Girl Reading a Letter at
(Brieflezend Meisje bij het Venster)
an Open Window
c. 1657 - 1659
Oil on canvas
83 x 64.5 cm. (32 3/4 x 25 3/8 in.)
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
(Old Masters Picture Gallery), Dresden
The most straightforward example of trompe l'œil (French; fool the eye) in Vermeer's oeuvre is this green satin curtain. Observed carefully, the curtain does not belong to the implied space of the three-dimensional room. It hovers slightly over the painted surface hung from a curtain rod that runs slightly below the upper border of the composition. In real Dutch households, this kind of curtain was employed to protect precious paintings from dust or for covering nudes. Represented in painting, it was also a favorite illusionist trick among painters of the Delft School.
By the time Vermeer painted this work, the trompe l'œil curtain device had been amply exploited. Rembrandt van Rijn was the first Dutch painter to include a sculpted frame as well as a curtain pulled aside in 1648. It was a favorite among the fijnschilders like Frans van Mieris or Gerrit Dou of Leiden whose goal was to paint works so realistic that they could not be distinguished from reality. Both Dou and Van Mieris, in fact, had been compared by contemporaries to Parrhasios, the painter of Greek antiquity who in a contest was able to fool Zeuxis, another Greek painter. An astounding example of the curtain trompe l'œil can be seen in the collaborative effort by Van Mieris and Adrian van der Spelt (see above).
The story goes that Zeuxis had painted a still life with grapes so persuasively that birds had descended upon it to peck them. Parrhasios, however, had included a curtain on one side of the composition that Zeuxis unwittingly attempted to pull back in order to see the entire painting. While Zeuxis had fooled birds, Parrhasios had fooled a man.
Surprisingly, the trompe l'œil curtain was not a part of Vermeer's original design and was added most likely for compositional motives. It now covers a Roemer (see left), a drinking glass, which set upright on the far right-hand side of the table. Although the trompe l'œil device may appear somewhat naive today, Vermeer's contemporaries would have been less quick to realize the artifice.
We know from x-rays images that on the background wall, just above and to the right of the young woman, Vermeer had included a large-scale ebony-framed painting of Cupid (the same one that appears in A Lady Standing at a Virginal). It was later painted it out by the artist himself.
The Cupid would have made it clear that the content of the young woman's letter was of an amorous nature. The vanishing point of the painting's perspective would have been in the center of the lower part of the painting of Cupid making it a crucial pictorial element in the painting.
From what we can tell from the version of the Cupid in A Lady Standing at a Virginal, Cupid was most likely a work of Cesar van Everdingen, a painter who today is virtually unknown to the general public. In common with so many forgotten or underestimated artists, Van Everdingen occupied an important place in the art of his own time. The century-long refusal of critics and connoisseurs to look at his type of art shows signs of coming to an end.
It could not have escaped a young, ambitious painter like Vermeer that Van Everdingen was a superb technician, not only with detail, but with his ability to paint portraits, mythological and allegorical pictures in a broad, yet crisp and polished style. His outstanding strength was his ability to simplify complicated forms to the utmost and convey their underlying essence. In his later years, Vermeer pursued a more classicist agenda where Van Everdingen's painting was more relevant than just being a convenient prop.
One critic has asserted that Vermeer's crimson curtain with its sinuous folding would be very hard to find outside the paintings of Caravaggio (see the detail left of Caravaggio's Death of Saint Anna).
The dramatic lighting, crude subject matter and bold arrangements of Caravaggio's paintings had a profound impact on many European painters. The Italian artist's influence was also felt in Netherlands and in particular by the school of Utrecht with whom Vermeer seems to have shared some initial artistic interests. Vermeer's mother-in-law Maria Thins had family ties with one of the key figures in Utrecht, Abraham Bloemaert. Thins possessed a discreet collection of paintings by Utrecht artists three of which appear on the background wall of Vermeer's paintings.
In this painting and the following Officer with a Laughing Girl, Vermeer began to experiment with what was to become the primary pictorial concern of his career: that of placing a figure or figures in a coherent three-dimensional space filled with natural light.
