Dutch Treat

After an absence of 87 years, a Vermeer painting returns, though briefly, to the DIA this month


The Detroit Institute of Arts’ (DIA) 17th-century Dutch collection has plenty of masterpieces to crow about. There are paintings by Rembrandt, Jacob van Ruisdael, Gerard ter Borch, and Pieter de Hooch. But there’s one glaring omission: Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).

That’s about to change — for about a month, anyway.

Vermeer’s circa-1664 oil Woman Holding a Balance, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., will be on exhibit Aug. 8-Sept. 2. It was last displayed in Detroit in 1925, says Salvador Salort-Pons, Curator of European Paintings and head of the European Art Department at the DIA.

So why all the fuss about a work that unframed measures only 15 5/8-by-14 inches? For starters, there’s the rarity factor: There are only about 35 paintings worldwide attributed to Vermeer. Second, it’s by Vermeer, a master of proportion, technique, harmony, light, and depth of feeling.

Like most Vermeer paintings, Woman Holding a Balance is an interior scene. There’s an ethereal stillness about it, yet there’s a sense of motion about to happen. And this seemingly simple domestic portrayal is rife with significance. She holds an empty balance, which is at the center of the painting. Behind her is a painting of the Last Judgment, when all souls will be weighed.

“One could think of this as an allegory, that the idea behind it is that humankind should think about leading a balanced life because we’re here for just a certain amount of time,” Salort-Pons says.

The serenity on the woman’s face suggests she has achieved that balance, he notes.

“This fantastic atmospheric light that surrounds the figure and illuminates the scene gives a sense of eternity,” Salort-Pons says. “This moderation, or balance, is something that must be considered an eternal virtue.”

Then there are the pearls and gold on her table, along with sumptuous blue fabric. These are reminders, Salort-Pons says, of fleeting material objects.

“They suggest vanity, and they are not important; what is important is to lead a moderate, spiritual life,” he says.

There is one vexing question about whether the woman’s distended belly means she’s pregnant.
“Scholars now have pretty much agreed that she isn’t pregnant,” Salort-Pons says. “Rather, it was the fashion of the time; her outfit just makes her look that way.”

Woman Holding a Balance may be viewed with regular museum admission in the Dutch galleries. It will hang between two other great interior paintings in the DIA’s collection — ter Borch’s A Lady at Her Toilet and de Hooch’s Mother Nursing Her Child.

5200 Woodward, Detroit; 313-833-7900; dia.org.

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