Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) was a Dutch painter who worked during the Dutch Golden Age, a period in the 1600s when culture in the Dutch Republic flourished. Vermeer’s paintings are famous for being very realistic, particularly the way he painted light and shadow. He also used very expensive materials to make the colors he used in his work. Vermeer’s paintings are useful to historians because they offer a window onto life in the Dutch Republic in the 1600s.
This portrait captures the authority and prestige of the Dutch trading empire in the 1600s. The style of the young woman’s clothing marks her as a member of the Dutch middle class—the merchants, clerks, and other professionals who made their living from international trade. Women as well as men could make their living buying and selling goods from all over the world, and in the 1600s, trade was a pathway to wealth and prosperity.
The materials that make up her outfit come from all over the world. Her hood and collar are made of high-quality linen, spun from flax imported from Scotland, Greece, or the Americas. The deep blue color of her skirt was created using indigo imported from India or Japan. Her fitted bodice is made from silk imported from China. All together, these pieces demonstrate the extensive reach of the Dutch trade empire.
The young woman is surrounded by even more symbols that tell the story of the power and possibility of Dutch trade. The carpet draped across the table represents trade with India, while the silver used to make the pitcher and bowl was mined in South America. The map on the wall symbolizes that Holland, a province of the Dutch Republic, is at the center of this web of commerce. The open window symbolizes that the country is open to the opportunities and influences of international trade, and the position of the young woman’s body welcomes all of these influences into the home of the model Dutch family.