Although the theme of solitary figures reading and writing letters had become common subject matter, it was Rembrandt who was responsible for the most distinguished treatment of the subject (see left etching Portrait of Jan Six). Vermeer's Girl Reading Letter at an Open Window has been historically associated with the work of the elder Rembrandt. Even though there exists no documented ties between the two artists, Rembrandt's prints circulated throughout the Netherlands and were even prized by Italian art collectors. In any case, Vermeer had various acquaintances well-heeled in the fine arts, including his patron Pieter van Ruijven, who possessed works of Rembrandt and would have been all too eager to let them be studied by an young artist of talent.
During the painting process of this picture Vermeer made many significant changes in order to clarify its composition and meaning. X-ray images show that the head of the young girl was turned slightly away from the viewer originally positioned slightly in front and below its present place. The original position accounts for the comparatively full-faced reflection we now see in the window.
The inclusion of a mirrored image in Vermeer's composition may have had also been a sort of reflection on the art of paintings itself. The influential artist and Dutch art writer Samuel van Hoogstraten defined painting as a "mirror of nature." However, Van Hoogstraten was not in favor of blindly describing the natural appearances of things in order to fool the eye, but accomplish it in a "pleasurable, permissible and praiseworthy" fashion which made the deceit acceptable.
The profile of this young girl resembles that of the woman who poses in the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (see image left). Some critics have been sympathetic to seeing the image of Vermeer's wife, Catharina Bolnes, although there exists no objective evidence in merit. Catharina and Vermeer had 15 children in all, 11 of whom survived the early years of childhood.
In any case, if the affection with which the young girl is painted was directed towards Vermeer's wife, it would not have been unusual at the time. While in the rest of Europe, obedience was largely considered the fulcrum of matrimony, in the Netherlands things were different. Humanists had long held that tenderhearted sentiment and love were at the core of the marriage bond. Love was not subordinated to marriage but rather exalted it as the indispensable quality for a godly union.
Foreign visitors to the Netherlands were often surprised and embarrassed to witness the outward signs of friendship of married couples. The Frenchman De la Barre de Beaumarchais dined with a burgomaster of Alkmaar who went so far as to compliment his wife on the meal, to which she responded with a kiss.
Public demonstration of affection was not limited to married couples. Public kissing, candid speech, unaccompanied promenades struck foreign men, and especially the French, as shockingly improper even though they were repeatedly assured of the impregnable chastity of the married woman.
This smart satin yellow jacket was later worn by the young woman playing music in The Music Lesson. Women wear the same bodice in four other early paintings: Officer and Laughing Girl, The Music Lesson, The Concert and Young Woman Holding a Water Pitcher. Although used for daily wear, this trim garment must have lent Vermeer's paintings a voguish contemporary look, an effect which was sought after by the upper tier of Dutch interior painters in the 1650s and 1660s. In the Netherlands it was sometimes called a schort or a wacht although it has been erroneously referred to in Vermeer literature as a caraco or a pet en l'air (both terms refer to a later and somewhat different type of garment).It is curious to note that in both paintings the girl's faces are seen in nearby reflections.
The jacket is painted with extraordinary vigor. The high relief paint (impasto) of the illuminated portion of the garment attracts the viewer's eye and makes it sparkle with life. The famous pointillés, or spherical dabs of thick opaque paint, make their first appearance in Vermeer's work. Many critics believe that they suggest the use of the camera obscura, a kind of primitive photographic camera which was known and used by more than one painter of Vermeer's time.
The so-called Spanish chairs, which appear in various styles in Vermeer's compositions, are found in a great number of genre interior paintings of the time. Two such chairs can be seen in Pieter de Hooch's The Bedroom (see image left). An identical one, with a lozenge motif, will be represented in Vermeer's Officer and Laughing Girl of a few years later. Very few of these actual chairs have survived. Some are still housed in Prinsenhof Museum in Delft and the Rijksmuseum.
Being made of walnut, the Spanish chair was much lighter than the sixteenth-century chair, but adequately strong. The turned baluster legs were connected by straight stretchers at three places located one above the other. The upholstery of the seat and back was made of thick leather, fastened with decorative brass nails. Lion masks, wometimes with rings hanging from their mouths, perched at the top of the back posts. After a great deal of conflict among the various woodworkers' guilds, the new guild of the Spanish chair-makers came into existence.
