Young Woman with a Water Jug by Jan Vermeer
Interpretation of 17th-Century Dutch Genre Paintings

Pin it

Young Woman with a Water Jug by Jan Vermeer
Young Woman with a
Water Jug/Pitcher
By Jan Vermeer.
Seen as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Young Woman with a Water Jug (c.1662)


Analysis of Other Works by Vermeer


Painting: Young Woman with a Water Jug/Pitcher
Date: c.1662
Artist: Jan Vermeer (1632-75)
Medium: Oil painting
Type: Genre gainting
Movement: Dutch Realism
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

For explanations of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Education
To appreciate painters like
Johannes Vermeer, see
our educational essays:
Art Evaluation
and also:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Interpretation of Young Woman with a Water Jug/Pitcher

This exquisite Dutch Realist genre painting is one of five Vermeers owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: the others being Girl Asleep at a Table (c.1657), Woman Playing a Lute near a Window (c.1664), Head of a Girl (c.1672-4) and Allegory of Faith (c.1673-4). A perfect illustration of Vermeer's intimate style of Dutch Baroque art, it shows the artist's virtuoso handling of light and its reflection, as well as the pearl-like tones of his blue and yellow colour palette. With its meticulous detail, rich fabrics and complex symbolism, it is one of the greatest genre paintings of the period and - along with Woman Holding a Balance (1662-63, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) one of the two finest Vermeers in an American collection. Stylistically, the work introduces his series of "pearl pictures."




Like several other Vermeer oil paintings the work shows a young woman standing in the corner of a room, facing the viewer and opening a window to her right. At the same time she is holding a brass/silver water jug or pitcher with her left hand. The jug is standing in a basin of the same metallic material, next to several other items arranged on a table, which is covered by an exotic red rug. The young woman, a seemingly model housewife - who incidentally bears no resemblance to the earthly, active servant girl in The Milkmaid (c.1658, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) - is wearing a crisp white linen headdress and large coif or collar, which makes her stand out against the watery wash of the wall behind her, in the manner of the short-lived Carel Fabritius (1622-54). The overall composition is marked by a mood of simplicity and stillness characteristic of his evolving mid-career style.


Considering the mastery apparent in this work, it seems appropriate that Vermeer was elected head of the Delft Artist's Guild during the year in which he most likely produced it. Even so, despite its characteristic style and technical quality, this deceptively simple picture has not always been acknowledged as a work of the great Delft painter. Indeed, it was first exhibited in London in 1838 under the name of Gabriel Metsu. It was not until forty years later, after the Vermeer revival of the 1860s, that it was identified at the Royal Academy Winter Exhibition in London as the work of Jan van der Meer of Delft. Nevertheless, for some reason this attribution did not stick, and after passing through the hands of another London art dealer, Thomas Agnew, and the Paris art dealer Pillet, it was acquired in 1887 by Henry G. Marquand for only $800, as a work of Pieter de Hooch, a Delft contemporary. The following year Marquand presented it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, making it the first Vermeer to enter an American public collection.

Similarities of Style

Stylistically, this work represents a critical point in the development of Vermeer's fine art painting. It can be dated to about the same time as A Woman and Two Men (c.1661, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick), and probably just after the Man and Woman with a Wine Glass (c.1661, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin). Indeed, it is the last of the "open window" pictures by the artist, sharing the same configuration of glass mullions found in both the Berlin and Brunswick works. Significantly, the tell-tale figure of Temperance found in the window-glass of the other two works is replaced here with a reflection of the sky.

Vermeer's Priorities

Clearly in this picture Vermeer has been more interested in capturing the quality of the light entering through the partly open window and its reflection on the superbly rendered metal surface than in describing the exact physical action of the woman. Indeed, one might say that the model has been completely immobilized by the window, the table, and the map. Secondary elements - such as the shadowed window wall and the chair - also help fix her tightly in space - or, alternatively, one might say that her figure is a vital, even dynamic, element as it unites window, table and back wall. In any event, her movements, if that term can be used in relation to her immobility, are never clearly explained. Neither the magnificently rendered pitcher and basin, nor the jewel box containing a barely visible pearl necklace with a blue ribbon, immediately suggest a unified action. Perhaps, however, there was some thematic or iconographic connection between this canvas and a now lost picture which was described in the 1696 Vermeer sale as representing "a gentleman washing his hands in a room."


This domestic genre scene is a typical example of Dutch painting of the 17th century, and concerns the moral value of good housekeeping, an issue fully in keeping with the new aesthetics of Protestant Reformation art of the 17th century. Clean, starched clothes symbolize purity and virtuousness, as does a jug and basin. In addition, both the act of washing and the utensils associated with it, have long associations with spiritual as well as physical purity. Several Dutch realist artists, Gerrit Dou for example, used these same objects with this precise meaning, and Vermeer may have intended these elements to carry the same moral association. This reading is supported by the woman's modest dress and the beautifully captured reflection of the sky in the window. In addition, she turns her back on the worldly map, which fails to touch her. Note: For other works extolling purity, see Girl with a Pearl Earring (1664-6, Mauritshuis, The Hague) and The Lacemaker (c.1669, Louvre).

Both the jewel box and the pearl necklace become significant motifs, although, together with the work as a whole, their meaning is not always clear to the modern viewer. The pearl pictures, however, earn their name not only from the presence of this jewel but also, as here, from the cool, luminous pearl-like tonality which dominates.

Jan Vermeer

After a short painting career (he is believed to have produced only about 45 paintings during his 43 years) in which he achieved reasonable success, Vermeer fell into obscurity for two centuries before being rediscovered and reinstated as one of the best genre painters in Northern Europe and one of the finest Dutch painters of the 17th-Century.



Analysis of Other Paintings by Vermeer

For more about Johannes Vermeer's paintings, see the following articles:

Little Street (1658)
Soldier and a Laughing Girl (1658)
Woman Holding a Balance (c.1662)
Woman with a Pearl Necklace (c.1662-64)
Girl with a Red Hat (1666)
The Art of Painting: An Allegory (Artist in his Studio) (c.1666-1673)

• For more about 17th century oil painting, see our main index: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.