Critical Assessments: Mistress and Maid

Mistress and Maid

c. 1666–1667
Oil on canvas
90.2 x 78.7 cm. (35 1/2 x 31 in.)
Frick Collection, New York
Vermeer, John Nash

John Nash

Vermeer
1991, pp. 83–84

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.

Mistress and Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer
Mistress and Maid (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1666–1668
Oil on canvas, 90.2 x 78.7 cm.
Frick Collection, New York

The servant's interrogative gaze (detail left) is vivid, 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 (detail above right) Love Letter, 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.

he Love Letter (detail), Johannes Vermeer
The Love Letter (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1667–1670
Oil on canvas, 44 x 38.5.cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Jan Vermeer, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

Jan Vermeer
London,
1981, p. 134

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.

Mistress and Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer
Mistress and Maid (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1666–1668
Oil on canvas, 90.2 x 78.7 cm.
Frick Collection, New York

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 (detail right). 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. 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.

Love Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer

Lisa Vergara

"Women, Letters, Artistic Beauty: Vermeer's Theme and Variations" Love Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer
2004, p. 58

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. 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.