The so-called "Turkish carpets" (the term Turkish was used for anything that was imported from the Middle East) can be seen in an extraordinary number of Dutch genre paintings of the time. These carpets were one of the many exotic imports which appealed to the 17th-century Dutch. However, in depictions of the time they rarely appear placed on the floor, most probably because they were considered too precious to be soiled. It must have been their colorful patterns and plush texture that gave an opportunity to sho off the artists' mimetic abilities and create more luxurious environments which would appeal to upper-class purchasers.
In Vermeer's times, practical, wooden-planked floors were generally employed for household use, sometimes covered with woven reed mats to shield the inhabitants' feet from the gelid Dutch winter. Thus, paintings with carpets demonstrate that the artists' renderings of domestic interiors rested somewhere between artifice and reality.
Perhaps a more faithful example of how upper-class houses were actually furnished can be seen in the portrait of Constantijn Huygens (see image left), a Dutch diplomat of the court in The Hague and one of the one of the most influential art connoisseurs of the time. De Keyser portrays Huygens sitting at his desk in his house in The Hague, attended by a servant carrying a written message. Behind Huygens hangs a rich, ornate tapestry with his coat of arms. Above the mantelpiece is a marine painting in the style of Jan Porcellis, whom Huygens admired. On the table is a long-necked lute or chitarrone, and a pair of globes all expensive objects. We clearly see that in Huygens' luxurious dwelling the carpet was placed on top the table like in Vermeer's painting while the flooring, notwithstanding Huygens' substantial economic position, is made of wide, unadorned planks of wood.
Vermeer often drew inspiration for his themes and compositions from other painters, including painters from his hometown, Delft. It is tempting to believe that before he painted the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window he had seen this still life by Gillis Gillisz de Bergh, Still Life with Fruit in a Wan-Li Bowl and a Roemer painted in the late 1630s.
Curiously, if De Bergh's composition is inverted left to right, a large Roemer similar to the one in De Bergh's work, was a part of Vermeer's original composition, on the far right-hand side of the table. It was later painted out in favor of the green trompe l'œil curtain.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997)
Walter Liedtke Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008)
The support is a plain weave linen with a thread count of 12-16 threads per cm2. The variation in the number of threads is caused by the slight difference of the threads' denier between 0,2 and 1 mm.
An x-ray photograph shows considerable fabric strain up to 1 cm in each dimension, reaching up to 15 cm towards the middle of the picture. The strain had been fixed by the grounding of the support. This unusually strong straining may indicaye that the support was not prepared by a professional "witters."
Although the support no longer has its original tacking edges, the entire fabric used for the painting has been preserved. The painting's 83 x 64,5 cm (height to width ratio: 1,28:1) format was rarely used by Vermeer.
The white ground is a mixture of lead white and chalk ("lootwit"), bound only with protein and applied in a relatively thick layer of 0,15 mm.
Only few traces of under drawing and underpainting (mainly in a light reddish-brown or light grey) are possible to detect, implying in their execution the ground layer's grade of lightness. The most distinctive area of underpainting is visible in the upper part of the window's inner embrasure, left-side from the red curtain. The underpainting of the carpet initially excluded the bowl with fruit. The row of the pattern in that area didn't leave out the objects' outlines.
The perspectival construction was probably drawn from direct observation without any mechanical aid. This likely explains why the vanishing lines of the window frame do not meet exactly in the vanishing point beyond the girl's head in the right half of the picture.
The colors used for the painting were already determined by Kühn (1968, 181-82). Apart from the lead white, for the shadowed parts mixed with umber and traces of charcoal, Vermeer employed lead-tin yellow for the girl's bodice and sleeves as well as for a great part of the highlights (including those for the brass nails at the back of the chair). The red paints for the curtain and the tablecloth are vermilion and madder lake, mixed with lead white in the light passages. The green of the trompe l'oeil curtain is created by a mixture of azurite and lead-tin yellow. Ultramarine appears (in admixtures with lead white) for the first time in the window frame and in the tablecloth. A curiosity has been detected during the recent analysis, in the girl's hairdo, created with fine dots of light and dark brown, various tones of ochre and some reddish nuances Vermeer set two light blue dabs in the sort of hair-band running vertical around the coiffure, perhaps an early allusion to his later so preferred contrast of yellow and blue.
