A WOMAN HOLDING A BALANCE

Years ago in the mid-west we often heard about an artist, originally from Vincennes, Indiana, who had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. When he was drafted into the United States Army in 1953 he served in Germany and was able to visit many of the great European museums. After returning to the States and finishing up his education in Chicago, George Deem moved to New York City where he became interested in synthesizing both art and art history. This is where and when he began a long series of paintings as mash-ups, or pastiches of famous works of art: variations on themes by Caravaggio, Chardin, Balthus, Edward Hopper, and especially Vermeer. The interior of an old time school house became the setting for many subjects such as the “Hoosier School” of 1987 and the “School of Vermeer” from 1984.

George Deem
“School of Vermeer”
1984
Oil on canvas
86.4cm x 106.7cm
Garland and Suzanne Marshall Collection,
Clayton, Missouri.

I first began visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC during my junior and senior years in high school. Over the next four years I continued and intensified those visits on the weekends when I was home from art school in Baltimore. It is hard to say where I would begin, but on every one of these visits I knew definitely that I would always end in the rooms that housed the Dutch paintings, and especially the four Vermeers in the collection. When I first saw both “The Girl with the Red Hat” and the “Woman Holding a Balance” it was an instantaneous lesson in light and color.

Both of these paintings glowed, as if from the inside out. Each figure being bathed in light. The light and the reflections coming through and effecting all of the objects were simultaneously subtle and intense: from the feathers around the edge of that red hat, to the highlights on the finials on the back of the chair; and then to the pearls, pieces of gold and other objects collected on the table and being weighed in a balance.

Woman Holding a Balance
Vermeer, 1664.

“The picture within
the picture is The Last
Judgement
, subdued
as wallpaper in the background.
And though the woman
holding the scales
is said to be weighing
not a pearl or a coin
but the heft of a single soul,
this hardly matters.
It is really the mystery
of the ordinary
we’re looking at—the way
Vermeer has sanctified
the same light that enters
our own grimed windows
each morning, touching
a cheek, the fold
of a dress, a jewelry box
with perfect justice.”1

Johannes Vermeer
“Woman Holding a Balance”
c. 1664
Oil on canvas
15 5/8” x 14”
The Widener Collection
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Many years later, in 1996, we would visit the historic “Johannes Vermeer Exhibition” also at the National Gallery. Although it was a horrible winter, with many blizzards, and a major government shutdown, we flew in to National Airport and stayed in Arlington, a short Metro ride over to the mall. We arrived early, stood in line for a few hours in the snow, and made friends with other like-minded visitors, each of us taking turns running to a nearby coffee shop for warm-ups. Even a couple of reporters from USA Today!2

Although I have now seen almost all of his work both in the United States and Europe, there are certain paintings that will always stay with me. “The Little Street” and the “View of Delft” have directly influenced my work, and I often see echoes of these images in everyday views anywhere from Bloomington, Indiana to Brussels, Belgium, whenever I find myself just walking down the streets.

Several contemporary writers have been influenced by this same imagery. Not just popular novels and movies, but the subtle subjects that appear and re-appear in the work of this artist. Two such poets are Linda Pastan above and Joseph Stanton below. In fact, both have taken on this very painting, the Woman Weighing Gold, or Pearls, or Holding a Balance, as it is often referred to.3

Contemporary painters such as James McGarrell and George Deem have also responded to Vermeer’s work. Both of them have revisited these historic images during certain periods of their careers.

I first encountered James McGarrell’s paintings at the Smithsonian National American Art Museum after they had been featured in the American contribution to the Venice Biennale in 1968.4 Later I came across his variation on Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting” at either the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington, or the Allan Frumkin Gallery in New York.

George Deem, after moving from Chicago to New York in the 1950’s realized how important his study of art history had been, and began to mine several of these sources. Above is an example of Deem’s synthesis of these paintings, several subjects combined in one interior. Below is a series of studies for these interiors: “Seven Vermeer Corners” depicts the emptied out rooms of these paintings, with the interior of the “Woman Weighing Pearls” shown in the bottom row, second from the left.

George Deem
“Seven Vermeer Corners”
1999
Oil on canvas
50” x 86”
Wellington Management Company Collection,
Boston, Massachusetts.

Vermeer’s A Woman Weighing Gold

“Motionless with musing,
the woman weighs her delicate ounces
of earthly treasure.

Behind her,
framing her head
in a squared halo
is another weighing:
the last judgements—
Dies Irae,
the damned cascading down,
writhing,
toward
their fiery demise.

But the woman’s body,
swelling with new life,
eclipses most of this excess
of painted dying.
What little we can see of it
is distant and shadowy,
memento mori
as muted afterthought.

The woman’s seeing is turned inward
to the treasure building there,
an interior glory,
mystery beyond measure.
She is the balance of the moment’s
precarious presence.

Vermeer belonged to his theatrical era,
but his drama’s action rises
in a bravura quiet of gesture and tone.
What he would have us see is entirely known
yet impenetrable
reality distilled to its contours:
a subtle seizure of daylight.
Vermeer’s conceit here
is metaphysical,
so we must weigh with care
his elaborate composure.”5


1 Pastan, Linda; Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1998; p. 38.

2 Schwiesow, Deirdre R.; “Vermeer fans brave nature, politics to see exhibit;” USA Today; Arlington, Virginia, 7 February 1996, Volume 14, No. 101, p 4D.

3 Wheelock, Arthur K., and Frederik J. Duparc; Johannes Vermeer; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague; Yale University Press. New Haven & London; 1995; p. 140.

4 Gaskey, Norman A.; The Figurative Tradition in Recent American Art; 34th Venice Biennial Exhibition; National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; 1968; pp. 93-98.

5 Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum: Poems on Art; Time Being Books; St. Louis, Missouri; 1999; p. 20.

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