of the chair to create rhythm with the diagonal of her right arm and the tablecloth moving down on the left side.

The way in which Vermeer paints light (for which he is famous) imbues this entire scene with a feeling of the extraordinary. Every part of the painting merges within this one light to become a whole. Each glowing portion of the composition is possessed of this effect of the one light as much as of any separate object that is illuminated by it.

Vermeer lived during a time when deviation from church doctrine could run one the risk of personal danger. Speaking too openly about a path to any sort of enlightenment without strict church convention could be dangerous. So I cannot help but wonder if the map, window, pitcher, and lion’s head finial on the chair might be referencing the four elements of earth, air, water, and fire for further exposition on the connection between the lofty and the worldly. And although the woman’s dress is described as of the seventeenth-century Dutch upper class, it also looks very much like a sort of nun’s habit and again blends the pursuit of the fruits of religion with one’s private and independent ritual. Also, instead of wondering whether the woman in the painting is just about to water a plant on the other side of the window, or has just done so, I find myself contemplating the mystical allusion to filling a vessel with divine light. This eclipses the anecdotal and returns us to the eternal moment and interior we are contemplating.

Formal pictorial and compositional elements are brought to such a level of perfection in Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Jug. But how those technical qualities embody an experiential essence makes this painting truly great. More than just a great work of art, this piece become a vehicle for the ascension of consciousness.

Geoff Farnsworth is painter who teaches at Niagra College Canada. This article appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of LINEA. 

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