Rather than sharp edges Vermeer extends his technique of blurring the contours with dabs and dots to enhance the effects of depth and surface texture. These dots again serve as a special reflective background for the highlights glazed in light colors where the natural light encounters the objects' textures.
It has not been possible to fix with certainty the chronological sequence of the alterations made during the painting process. The window (the first one in Vermeer's early oeuvre), the chair in the left-side corner and the left side of the carpet with the still life clearly demonstrate Vermeer's purposeful painting method and were not affected by extensive reworking.
The mirroring of the girl's face in the window points to a variation in the girl's initial posture, with her back turned towards the viewer (a probable allusion to Ter Borch's young satin-dressed ladies depicted in rear view). After Vermeer had changed her posture to assume a full profile he left the reflection in the mirror in its the first stage except a slight correction in the upper left window pane.
Before Vermeer added the green curtain, which is not part of the depicted scene, he experimented with at least two other repoussoir motives to enhance the illusion of spatial depth. One of them was a large Roemer glass decorated with raspberry prunts and surrounded by a tendril of wine leaves. The other was an object previously assumed to be a Venetian winged glass. Recent infrared reflectography shows this rounded form next to the fruit lying right on the table with remarkable clarity and suggests a lion head finial of a second chair in the foreground placed close to the table, serving as an ulterior repoussoir motif. The form of the left-side lion head was once left out in the respective pattern of the tablecloth and was already defined with a precise light edge. In the painting, this part is still visible in the somewhat undefined pattern of the carpet and the slight luminosity next to the fruit lying far right on the table.
The green curtain had already been executed when Vermeer began to overpaint the large painting of the Cupid. The earlier assumption is that Vermeer would have intended to "rescue" the Cupid-painting by leaving an imaginary shadow of its contour cannot be proved. The visible pentimento Cupid-picture and its black frame in particularis due to aging and progressive transparency of the paint (resp. admixture) used for the overpainting.based on: Christoph Schölzel, "Zur Entstehung des Gemäldes Brieflesendes Mädchen am offenen Fenster," in: Der frühe Vermeer, ed. Uta Neidhardt, Berlin, München 2010, 83-97 (exh.-cat. Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister).
- (?) Pieter van der Lip sale, 14 June 1712, no. 22;
- April 1742 acquired by the Saxon secretary of embassy, de Brais in Paris for the Elector of Saxony, August III, as by Rembrandt;
- 1945-1955 in the Soviet Union (requisition of war);
- 1955 restituted to Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden (inv. 1336).
- Tokyo 20 September - 24 November, 1974
Meisterwerke der Europäischen Kunst – Dresden.
- Kyoto 2 December, 1974 – 26 January, 1975
Meisterwerke der Europäischen Kunst. Nationalmuseum.
- Moscow 10 October - 18 November, 1984
Gerettete Meisterwerke. Puschkin Museum.
- Leningrad [St. Petersberg] 6 December, 1984 – 20 January, 1985
Gerettete Meisterwerke. Staatliche Eremitage.
- Madrid 19 February – 18 May, 2003
Vermeer y el interior holandés. Il Prado.
165-167, no. 32 and ill.
- Kobe January – 22 May, 2005
Dresden-Spiegel der Welt. Die Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden in Japan. Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art.
- Tokyo 28 June - 19 September, 2005
Dresden-Spiegel der Welt. Die Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden in Japan. National Museum of Western Art.
- Dresden September 3 – November 28, 2010
Der frühe Vermeer. Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.
In Dec. Vermeer pays the remaining sum (1.5 guilders) of the master's fee in the Guild of Saint Luke that he was unable to pay in 1653.
Vermeer signs one of his first known paintings, The Procuress. The young artist seems to still be dependent on well established pictorial models and has not yet adverted the influence of the newer interior genre scenes of his contemporaries. This type of Caravaggesque scene was to be found in the collections of local connoisseurs.
By 1656 Maria Thin, Vermeer's mother-in-law had already advanced 300 guilders, a considerable sum, the Catharina and Johannes.
Rembrandt declared bankrupt; his possessions are put up for sale.
The immensely popular landscape painter Jan van Goyen (b. 1596), dies.
Gerrit van Honthorst (b. in Utrecht 1590) dies.
|european painting & architecture||
Academy of Painting in Rome founded.
