Critical Assessment: Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid

Lady Writing a Letter
with her Maid

c. 1670-1671
Oil on canvas
71.1 x 58.4 cm. (28 x 23 in.)
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
Love Letters, Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer

Peter Sutton

Love Letters, Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer
2003

In the corner of a room illuminated by a tall window in the left wall a woman in a pale green dress with white cap and sleeves and pearl earrings sits at a table covered with an oriental carpet writing a letter. Behind her and to the left stands a maidservant in a more subdued tan and gray outfit with a blue apron. A calm and columnar figure, she crosses her arms and waits while gazing sidelong out the window. Her mistress, in contrast, sets earnestly to her task. The elegant interior features a dark green curtain on the left, black and white marble floor with a skirt of tiles, and a large painting of the Finding of Moses (attributed by some to Peter Lely, who was trained in Haarlem (see below and example of Lely's work) ) in an ebony frame on the back wall (right).

Two Ladies of the Lake Family, Peter Lelly
Two Ladies of the Lake Family
Peter Lely
c. 1660
Oil paint on canvas, 127 x 181 cm.
The Tate Gallery, London

A translucent lace curtain hangs down from the leaded glass window. The pattern and diffusion of light are carefully distributed by closing the lower exterior shutter on the right. As elsewhere in Vermeer's art, the geometry of the painting is fully calculated to underpin and portion out the space clearly. For example, the edge of the table is the same distance from the bottom of the picture as the bottom of the ebony frame is from the top. In creating his perspective, Vermeer has also chosen a relatively low viewing point, scarcely higher than the top of the table, which adds to the figures' monumentality and enhances the height of the space.

On small detail that animates the scene and has a potential bearing on its meaning is the small still life (lower right) on the floor at the lower right corner. It includes a letter, a stick of sealing wax, a bright red seal, and an object that has been interpreted either as a small book (Albert Blankert) or "a letter [with] its wrapper crumpled" (Lisa Vergara). The latter's suggestion is that this is either a letter that the lady has received or a discarded draft of a letter, to which she returns so single-mindedly. As has been suggested in the Sutton essay, letters were sometimes enclosed in cloth or paper envelopes in the seventeenth century, but usually were simply folded, sealed with wax, and addressed, and sometimes secured with twine. In either case, the fact that the letter and postal instruments have been cast to the floor implies a state of some agitation that belies the calm atmosphere of the interior. Blankert (in Johannes Vermeer) suggested that the object might be a book, specifically one of the fashionable small letter- writing manuals that writers often consulted during composition. In that case, it would imply that the lady had found no prescription in, the book for the letter she now writes and chose to compose it in her own words and with her own emotions. Though offering exemplary love letters with varying degrees of demure decorum and ardor, letter manuals increasingly claimed no ideal form or style for love letters, which were regarded as uniquely individual to their author and their intended. We also note that the empty chair on the near side of the table here suggests that someone has recently been sitting there, since chairs of this type (which were not upholstered on the back) were not left freestanding in rooms of this period but placed against the wall when not in use. Had the objects not been tossed to the floor and the chair not been in use recently, the very correct-looking maidservant surely would have tidied them up. Thus by implication the viewer is complicit in this private drama, an idea that goes to the essence of epistolary literature.

The depiction of the Finding of Moses undoubtedly also has a bearing on the painting's subject and has been discussed, though its meaning remains obscure. The same painting appears on a smaller scale in the background of Vermeer's Astronomer, dated 1668 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), and, like other paintings within Vermeer's paintings, may have been owned by his family. The subject naturally appealed on one level because it depicted ladies bathing, and on a more elevated plane as a biblical tale. The Old Testament story of Moses, expanded by Flavius Josephus in his widely read Jewish Antiquities, was well known and revered by the Dutch, who illustrated many episodes from the life of the prophet in history paintings, but none so frequently as the Finding of Moses. The story (Exod. 2:1-10) recounts how Moses' mother hid her son in a basket to save him from Pharaoh's decree that all male Hebrew infants be executed. Pharaoh's daughter, called Thermuthis by Josephus and celebrated in seventeenth-century Dutch literature as a paragon of beauty and compassion, found the child, raised him, and called him Moses. As Wheelock first observed (see Johannes Vermeer), the popular story was interpreted in the seventeenth century as evidence of Divine Providence and God's ability to bring together opposing factions. Thus the associations painting within the painting could be connected with the letter writer by their shared good intentions of salvation (wishes for the care and health of the author's intended) and reconciliation, which brings about the serenity here embodied in the domestic setting by following God's divine plan. Vergara related the painting to Gérard de Lairesse's art theory of the Antiek and the Modern in his Groot Schilderboek (Amsterdam 1707).

In his theory, albeit published after Vermeer's death, he distinguished the "Antique" subjects as embodying all that is noble, ancient, and enduring, while the "Modern," which approximates what we now call "genre," encompasses all that is secular, domestic, quotidian, and ephemeral. While Lairesse preferred and extolled the former, he allowed that many sentiments could be expressed in both modes, and that the modern mode, especially when depicting elegant upper-class subjects, offered artists greater personal freedom. In Vergara's view, Vermeer was stating his own ambitions for modern painting by combining the biblical and the haute bourgeoisie, thus placing the letter writer in the tradition of ideal femininity embodied by Pharaoh's daughter.

