Despite the surprising variety in Vermeer's small oeuvre, it would be fair to call the Frick painting anomalous. Although the canvas itself is somewhat smaller than either the Allegory of Faith or The Art of Painting, the half -length figures of the two women are larger than anything Vermeer had painted after The Procuress, approaching the size of life. Many have thought the work unfinished because of the plain dark background, and therefore that it might be one of the two paintings accepted by the baker, Van Buijten, from Vermeer's widow to pay the which Vermeer could be said to have essayed the dramatic subtlety characteristic of Ter Borch's pieces and on a grand scale. In its precise rendering of both expression and gesture it challenges comparison even with Rembrandt.
The servant's interrogative gaze is vivid (fig. 1), while the expression, the crucial expression, of the mistress is more obscure, partly because of the turn of her head, partly because of the elusiveness with which her features are represented. All that is revealed is the gesture of the hand raised to the chin. Is she surprised to receive the letter? The ambiguity of the gesture of her left hand is balanced by the obscurity of the action of her right hand. There appears to be writing on the paper before her, but the position in which she holds the pen does not suggest she has been writing. Was she writing herself when her maid interrupted with this letter? Is she preparing to reply even before she has read the letter? Or is it the mistress who has written the letter, has asked the maid to deliver it, and the maid is putting an awkward question to her employer? The relation of mistress and maid resembles that of the Rijksmuseum Love Letter (fig. 2), but in this reduced setting, without the conventional attributes of that work, there is only the ambiguity of a dumb show, and the focus is on the essential but ambivalent psychology of that relationship of quizzical servant and uncertain employer.
One of the most prevalent themes in Vermeer's paintings from the late 1660s is the letter writer. Unlike his earlier representations of women with letters, where he isolated one individual with the letter, these later versions all include a maid with her mistress. The introduction of the maid adds a new element to the theme: the expectations and anxieties that surround the arrival of a letter.
In this painting the mistress, dressed in a yellow jacket with an ermine border, sits at a table. Her hand rests on a letter she had been writing before being interrupted by the maid. Her left hand has risen involuntarily to her chin, an unmistakable gesture of surprise and concern. The maid's forward gesture as she offers the letter reinforces the contrast in their attitudes.
Vermeer's figures from the early 1660s are usually portrayed at a moment when their movements have ceased. In the Mistress and Maid, he explored a different set of dynamics: a focus on implied movement. This new emphasis may partially explain his decision to paint these figures against a dark background. Against a light background figures are visually locked into a specific framework, while a dark background is more suggestive.
Vermeer also had other reasons to experiment with a dark, undefined background. He had found that his bust-length figure studies were particularly luminous against dark backgrounds. They also enhanced the three-dimensional quality of the figures since the modeling blended into the background (fig. 3). Interestingly, despite the successful use of this format here, it is the only instance we know in which he used an undefined background for a large composition.
The enhanced three-dimensional quality also results from the large scale of the figures and the fullness of the modeling. Compared to the Woman with a Pearl Necklace, this painting reveals a much more rich modeling of the mistress's yellow jacket. The folds are more pronounced and are articulated with increased clarity. The woman's hands are more simply poised and create quieter rhythms. A subtle abstraction of forms and color becomes evident. The mistress's eye is barely indicated; the shadow along her left arm is an unexpected purple. The result is a powerful image, suggestive of movement and psychological interaction yet maintaining a classical dignity.
Typically in Dutch art, maids were represented in genre painting, a context that stresses their subservient role within the hierarchy of a bourgeois household. In emblematic and popular literature of the day, they are often cast as a threat to the honour and security of the home, the centre of Dutch life and the focus of so much Dutch art. Recent studies of seventeenth-century attitudes towards young women in domestic service have produced a variety of interpretations as to their role and status: Simon Schama has suggested that maids were 'indisputably regarded as the most dangerous women of all, for they represented the presence of the footloose inside the home. Unmarried but nubile, entrusted with the essential domestic work (but notoriously untrustworthy), they were thought of as a kind of surreptitious fifth column for worldliness, stationed in the heart of the conjugal home'. However, more frequently in seventeenth-century painting in northern Europe, serving maids are represented in a neutral role, supervising children, as in Pieter de Hooch's Woman and Child in an interior, or being themselves supervised by the mistress of the house. As Wayne Franits has observed, seventeenth-century artists generally presented an ideal construct of the responsibilities of the virtuous mistress and serving maid should mesh with the household.
Peter Sutton, Michael Sweerts: 1618–1664, Zwolle, 2002, 154–-15.
Regarding the paintings' amatory themes, John Michael Montias, seeking to explain Vermeer's demographically unusual marriage to Catharina Bolnes, has suggested that love might have been a strong motive; indeed, love, as we have seen, was thought to be a source of artistic inspiration. The appeal for the painter of reading and writing women might also relate to his marriage. Catharina Bolnes carne from a higher social class than he did, and she signed documents in an elegant hand (fig. 4). An interest in calligraphy may be discerned by comparing her fine penmanship with the "unadorned, workaday signature" of her highborn mother. Vermeer's own mother, by contrast, was illiterate, and his sister, although she probably could read and write at an elementary level, wed a man who was completely illiterate at the time of their marriage. And if we consider predilections as pertaining to both life and art, it bears observing that no male figure appears in Vermeer's epistolary scenes. Indeed, one of the most noticeable consistencies of his oeuvre is an artistic devotion to women. The surviving works picture about four times the average proportion of women to men in European painting of the era, including Dutch painting. Men are not altogether absent from these scenes, of course, since a woman with a letter usually implies a man as either author or intended recipient of the depicted missive. Further, these paintings so strongly assert Vermeer's artistic individuality as to entail his own presence.
The formal means by which Vermeer added emphasis to the letter's arrival are well described by Wheelock: the low horizon, the recession of the table, the parallel arms, and the bright objects between them (set off by much darker colours) make the maid's gesture all the more portentous. The dark background concentrates attention on the figures, which with the interest in distinctive physiognomy recalls Vermeer's tronien and again suggests the influence of paintings by Michiel Sweerts (fig. 6). Wheelock also discusses the painting's 'broad' (or smooth) technique, with special attention to the seated figure's face. Several scholars have speculated illogically that the mistress's face and hands may be unfinished, but this is dismissed by Wheelock's close analysis and by his large detail of the woman's head and raised hand.
In this figure Vermeer's interest in the classicist style of Cesar van Everdingen (fig. 5) and of artists such as Netscher and Karel Dujardin (in the 1660s) seems especially evident. Whether or not this picture was purchased by Vermeer's patron, Pieter van Ruijven, is uncertain. Rather surprisingly, Montias identified the painting with one that remained in the artists possession until his death and was sold by his wife to the master baker Hendrick van Buyten. But the 1696 sale of pictures owned by Van Ruijven's son-in-law, Jacob Dissius, included as lot 7 'Een Juffrouw die door een Meyd een brief gebragt word, van dito', which sold for 70 guilders. Broos maintains that this description suits the Frick picture better than The Love. Letter in Amsterdam, which is convincing, since the cataloguer usually referred to motifs such as musical instruments and 'a seethrough room' (lot 5, now lost). Ownership of the Mistress and Maid as well as A Lady Writing would also be more consistent with our tentative impression of Van Ruijven's taste, which appears to have favoured evocative understatement.