Bernini: Piazza of Saint Peter's, Rome
Diego Velázquez paints Las Meninas, family of Philip IV
|music||Opening of first London opera house.|
|science & philosophy||
Oct 29, Edmund Halley, astronomer (Halley's Comet), was born. [see Nov 8]
Dutch mathematician Johan van Waveren Hudde, 28, anticipates the power-series for ln (1 + x) and the following year will do pioneering work on the use of space coordinates. Hudde promotes Cartesian geometry and philosophy in Holland; his discoveries (they will be called Hudde's rules) will presage the use of algorithms to solve problems of calculus.
Jan 8, Oldest surviving commercial newspaper began in Haarlem, Netherlands.
Dutch forces take the Sinhalese port of Colombo from the Portuguese.
Dutch East India Company shares plummet on the Amsterdam Exchange and many investors are ruined. Among them is painter Rembrandt van Rijn, now 50, who is declared bankrupt and whose possessions are put up for sale.
The Dutch in Ceylon make cinnamon a state monopoly but will not have complete control of the island's cinnamon until 1658. When prices fall too low, the Dutch will burn great quantities of the bark, and they will destroy groves of clove and nutmeg trees in the Moluccas, creating artificial scarcities that will force prices up, enriching the Dutch East India Company.
Maria Thins, in the first draft of her testament, leaves to Vermeer's daughters jewels (wrings bracelets and gilded chains) and the sum of three hundred guilders to Vermeer and Catharina.
In the same testament Maria Thins wills to Vermeer's first child, Maria, 200 guilders. The child's name is an almost certain sign of good will that existed between Vermeer and his mother-in-law.
In Nov. 30 Vermeer and his wife were lent the sum of 200 guilders from Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, a wealthy Delft citizen and art collector who may have purchased in the following years more than twenty of Vermeer's works. This money may have been a kind of advance payment on the purchase of future works. Van Ruijven is now rightly considered Vermeer's patron. He was almost seven years older than Vermeer and seems to have had a personal relation with Vermeer that went outside the usual client/artist relationship.
Feb. the framemaker Anthony van der Wiel, who had married Vermeer's sister Gertruy, registered at the guild as an art dealer.
Frans Snyders, Flemish painter, dies.
Both Pieter de Hoogh and Vermeer began to paint the genre interiors refining a regional type, lending it a more realistic qualities of space, light and atmosphere.
The Dortrecht landscape artist Aelbert Cuyp borrows warm light and hilly scenery from Italian examples.
|european painting & architecture||
Diego Velázquez paints Las Hilanderas (The Spinners)
The Corsini payed Guercino 300 ducats for the Flagellation of Christ painted in 1657. Guercino was remarkable for the extreme rapidity of his execution - he completed no fewer than 106 large altar-pieces for churches, and his other paintings amount to about 144. In 1626 he began his frescoes in the Duomo of Piacenza. Guercino continued to paint and teach up to the time of his death in 1666, amassing a notable fortune.
|music||Le Sieur Saunier: Vencyclopdie des beaux esprits, believed to be first reference book with "encyclopédie" in its title.|
|science & philosophy||
A pendulum clock was designed by Christiaan Huygens and built by Solomon Coster.
Universal Mathematics (Mathesis Universalis) by John Wallis amplifies the English mathematician's system of notation, applying it to algebra, arithmetic, and geometry. Wallis will be credited with inventing and introducing the symbol for infinity; he has demonstrated the utility of exponents, notably negative and fractional exponents
Mar 23, France and England formed an alliance against Spain.
Jun 1, 1st Quakers arrived in New Amsterdam (NY).
A 4-year Dutch-Portuguese war begins over conflicting interests in Brazil, but Johan de Witt will end the hostilities with a peace advantageous to the Dutch.
Coffee advertisements at London claim that the beverage is a panacea for scurvy, gout, and other ills.
Public sale of tea begins at London as the East India Company undercuts Dutch prices.
The Flushing Remonstrance written to Nieuw Amsterdam's governor Peter Stuyvesant December 27 is probably the first declaration of religious tolerance by any group of ordinary citizens in America.
The first London chocolate shop opens to sell a drink known until now only to the nobility.
