Painting of the Day

30 Jan

A Maid Asleep

A Maid Asleep. by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Oil on canvas, c. 1657. Currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Notes from

This canvas of 1656 or 1657 is the earliest work by Vermeer to depict his usual subject of one or two figures in a domestic interior. The wine glass and unsettled objects on the table suggest that some social occasion has passed. To the upper left, the corner of a painting of Cupid (known from other pictures by Vermeer) includes a fallen mask which refers to the woman’s unguarded expression. Radiographs reveal that Vermeer originally included a man in the background and a dog in the doorway; these motifs were replaced by the distant mirror and the chair with a pillow to the lower right. In changing the composition Vermeer made its amorous theme less obvious, just as his remarkable passages of observation obscure his borrowing of ideas from other genre painters, such as Nicolaes Maes.

Paraphrased additional notes from the book Vermeer with 129 color plates and accompanying text by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr.:

The sleeping woman takes a position that at the time was well known in emblematic literature as the representation of Sloth. Therefore it’s plausible that Vermeer’s painting has a moralizing implication: that the proper conduct of one’s life requires temperance and moderation, in order to avoid fall asleep due to implied drunkenness. 

There are, however, other possibilities for the significance of the woman’s pose, one of them being Melancholy. Above her there is an image that has been identified as Otto van Veen’s Amorum Emblemata, a kind of artwork known as an emblem that is entitled “Love requyres sinceritie.” This concerns deception in love; hence the girl may be in a state of melancholy due to recently being deceived by a lover. 

The fact that Vermeer made the painting smaller than he originally planned it and also removed the man and the dog suggests that he wanted to avoid the didactic narrative and preferred a more subtle, poetic approach. The painting is a transitional work, the first in which architectural elements and symbolic images are significantly used to reinforce the content of the painting. 

My comments:

When we discussed our chair assignment in my Foundation Drawing class, the professor brought up the use of light in drawing and mentioned Vermeer, asking me to be responsible for bringing in a book on Vermeer for our next class.

While I find the way that Vermeer is able to render shadow in this painting absolutely unbelievable in terms of how realistic it looks, what I find most intriguing about this painting of Vermeer in particular is his compositional arrangement. It reminds me very much of Degas’s Women with Chrysanthemums, in which there is a giant bouquet of Chrysanthemums that takes up the vast majority of the canvas with a woman that sits on the right, staring contemplatively into space with her eyes directed towards the edge of the canvas. Similarly in Vermeer’s painting, the woman sits to the very left of the canvas and leans towards that edge. In the center of the painting, a luxurious patterned carpet with a palpable texture as well as an ajar door that reveals a mysterious mirror behind it occupies our attention. I think it’s only the bright white part of the woman’s clothing that makes her noticeable in the painting; if Vermeer had painted her with only dark clothing, it would probably be very easy to miss her. Her near disappearance into the painting is aided by the slight shadow that covers her head and right hand. 

Going back to the mirror behind the doorway, I find it incredibly interesting and almost confusing because it almost looks like it could just be another doorway leading into another room, but the very subtle frame makes it look more like a mirror.Why would Vermeer place that mirror there? The fact that he took out the man and the dog and replaced it with this mirror suggests to me that he was less concerned about telling a story with this painting and instead was interested on artistic experimentation with formal elements.The fact that this is one of Vermeer’s first domestic genre scenes supports this assertion because if this is a new subject that Vermeer is working with, it would make sense that he’d like to start by playing around with it.

Because the mirror creates a lot of questions about the painting. Given our position as viewers, I would think that the mirror would reflect us. I would also think the mirror would reflect the chair in the foreground. But it does neither of these things, so what’s going on? And why did Vermeer include the mirror at all?


One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara January 31, 2013 at 12:13 am #

    i am so happy you finally show a Vermeer. what a painter. that rung looks like the one in our house.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: