Vermeer’s women with wine

Vermeer’s depictions of both wine and women, as well being important works in the study of wine and women’s history, contain iconographic references to class and temperance. In honour of International Women’s Day, we take a look at one of his works.

Johannes Vermeer, The Glass of Wine, c.1658-60.

Women and wine are recurring subjects in the work of the Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer (1632 – December 1675.) Vermeer’s father was an innkeeper and art dealer, and thus Vermeer himself may have been more familiar than most with wine and its associated paraphernalia.

In The Glass of Wine c.1658-60, a cloaked male figure grasps a white tin-glazed container, used for holding wine. Originally made in Faenza, Italy, these vessels had become increasingly fashionable in the 17th century. Indeed, Vermeer seems to have been particularly keen on them, depicting similar jugs in A Maid Asleep c.1657, The Girl with a Wineglass c.1659-60 and The Music Lesson c.1662-64, while in Girl interrupted in her Music c.1658-1661 he portrays a white and blue Delft wine vase.

Plate XII from Gérard de Lairesse’s Manual on Painting, 1707

Returning to The Glass of Wine, the woman holds the glass to her mouth, finishing the last drops of wine contained within. As is deemed correct practice today, she holds the wine glass by its base. This however, may be a conscious reference to her social rank. In Gérard de Lairesse’s Manual on Painting (1707), albeit published after The Glass of Wine was completed, he suggested that the sitter’s position in society could be inferred by the way in which they hold their wine glass. In the page pictured (right), position five was considered the most ‘polite.’

The stained glass window to the left, also appearing in The Girl with a Wineglass, is a reference to temperance. A barely discernible female figure personifies Temperantia in a similar fashion to Gabriel Rollenhagen’s Selectorum Emblematum of 1613. This draws on a key theme, originating in the Bible, that runs through women’s history and gender studies. Women were considered more susceptible to temptation, and female drinking (in particular heavy drinking) was looked upon with concern and disdain.

As part of her ‘Taking the Chair’ series, Maisie Broadhead and her mother Caroline recreate The Glass of Wine with a modern twist. The male figure is replaced with a woman who now holds a bottle of wine, not a jug, and awaits the verdict of the seated woman. The woman drinking the wine has a more confident air about her, while the stained glass window no longer displays any reference to temperance.

Maisie Broadhead, Wine Tasting, 2011

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