In this period, the Guild of Saint Luke was probably the center of Vermeer's public life.
Vermeer may have began distancing himself from his family or origin. This fact is seen in his failure to name any of his children after his mother or father as was common practice of the time. His first two daughters, born before 1658, Were named Maria and Elizabeth after his mother-in-law and her sister.
In Vermeer's Procuress a Chinese bowl appears in the still life. Between 1602 and 1657 the Dutch had imported millions of pieces of porcelain. Native Delft artisans began feverishly producing everything from elaborate imitations of Chinese porcelain to the humble floor tiles seen in some of Vermeer's interiors.
Pieter de Hooch: paints Courtyard of a House in Delft, one of finest works. De Hoogh's courtyards may have influenced Vermeer's The Little Street.
Frans van Mieris paints The Duet.
Adriaen van de Velde paints Farm with a Dead Tree.
|european painting & architecture||Bernini: church at Castel Gandolfo (-1661). Bernini did not build many churches from scratch, preferring instead to concentrate on the embellishment of pre-existing structures. He fulfilled three commissions in the field; his stature allowed him the freedom to design the structure and decorate the interiors in coherent designs.|
|music||Apr 22, Giuseppe Torelli, composer (Concert Grossi op 8), is born in Italy.|
|literature||Moliere was anointed with the patronage of King Louis XIV. Molière left behind a body of work which not only changed the face of French classical comedy, but has gone on to influence the work of other dramatists the world over. The greatest of his plays include The School for Husbands (1661), The School for Wives (1662), The Misanthrope (1666), The Doctor in Spite of Himself (1666), Tartuffe (1664,1667,1669), The Miser (1668), and The Imaginary Invalid (1673).|
|science & philosophy||Amsterdam naturalist Jan Swammerdam, 21, gives the first description of red blood cells. He will complete his medical studies in 1667 but devote himself to studying insects, tadpoles, frogs, and mammals rather than practicing medicine.|
|history||Sep 3, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the New Commonwealth, i.e. ruler over England's Puritan parliament, dies at age 59. Richard Cromwell succeeded his father as English Lord Protector.|
It has been estimated that there were about 650 to 750 painters working in the Netherlands in 1650s or about one for each 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants, in Delft one out of every 500. By comparison, the number of painters in Renaissance Italy was about one every 330, in a population of some 9 million. Most Dutch painters came from middle-class families since painting generally did not offer sufficient status to attract the wealthy and the poor could rarely afford the training. As their status and social ambition rose, some Dutch artists assumed the manners, and dress, of their wealthy clients. Vermeer himself appears to have made serious efforts to cast himself as a gentleman/artist.
When Vermeer turned his attention to the domestic interior motif, he entered into a highly competitive niche market already dominated by a few exceptional artists such as Gerrit ter Borch, Frans van Mieris and Gerrit Dou. These painters specialized in themes of upper-class domestic interiors, now grouped togehter with a host of other subjects under the term genre. Their work displays an truly astonishing level of detai,l at times near microscopic, and required enormous number of work hours making them affordable for a select few. Dou is reported to have sold some works for more than 1,000 guilders or roughly the equivalent of the venerated great Italian Masters. A modest Dutch house could be had for less.
Before the 1650s, few rooms in the typical middle-class Dutch house had specialized functions. Beds, for example, were placed in halls, kitchens or wherever they could fit. But when rooms did assume a particular use, it was often reflected in the paintings chosen to decorate them—domestic scenes or religious images were selected more often for private areas of the house while landscapes or city views were shown in public areas.
Typical Dutch homes were generally far more cluttered and not as well-lit as the pristine environments that appear in Vermeer's compositions. The image of the famous 17th-century doll house created by Petronella Dunois very likely affords a more accurate idea of the furniture arrangement and density of a true Dutch well-to-do home.
Although exceptionally few Dutch domestic envirnoments have survived, a few doll's houses made in Amsterdam in the second half of the 17th century are regarded as an inexhaustible source of information about the furnishing of grand merchant's houses in the heyday of the Dutch Republic. One such doll-house was commissioned by Petronella Oortsman (1656-1718), who as a wealthy widow married the silk merchant Johannes Brandt in 1686. She started assembling her doll's house shortly after marriage.
