February 22, 2011

Art and Money Week: Johannes Vermeer's "Woman with a Balance"

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This is another example of a work that has had a change of title over the years. For a long time it was called "Woman Weighing Gold." All the more reason to consider titles with a grain of salt.

This is also a perfect example of a work that one should speculate about with care. It would be easy to attribute exact symbolic meaning to every object represented and then, after adding them all up, stamp an "intended message" on it. But this painting has a great many ambiguities and unknowns. For this reason I'm hesitant to ascribe any specific historical or religious explanation to Vermeer's choices although a number of theories about these choices exist.

I can't tell what she is weighing on her scale, if anything, but there are gold chains, coins, ribbons (?), jewelry and pearls on her table, spilling out of the small boxes. Obviously scales are used to weigh precious metals so there is a conceptual link between the two. Although there is a painting of what appears to be the last judgment on the wall, there are no other indications in this work that Vermeer intended to express any negative opinion about earthliness or material wealth. If anything it appears to express the opposite. The woman's coat seems particularly fine and not ostentatious. She is pregnant--a condition almost always associated with positivity and hope. The scale could be intended to symbolize something about morality.

At the end of the day unreadable intentions are meaningless to speculate about. The value of this work as art remains a concretization of an overall view of life--a life as vivid, lush, clear, orderly, peaceful, positive and good.

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