I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
— C.S. Lewis
And so, it is still very early in the morning. Stars from the night begin to fade. With birds chirping as dawn approaches, the air is slowly turning from darkness to orange, or, are those colors the sunset? Either way, we are talking about the sunrise here. Meanwhile, by the sun, the morning glow brings life. Structures turn from solid flat silhouettes to objects with sides, color and depth.
And so, early in the morning, the sun is still just rising. First to wake, the young woman rises out of bed in the dark gray space and strolls to the kitchen. By a window pieced together with stained glass, light escapes from the outside in, inviting the young woman to open it, allowing life to flood into the house.
Soon enough the children will wake and stir through the rooms looking for waffles, pancakes and pofferties sprinkled with sugar, as they prepare for their day.
This painting is “Young Woman With a Water Pitcher” Vermeer painted this in Delft, more well known as the land of Amsterdam in 1662. It is oil on canvas hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is 18″x16″.
As she pulls the window frame towards her, dawn escapes in along with the morning cheers and sounds of brass bells rung by sailors on the boats passing through. Looking out the frame both east and west are the rays of the sun glimmering on gray waters of the Amsterdam canals.
And so, sidewalks on the perimeter of the waterways are just waking up. The temperature is still cool and damp. People are stepping out of their narrow, connected, forward leaning canal houses and out onto the brick walkways, sweeping away the morning dew with a broom. Friends are strolling to the market festooned with delicious sausages, meat, bread, cheese, tea, milk, tulips, cinnamon, woven lace, blue and white tiles and other lovely fineries to bring back home. Here in the heart of the city, perhaps Dam Square, friends are bumping into neighbors having friendly conversation, exchanging recipes, and catching up with each other.
In those days it was a time of good fortune for Holland. Delft was a prosperous city. With 165 canals of water (4 seriously major ones) and with names like Singel, Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht and other notable canals like Zwanenburgwal, Brouwersgracht, Kloveniersburgwal, Brantasgracht, Lamonggracht, Majanggracht and Seranggracht (can you pronounce these words? I can’t.), goods were easily transported in and out of the neighborhood.
And in those days Amsterdam was a calm and tranquil society. The people are free and at ease. They don’t look to argue. The village flourishes by their hard work.
Vermeer is a Dutch artist. His paintings do not tell stories, at best he captures the beauty of everyday life (also known as genre art). “The Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” is one of 35 of Vermeer’s paintings. “The Young Woman With A Water Pitcher” expresses tranquility. Put together with moments and objects from everyday life, the painting is realistic and seems as if it is in a stop action shot. We are looking through the wall of this ladies home, but she does not know we are. The picture will unfreeze at any second and she will begin to move.
Noticing by the detail of the surrounding area, we see the kitchen of a modest home. Vermeer gives perspective to his carefully chosen objects, in particular the table, window, jewelry box, water pitcher and also the dish, giving them life.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art states: “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 sliver-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 stained glass window also gives the painting a peaceful delicate mood. Reputation of the primary colors red, blue and yellow bring the picture together. The woman’s vibrant blue dress juxtaposed to the red embroidered table cloth creates an outstanding image. Tapestry weaving was a popular product during the 17th century, during the time of Vermeer’s life. In nature the morning sun shining in through the window would cause many shadows. Chiaroscuro, the transition from darkness to light builds depth and structure. He captured the figures that were brought to life by light well. Vermeer lived from 1632 – 1675.
So, light floods in and falls quietly on the woman, the young woman is about to look out of a window, possibly thinking of the voyages of her fellow countrymen returning home. She may even be looking forward to the return of her husband from his new world journeys.
A little bit of history
During the 17th century, the Dutch society had reached a point of political, economic and cultural greatness. A time of such prosperity is considered to be a “Golden Age.” In the previous century “The 17th century also brought heightened economic competition to Europe. Much of the foundation for worldwide mercantilism – extensive voyage and geographic exploration, improved cartography and advances in ship building had been laid in the previous century.
In the 17th century however, changes in financial systems, lifestyles and trading patterns, along with expanding colonialism, fueled the creation of a worldwide marketplace. The Dutch founded the Bank of Amsterdam in 1609, which eventually became the center of European transfer banking.” Traders could now exchange their heavy precious goods for money, which was much lighter in weight. They did not have to transport heavy goods to use as payment anymore. In the century before, the Dutch found a way to perfect their ship building. Shipping and a lighter load allowed a greater variety of goods that could be traded. Industries were expanding and goods that could only be found in other countries like coffee from the islands, and tea from China could now be brought in to add to the economic wealth. Slaves were captured and shipped to European colonies and the Americas they were used to harvest crops such as sugar, tobacco and rice.
Shortly after the Netherlands gained independence from Spain in the late 16th century, Dutch businessmen developed cities in the new world, such as New Amsterdam, now known as New York.
About forty years later the British wanted to fight for the land and the Dutch decided rather than to waste their time on war efforts they…. they would turn their heads and allow the British to have the land, and face to another direction, towards the East India Trading Company.
Holland was also the only society allowed in to trade with China, giving Holland a boost with economic growth. Ships could enter into China. Holland was seen as an unassertive trading country that minded its own business; the ships only sailed in to trade, with no interest in influcencing the culture of China to be like Holland, leaving Holland harmless.
And, all other cultures were banned from China because China wanted to protect itself from being changed by other cultures.
The Dutch East India Company, which traded in spices, tea, silk, and other much-wanted commodities from China, was the largest of its kind and — in keeping with Holland’s commercial lead over Britain at the time — it was more successful than the British East India Company.
The beauty of Vermeer’s paintings, is not in his choice of subject but in the ways his scenes are portrayed. It is in how he uses light and color, proportion and scale, to enhance the moods of his figures. He imparts nuances of thought and meaning in his sense which are at once understandable but not totally explicit.
Ultimately, however beautiful or sensitive his paintings may be, they continue to appeal because they can never be completely explained.
Through them, artists strive to relate stories, ideas and moods. But because paintings outlive the generation in which they were created, they take on added historical interest. They become visual statements of the attitudes, moods and ideas of a different age.
Vermeer’s accurate depictions of maps, musical instruments, and paintings within paintings, and his interest in recording differences in textures of materials and the effects of sunlight and shadow, can only be understood in these terms.
Nevertheless realism of Dutch art was not always limited to the precise depictions of objects and effects of light. It is not an exact copy of nature, but it gives the appearance of having copied nature. What is amazing about this painting is that it is real. People actually looked like this, dressed like this and decorated their apartments like this. Vermeer’s figures are often quiet and reserved and portray no marked emotion.
Now, you might be wondering. Hey, what about the other stuff Amsterdam is known for? Well.. thats not the point of my story. Those details are for another day.
Vermeer is a poetic and not a narrative painter, and the nuances of meaning that one receives are often fleeting and incomplete.
And so, the question is, what is the young woman with a water pitcher doing?
And the conclusion?
Well — paintings are basically a means of communication. Vermeer communicated through mood, rather than narrative. It looks like the woman is about to open the window to allow the light of the dawn flood into the room. After a night of rest and darkness, the sun rises and glows outside waiting patiently to flood the room carrying life in with it.
And so, with the presence of the sunlight, we only know what we see. It is what it is. Standing there with her hand on the window frame. It looks like she is about to look outside the window into the beautiful morning, but really — we just don’t know. Only our imagination can tell us.
Young Woman With a Water Pitcher. 1662. Oil on Canvas. Marquand Collection/Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, New York.
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