The Rijksmuseum Amsterdam estimates that Petronella Oortman spent twenty to thirty thousand guilders on her model house, the price of a real house along one of Amsterdam's most sought-after canal locations at that time. It took nearly 20 years to build.
Historians of economics have estimated that out of five million works of art that were created in the Dutch Republic during the 17th century. Interiors views and still-lives comprised at least 10% of the total output, or about five hundred thousand works. And since these works are so expertly painted, the viewer tends to believe that the artist painted exactly what was in front of him. However, the most outstanding aspect of these images, namely, their apparent capacity to offer unmediated access to the past, is paradoxically the most deceptive. Art historians have come to the conclusion that we are dealing with a case of modified reality (see left) rather than a literal transcription of Dutch homes. The sitters in their environments which we see were meticulously arranged combining both real and fictive elements.
While the window casements and walls in Vermeer's rooms appear to be factual, the marble floors were fictive. While more humble objects, such as the porcelain wine jugs, tables, pictures, mirrors and maps, were probably Vermeer's own. On the other hand the luxurious hand-woven tapestries, the keyboard instruments and gilt chandelier were borrowed brought in for the occasion. Vermeer had full access to these luxury items through his rich Delft patron Pieter van Ruijven or similar channels.
In a certain sense Vermeer's painted environments are analogous to the photo reproductions of today's interiors design magazines advertising luxury homes, which are assembled only to be photographed and afterwards disassembled. They both portray an ideal interior—brighter, cleaner, neater and more richly decorated. Moreover, these pictures were expensive commodities in themselves which would have bolstered cultural pretensions of their owners.
Many writers believe that this handsome young woman is Vermeer's wife, Catharina Bolnes. As is the case for the vast number of common 17th-century men and women, the voice of Catharina Bolnes has been lost. Not a single letter, diary entry or note by her hand has survived. Only once are we able to pick up her faint voice through a document dated 24th and 30th April, 1676. Catharina, in a desperate attempt to flea the grip of her creditors after the untimely death of her husband, spoke of her Johannes so: "as a result and owing to the great burden of his children, having no means of his own, he had lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day or day and a half had gone from being healthy to being dead." After Johannes' death Catharina was alone with her mother, saddled with ten minors and full of debt.
Catharina would have remained silent had it not been for the notoriety of her husband for whom historians have combed every shred of documentary evidence that could have possible regarded the artist, his colleagues and his family. What we know largely emerges from legal testimonies elegantly transcribed on vellum ledger books by Dutch notaries, probably the most meticulous note-takers of all times. The evidence which regards Catharina tells us that we are in front of an exceptional woman, at least in relation to the 750,000 women of the time who lived in the Netherlands.
The popular myth about Vermeer's fame goes that he was recovered from total obscurity by the French critic Thoré-Bürger in the mid-1800s. Like many myths, this one contains some but not all the truth. Although Vermeer was not well known in his time outside his native town Delft, his works were never completely forgotten.
After the artist's early death, some of his works continued to be of considerable value to several generations of Amsterdam collectors with money and taste, and a few works continued to evoke admiration and high prices whenever they came onto the market. But for unclear reasons, the name of Vermeer was excluded from Arnold Houbraken's Groote Schouburgh, the foundational 18th-century Dutch book on artists. Thus, for almost 150 years after his death Vermeer's fame hardly spread out of the Netherlands.
It is a curious fact that the Vermeer canvases which left the Netherlands were not infrequently attributed to familiar Dutch artists known to outsiders. In 1742, for example, his Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window came to Dresden as a Rembrandt.
The type of Chinese porcelain that appears in this work was imported in huge quantities for European consumption by the East Indies Company, or VOC as it was called by the Dutch. Vermeer and his fellow citizens must have been particularly familiar with objects of this kind because Delft was one of six towns in Holland that had a chamber of the VOC. As the world's first multi-national company, the VOC had commercial interests all over the globe and accessed the world's oceans through Delfshaven, Delft's 17th-century harbor town. With a little imagination, one can picture merchant ships busily unloading their precious cargoes on the quay of Vermeer's View of Delft connected to Delfshaven by the canal which exits the right-hand part of the composition.
