Woman Reading a Letter

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Woman Holding a Balance is a superb example of Johannes Vermeer’s exquisite sense of stability and rhythm. A woman dressed in a blue jacket with fur trim stands serenely at a table in a corner of a room. The scales in her right hand are at equilibrium, suggestive of her inner state of mind. A large painting of the Last Judgment, framed in black, hangs on the back wall of the room. A shimmering blue cloth, open boxes, two strands of pearls, and a gold chain lie on the sturdy table. Soft light comes in through the window and illuminates the scene. The woman is so pensive that the viewer almost hesitates to intrude on her quiet moment of contemplation.

The visual juxtaposition of the woman and the Last Judgment is reinforced by thematic parallels: to judge is to weigh. Woman Holding a Balance allegorically urges us to conduct our lives with temperance and moderation. The woman is poised between the earthly treasures of gold and pearls and a visual reminder of the eternal consequences of her actions.

Vermeer emphasized this message through his superbly refined composition and lighting. The hand holding the balance, for example, occupies a position directly in front of the frame’s dark corner, while the scales are set off against the bare plaster wall—an effect that Vermeer created through subtle spatial manipulation. Note, for instance, that the bottom of the Last Judgment’s frame is slightly higher to the left of the woman than it is behind her back, creating room for the balance.

c. 1664, National Gallery of Art, Washington

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