Vermeer never sold this painting in his lifetime. At his death it remained with his widow, Catharina Bolnes, who was forced to give it with another painting as security to a baker and alt collector, Hendrick van Buyten, to whom she owed the sizable sum of 617 guilders for bread. The painting eventually was acquired by the fabulously wealthy collector Alfred Beit (1853-1906), who made his fortunes in South African diamond and gold mines. It descended to his nephew, also called Alfred (1903-1994),who acquired the Palladian country house Russborough, in Blessington, near Dublin. From there it was stolen twice, first by the IRA in 1974 and a second rime in 1986 by the Dublin underworld, but was recovered in 1993, in time for Sir Alfred to see its rescue and installation in the National Gallery of Ireland, to which he had gifted this painting and his Metsu's in 1987.

Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer
Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1670-1671
Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 58.4 cm.
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer
Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1670-1671
Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 58.4 cm.
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
The Astronomer (detail), Johannes Vermeer
The Astronomer (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
1668
Oil on canvas, 50 x 45 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Love Letters, Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer

Lisa Vergara

"Women, Letters, Artistic Beauty: Theme and Variations" in
Love Letters, Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer
2003, pp. 75-58

Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, then, presents itself as the culminating example of Vermeer's epistolary scenes. A vivid illusion of inhabited cubic space, it shows a long, dark green curtain at left, withdrawn as if inviting entry. All the main elements can be grasped at a glance. Yet the scenario is among Vermeer's most challenging. An immense painting on the background wall depicts a biblical subject, The Finding of Moses (Exod,2:1-10). What are we to make of this? Pictorial structure provides multiple hints, Throughout his work, Vermeer assigned unusual importance to axial relationships, Here, he vertically aligned a succession of motifs: the Madonna-like figure of Pharaoh's daughter holding the infant Moses in the painting above; the letter being written, situated midway; a leg of the chair in front of the table; and finally, on the floor, the lit corner of what I take to be a partly open letter. Through this arrangement, the artist directs us to connect these aligned motifs thematically with the mistress. Pharaoh's daughter, known for her solicitousness, compassion, nobility, and independence, serves in part to characterize Vermeer's modern Dutch woman through analogy. Relying on familiarity with the biblical account and other likely sources, including many Dutch paintings of the Finding of Moses, the analogy makes sense, especially given Vermeer's abiding interest in ideal feminine types. The maid, too, with her sentinel-like stance, is echoed in reverse by the biblical scene's sole standing figure, identifiable as Moses' "sister," a remote relative who was sent to follow the child (Exod. 2:7-8). Vermeer evidently intended his audience to grasp a thematic connection here as well, since Moses' sister was to serve as a messenger, the anticipated role, too, of the letter writer's maid.

The Finding of Moses, rising high on the wall, functions differently from the letter down on the floor. One sheet of it (or a wrapper) is crumpled. Two related objects, a round, bright red seal and a dark stick of sealing wax, lie nearby. A desire for tidy interpretation might make us wish for the maid to sweep away these things, and an earlier owner of the work actually had the seal and stick overpainted. They constitute, however, a fairly standard ploy, appealing to art lovers for whom speculation formed an enjoyable aspect of social conversation. But in Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid the role of the little still life on the floor is particularly difficult to ascertain. Was the mistress, shortly before, standing on our side of the table to open that letter? Or was it opened by whomever was sitting in the now- empty chair across from her - presumably a man? Why was the missive let drop? How did the stick of wax get there? Questions such as these, possibly unanswerable, might for that very reason inspire a multitude of diverse conclusions. The objects on the floor do indicate, however, a disturbance at odds with the calm demeanor of the lovely letter writer. They sound a note of urgency enlivening the hushed interior, turning this scene into a sublime parlor mystery.

An Officer Writing a letter with a Trumpeter, Gerrit ter Borch An Officer Writing a Letter with a Trumpeter
Gerard ter Borch
c. 1658-59
Oil on canvas, 56.8 x 43.8cm.
PhiladelphiaMuseum of Art, Philadelphia

Gerard ter Borch's An Officer Writing a Letter with a Trumpeter, depicting an ace of hearts on the floor, and its pendant, A Woman Sealing a Letter, set up nearly as challenging a puzzle. But leaving that aside, we can easily imagine a plotted connection between the handsome ensign in the masculine scene and the pretty young woman in the companion piece, both of whom wait to deliver a letter. Ter Borch seems to imply that these two standing figures will meet one another on their way to transmit the letters entrusted to them. In Vermeer's painting, too, we can construe the standing maid, who looks out the window, as visualizing amorous opportunities that the errand she awaits might offer. In this scenario, the painter designed her wide-open gaze to convey longings in common with the mistress, insofar as affairs of the heart are concerned. This hypothesis seems borne out in the ways Vermeer grants each woman greater autonomy than before, while still contriving ingeniously to pair them. One could argue that the mastery, novelty, and imagination so apparent in the earlier epistolary scenes evolve into something more profound in Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid. But the latter's invention hardly seems possible without the daring explorations that preceded it.

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initiated: march 12, 2014