Young Woman with a Water Pitcher

If you have stood in front of this wonderful painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, more than once, as I have, you have enjoyed a rare pleasure.

What are we looking at? An ordinary woman alone in a room. She is plainly dressed in a white cap and shoulder covering . There is no evidence she is a servant; she is likely the middle class mistress of the house. Her right hand is on the leaded pane window and her left hand is on a water pitcher. Perhaps she is opening the window just before pouring a glass of water. Perhaps she is waiting for someone.

No matter, she is obviously accustomed to performing household chores. The scene is a snapshot of ordinary motion.

What makes her appealing to us is her sense of self, her self-possession. She is not a symbol of beauty or womanhood; she is not Venus or Persephone, or the Virgin Mary. She is an individual with rights and private thoughts in a humanist world.

Her’s is a clean, well-ordered space. The window light conveys peace and tranquility in the external world, which is reflected in her inner calm. The light is welcoming. It draws us into the painting, even as she permits us into her world, allowing us to observe her.

On the back wall is a map of Europe. She is aware of the wider world, but it does not intrude into her household. The outer world does not threaten the order of her day.

Why do long lines of spectators form at exhibits wherever “Young Woman” and Vermeer’s other solitary women are displayed? Because, I think, we recognize this Dutch woman, painted in the 1660s. We realize that she belongs to an earlier version of our world. She is contemporaneous with the Colonial era. She represents the virtues of simplicity, purity, frugality.

We leave our overcrowded world of vulgarity, violence, strident beliefs, ostentatious displays of wealth, upon entering the hush of the museum and the calm of her room.

Is she mysterious, mystical?

I confess that the painting sometimes give me that feeling. Perhaps she is not so pure and is waiting for a lover. If so, we know it will be a discrete affair.

by Hudson Owen