I’m a sucker for museum gift shops. To me they are vastly different from the typical tourist knickknack stand. Why? Because a shot glass with the I <3 NY logo on it isn’t nearly as charming as a shot glass with Matisse’s Blue Nude. Then again, maybe shot glasses aren’t “charming” at all, so let’s ditch the shot glasses and consider the notecards and postcards, ready-to-hang prints, umbrellas, glass paperweights, and tote bags. Art museums are proud of their permanent collections, as they should be, and they happily hawk goodies that bear the images of the mainstay masterpieces which adorn their gallery walls.
The gift shop at the National Gallery of Art was huge! Like a floor in a department store. When I strolled in after viewing the Degas/Cassatt show I thought “I’m gonna be in here for an hour!”. Luckily I kept the time, and my spending, to a minimum. I came out with a bookmark of Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance, one of the National Gallery’s prized possessions. I was genuinely in need of a new bookmark so it’s all good. Here she is already at work holding a place:
It’s a trivial thought, but I wonder what the great artists would think if they saw their work mass produced in this way .. on bookmarks, baubles, and magnets? How would Degas feel knowing that his Dancers were holding a grocery list on a refrigerator? Or da Vinci if he learned that people were sipping coffee from a Mona Lisa mug? We’ll never know. The way I see it, if I’m going to use a bookmark, why not glance at a Vermeer when I turn the page? He comes with me as I ride the train and read, and to modeling jobs when I read on my breaks. How I love Vermeer :-)
And here is the full Vermeer painting Woman Holding a Balance, from 1664:
This is a magnificent painting in so many ways, considered by some to be Vermeer’s best. The woman is most likely Vermeer’s wife Catharina, who was probably the model also for Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window. One can clearly see a resemblance between the two. As always with Vermeer, the composition is extraordinary. Horizontal, vertical, and diagonal “lines” are organized with geometric brilliance, and they converge at the visual center of the piece which lies at the woman’s hand holding the balance. And since a balance is a weighing and measuring instrument, Vermeer creates a fully realized work consistent with the theme of equilibrium. Also take note of the arrangement of color: two masses of blue in the woman’s jacket and the blue cloth on the table, and small dots of sparkle in the pearls in the open jewelry box.
The intriguing nature of Vermeer’s work takes us deeper when we analyze the subtext of this painting. Art scholars have stressed the significance of the painting in the background. It is a depiction of “The Last Judgment”, and you can bet not some random choice by Vermeer. The artwork page for this work on the National Gallery website offers this interesting assessment:
The woman’s gaze at the balance, when considered in the context of the Last Judgment on the wall behind her, suggests that Vermeer, a Catholic, sought to infuse this work with religious and spiritual significance. Saint Ignatius of Loyola instructed the faithful to examine their consciences and weigh their sins as if facing Judgment Day. Only such deliberation could lead to virtuous choices along the path of life. Poised between the earthly treasures of gold and pearls before her and Last Judgment painting’s stark reminder of the eternal consequences of her actions, this woman personifies the values of materialism and morality that jostled for dominance in 17th-century Dutch society.
Yeah, maybe that is too much to squeeze onto a bookmark! But I don’t care. Vermeer is marking my places as I read, and learn, and embark on journeys both intellectual and spiritual, and reminding me, with his serene and contemplative woman, to seek balance, harmony, and sound values in life.
Explore this painting further at Essential Vermeer