Woman Holding a Balance by Jan Vermeer

Woman Holding a Balance by Jan Vermeer

and Peasant Smoking at a Cottage Door by Thomas Gainsborough

            Paintings are considered as artifacts of a particular culture that represent the lifestyle, principles and people of that specific era. The creativity and genius of artists are reflected on their works of art that are transformed into timeless pieces which are valued to celebrate the greatness of humanity. Artists embody the spirit of creativity. They create different styles and techniques to effectively express their ideas and emotions. Two of the most acclaimed painters throughout art history are Jan Vermeer and Thomas Gainsborough. Their respective works “Woman Holding a Balance” (see fig. 1) and “Peasant Smoking at a Cottage Door” (see fig. 2) showcased their talents and concepts about the society during their time.

Jan Vermeer was one of the pioneers of 17th century Dutch Baroque art style. He perfected this style and produced several art pieces that became standards of beauty. Vermeer’s works focused on domestic scenes that he transformed into images of balance and serenity with prolific meanings (Notablebiographies.com, 2007, “Jan Vermeer Biography”). He only created a limited number of paintings because most of his paintings were commissioned by his loyal painters. Through his artworks, Vermeer demonstrated his impression on the “sophisticated side of seventeenth-century Dutch life,” their flare for furniture, fascinating women, opulent apparels and decorative interiors (abcgallery.com, 2008, “Jan Vermeer”). All these elements were evident in the “Woman Holding a Balance,” painted by Vermeer on 1664.  Meanwhile, another gifted artist also emerged who became a prominent personality in the field of English portraiture. His name was Thomas Gainsborough. During the 18th century in England, privileged English people solicited his artistry in making portraits that were described as sophisticated and attractive portrayals of his clients (The J. Paul Getty Trust, “Thomas Gainsborough”). Creating portraits was not Gainsborough’s first love but it was landscape painting. When Gainsborough was starting out as a painter, he was greatly  influenced by “Dutch landscape painting,” that have swayed him to be inclined with the representation of rustic themes of the English cottage lifestyle. This way of living was common for many English peasants who chose to live their humble lives in cozy little cottages in the countryside (Glueck, 2005, “Blue Boy for a Living: Landscapes for Pleasure”). The `Peasant Smoking at a Cottage Door” was a clear example of Gainsborough’s love for the rural cottage life. This painting was completed in 1787. Currently, this art piece is displayed at the National Gallery but was previously owned by Sir Butrell (The Burlington Magazine, 1949, “Notable Works of Art Now on the Market: Supplement”).

            Vermeer’s painting was a representative of the Baroque style which was characterized by drama and exaggeration while Gainsborough’s art work exemplified the Rococo style which was the simplified version of Baroque. In “Woman Holding a Balance,” the simple focal point of a young woman holding an empty pair of weighing scales signified a lot of symbolisms. Together with the other elements that were incorporated such as mirrors, jewels and Last Judgment painting, the “Woman Holding a Balance” suggested that viewers resist the temptation of material things and live a moderate life in order to obtain salvation (“Vermeer,” 2008). Moreover, in “Peasant Smoking at a Cottage Door,” Gainsborough used a different domestic scene – the peasant life. A blissful scene of peasant accentuated by the sunlight carrying a jug while smoking his pipe, along “with his wife and three little children” was the theme for this painting (Glueck, 2005, “ Blue Boy for a Living: Landscapes for Pleasure”). The elegant representation of Gainsborough of the lives of the peasants generated several accolades that described his work as captivating and intriguing as well.

            In terms of the technical aspects of the painting, Vermeer’s work employed variations of soft light, dark shadings and the color harmony that contributed to the refinement of the scene: the woman’s blue jacket accentuated the materials on the table, while the color of the curtain on the left echoed the orange and yellow color on the woman’s stomach and in the vertical lines of the picture frame on the far wall. The combination of the woman’s concentrated facial feature and the strict geometrical composition created by the light entering from the window gave the painting an exquisite sophistication (Vergara, 2003, p. 254). Meanwhile, the illusion of movement was seen on the treatment of the trees where he used feathery strokes that made the trees look that they were swaying. In addition, the dim lighting that came from the sunset created a dramatic effect (Glueck, 2005, “Blue Boy for a Living: Landscapes for Pleasure”). More so, the employment of dark colors and the control of the light highlighted the peasant family despite its location of being placed at the corner of the painting and its small size. The element of depth was also evident through the contrast of dark and light colors specifically the sun’s fiery yellow color and and the black with touches of hazy green leaves of the trees.

            These two paintings signified the advancement of art in their respective periods. Vermeer was revered in the 17th century while Gainsborough gained his notability in the 18th century. Though a decade a part and both distinguished from their each chosen art styles, “Woman Holding a Balance” and “Peasant Smoking at a Cottage Door” symbolized the grandness and eternity of art in. Art is indeed a historical document that is passed down from one generation to another. More so, art turned out to be an avenue where artists can impart information and their sentiments about a wide array of subject matters. Furthermore, art appreciation has become a cerebral, emotional and sensual experience because of the emergence of great artists such as Vermeer and Gainsborough.


abcgallery.com.(2008). Jan Vermeer.  Retrieved April 29, 2008, from             http://www.abcgallery.com/V/vermeer/vermeerbio.html

Glueck, G. (2005 November 04). Blue Boy for a Living: Landscapes for Pleasure. The New        York Times.

National Gallery of Art. (2008). Vermeer. Retrieved February 28, 2008 from


Notablebiographies.com. (2007). Jan Vermeer Biography. Retrieved April 29, 2008, from             http://www.notablebiographies.com/Tu-We/Vermeer-Jan.html

No author. (December 1949). Notable Works of Art Now on the Market: Supplement. The           Burlington Magazine.

The J. Paul Getty Trust. Thomas Gainsborough.  Retrieved April 29, 2008, from             http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artMakerDetails?maker=577

Vergara, A. (2003). Vermeer and the Dutch Interior. Paul Holberton.

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