To give an idea of the colossal proportions of the porcelain trade, in 1608, one of the first years of organized trade, the VOC had ordered 50,000 butter dishes, 10,000 plates, 2,000 fruit dishes, and 1,000 of salt cellars, mustard pots and various wide bowls and dishes plus an unspecified number of jugs and cups. In a few years, these articles could be found in many Dutch households. In 1640, the ship Nassau carried an astronomical number of pieces, 126,391 in all, to Amsterdam. The trade with China continued until the mid-17th century when civil wars caused by the fall of the Ming dynasty (1644) disrupted suppliers and the European traders turned to Japan.
Fine porcelain would have normally been displayed on the household's best cabinets or on specially made racks. Nonetheless, these rare objects had no cultural value for the Dutch outside the fact that they were exotic, precious and expensive regardless of their style or even their quality. Thus for Vermeer, the exotic motifs which decorated them no symbolic meaning, and, theus, they must be taken literally as rare objects, beautiful in themselves.
Chinese potters had produced porcelain for export markets all over the world. Ironically, what the Dutch considered the epitome of style was second rate porcelain for the Chinese. The special models made for exportation rarely attracted Chinese taste. Many of these "unpalatable" hybrids appear in Dutch still life paintings, and were taken as the epitome of refinery. Instead, products destined for Chinese domestic consumption were made according to higher standards of taste and facture. Period documents reveal that finest exemplars were not allowed out of the country on penalty of corporal punishiment.
The Dutch had no regard of porcelain's original use and as years passed, it eventually found its way onto the dinner table because it was incredibly easy to clean and did not pass on food's e flavor to the next meal.
Even though the Dutch were poor judges of Chinese standards they knew that they surpassed anything produced in Europe.
There exists a long tradition of paintings of woman with luscious fruit. Symbolically, fruit could alternately allude to the figure of Venus (the goddess of love) in the Judgment of Paris or the Biblical apple (the symbol of sin) of Adam and Eve. The appearance of fruit in European easel painting exceeds any other kinds of food although very rarely do we see the fruit actually being eaten. Fruit's popularity as a motif in painting is owed to its visual appeal, brilliant colors, shapes and variety of peculiar textures, making fruit a particularly stimulating challenge. Moreover, fruit generally has positive associations owing to its sweetness. From the 16th century on, artists created numerous portraits of beautiful women accessorized with fruit or holding bowls or attractive baskets of it. Bowls and baskets of fruit were commonly features in busts of the figure of the "temptress" in works by Dutch painters such as Gerrit van Honthorst and Christiaan van Couwenbergh.
In the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Vermeer displays in great evidence an imported Chinese Wan-Li bowl with peaches, plums and perhaps a large apple. One peach has been halved with its rounded pit exposed to the viewer. The exhibit of ripe fruit alludes, perhaps, to the fullness of the letter reader, perhaps, opened, or "ripe," for love. A Dutch poet once recommended to "send apples, send pears or other fruit" to win over the heart of one's lover drawing inspiration from Ovid's Ars Amatoria.
Four years after Vermeer was accepted into the St Luke Guild in Delft, he painted the present work and established his definitive artistic course. No evidence explains what might have induced him to reject his initial classical teachings—his masterd remains unknown—and foray into the mode of genre painting. But so divergent was his new approach that had they not been signed, it is doubtful that scholars would have ever attributed the early Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Diana and her Companions and even The Procuress to Vermeer.
In the 17th-century Netherlands, independence from one's master was not unusual. Some painters were satisfied to preserve the artistic tradition of their masters while many broke away to explore new themes and styles. No few painters worked successfully in different styles. Samuel Van Hoogstraten, an important painter and art theoretician of the time, painted simultaneously in the "antique" mode, producing large-scale history paintings of biblical and classical themes, small trompe-l'œil paintings and a few genre scenes of contemporary life clearly anchored in the "modern" mode. Interior painters occasionally tried their hand at still life and some portrait painters, who worked in one of the most highly specialized fields, dabbled in the distant landscape genre. In the Netherlands, the amazing variety of available themes and techniques had been stimulated by an open and variegated art market and the absence of official academies.
The only requirements for changing modes of painting was sufficient talent and a knack for understanding what might appeal to a given clientele.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Suite française no. 1, Sarabande [1.79 MB]
Gustav Leonhardt, harpsichord