VERMEER, Johannes
(b. 1632, Delft, d. 1675, Delft)

A Woman Asleep at Table

c. 1657
Oil on canvas, 87,6 x 76,5 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Signature: Signed on the upper left.

Provenance: It may be identical with A Drunken Sleeping Maid at a Table, which was sold at the Amsterdam sale of 1696 under no. 8 for 62 guilders. In the nineteenth century, it passed through the hands of several Parisian collectors and dealers. Acquired by Benjamin Altman, New York, between 1907 and 1909, and bequeathed by him to the museum in 1913.

This painting is the earliest indisputable work by the master. Vermeer's earliest phase was Rembrandtesque. This can easily be ascertained from the rich and heavily impastoed pigments used in this painting. His subjects are always deceptively simple. He shows us in the left part of the composition a table covered with a glowing Oriental rug pulled up in front. On it is a Delftware plate with fruit, a white pitcher, and an overturned glass or roemer in the foreground. At the far end of the table is a young woman asleep, her head resting on her propped-up right arm and hand; the left one lies negligently flat. To the right is the back of a chair, and in the distance a half-open door that allows the viewer to see into another room.

The theme goes directly back to Rembrandt. One of his drawings, A Girl Asleep at a Window, at the Tuffier Collection, Paris, shows a very similar pose. This, and the type of model, were also adopted by Nicolaes Maes in his Idle Servant, dated 1655, at the National Gallery, London, although there the maid sleeps on her left arm and hand. An identical stance can also be found in Maes's Housekeeper from a year later, 1656, at the art museum of Saint Louis. It has been suggested that Nicolaes Maes stayed in Delft after having left Rembrandt's studio, perhaps in 1653 or even later, to move to Dordrecht afterward. In any event, there were ample possibilities for Vermeer to have had access to Rembrandtesque drawings, from a possible stay in the Rembrandt studio to Leonard Bramer and Carel Fabritius. The handling of the light, as well as the deep colouring and heavy paste in the execution, derives from Rembrandtesque techniques of the early 1640s.

Technical examinations revealed that Vermeer made major changes in the course of execution. Thus, he initially put a man in the second room instead of the mirror, and a dog in the doorway. He also enlarged the picture on the wall, which shows part of a Cupid in the style of Caesar van Everdingen, which we shall encounter in toto in other of Vermeer's paintings. There have been various attempts at emblematic interpretation of the scene, but unless we have a clear case of double meaning, such as we shall encounter in a few isolated instances, this type of interpretation has to be taken with a grain of salt.

The paint surface of the still life on the table has suffered from abrasions and restorations.