This painting is part of a group of works painted by Vermeer in the late 1650s which mark the start of his mature period. Other works of this period include Officer and Laughing Girl (New York, The Frick Collection), The Milkmaid (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), and The Glass of Wine (Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemaldegalerie). In these paintings the artist depicts the corner of a relatively large room which is lit through a window on the left side. This compositional formula is inspired by the work of Pieter de Hooch (fig. 1), who nonetheless differs from Vermeer in locating his figures closer to the foreground. Vermeer's figures at this period are smaller than those in his earlier works, while his technique is more precise.
The figure in the background of this simple and ordered interior rests his head on his hand in a melancholy attitude, while in the foreground a young woman takes a wine glass which an elegantly dressed man hands to her. The young woman's smile and the man's attitude indicate that we are witnessing a scene of seduction, and that the girl is largely accepting her admirer's advances.
Also starting at this period is a greater attention to the way in which light falls on the objects and different materials, highlighting the textures. Along with the characteristically self-absorbed character of his figures, the most famous characteristic of Vermeer's work is its lifelikeness, the result of a complex and exquisite exercise in the transformation of reality. Some aspects of this painting allow us to approximate the way in which the artist achieved these ends. The lower frame of the window, for example, directs the spectator's gaze towards a chair which extends the gaze further so that we arrive at the strongly, illuminated letter which the young woman is holding. The reflection of the girl in the window emphasizes the importance of the letter, which becomes the psychological axis of the painting. As in other works by Vermeer, the chair acts to clarify the spatial relations between the elements in the room, in this case the table and the end wall. The open window which reflects the girl's face projects a slight shadow on the wall, echoing its shape and also helping to define the location of the girl's face. The angle of the fruit bowl and the girl's forearm are parallel and thus visually related, so that we connect the golden sleeve of the girl with the large green curtain on the right. This type of formal relation between the elements in the painting defines its visual rhythms, which the spectator becomes aware of in a slow and gradual process.
We know from x-rays that initially the end wall, just above and to the right of the young woman, had a painting of Cupid (fig. 2) ( the same one that appears in A Lady Standing at a Virginal), but that Vermeer eliminated this element in the final composition. This image would have made it clear that the content of the letter which the woman is reading is of an amorous nature. In its initial form, the vanishing point of the perspective would have been in the center of the lower part of the painting of Cupid, which would therefore have been a very important element in the painting. It is revealing of Vermeer's working method that when he removed the painting he did not alter the scene further, other than adding the curtain on the right to balance the visual weight of the other side of the composition. The ability to express the emotions of his figures in a particular situation is one of Vermeer's most unique characteristics. In this case, his decision to remove the painting of Cupid from the end wall results in an exceptionally evocative scene; nothing distracts us from the painting's message, which is the idea of communication with an absent loved one.
At the time when this painting was created in the late 1650s, Vermeer was in the process of changing his pictorial technique. Although in some earlier paintings we see the appearances of small dots of light (fig. 3), this technique, which functions to momentarily detain our gaze on specific areas of the painting, becomes ever more widespread in his work. The technique, which was possibly inspired by the images produced by an instrument known as a camera obscura and also has precedents in the work of artists such as Willem Kalf or Willem van Aelst would soon become one of Vermeer's most distinctive characteristics.
The idea of including a curtain in the painting which seems to form part of the space occupied by the spectator has numerous precedents and became popular in Dutch art around the mid-seventeenth century. This device (fig. 4) was partially inspired by reality, as we know from inventories and from paintings of picture collections that some paintings, in particular the most important ones or those that depicted nudes, were covered with cloths.
There are also precedents for this in religious painting, indicating that curtains also added an effect of mystery and surprise to a scene, and contributed to its lifelikeness in that it confused the painted with the real space. The use of a cloth for illusionistic ends has an important classical precedent which Vermeer undoubtedly knew of Pliny the Elder's anecdote in his Natural History in which he recounts that the Greek painter Zeuxis wished to prove his artistic superiority to his rival Parrhasius' and thus painted some grapes which were so realistic that some birds attempted to peck at them. Parrhasius' response was to paint a curtain over the picture which he did with such skill that Zeuxis tried to pull it back.
In 1742 the Elector of Saxony, August III, acquired this painting, which he believed to be a Rembrandt; the previous year he had bought The Procuress. During the Second World War both pictures were among Dresden's works of art hidden for safety and consequently spared from the British bombing. In 1945 they were seized by the Red Army as booty and secretly taken to Moscow. When the question of returning Dresden's pictures arose, the Soviet minister of culture wanted East Germany to allow two works to remain in Russia in gratitude. His choice, a masterpiece by Giorgione (c. 1476/8–1510) and Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, is evidence of the importance of this early Vermeer. This proposal was dropped and both Vermeer's were among the paintings returned to Dresden in 1955.
Martin Bailey, Vermeer, London, 1995
By the time he painted the Dresden picture in the late 1650s, Vermeer had completed his artistic training, in the sense that he had finally absorbed the impact of the artists—Van Baburen, Van Loo, Fabritius, Frans van Mieris, Pieter de Hooch, Nicolaes Maes—who decisively influenced the evolution of his style. He had not matured quickly or developed an independent style especially early. He had been late in acknowledging the discoveries in the treatment of light and space that his innovative colleagues of the Delft, Leyden, and Dortrecht schools had pioneered. But he had digested each of these influences fully before going on to study the next development in the modern art of his time. This slow maturation, grafted onto a prodigious natural talent, laid the ground for his later masterpieces.