A Lady Writing

(Schrijvend meisje)
c. 1662–1667
Oil on canvas
45 x 39.9 cm. (17 3/4 x 15 3/4 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
acc. n0. 1962.10.1
there are 9 hotspots in the image below
A Lady Writing, Johannes Vermeer

critical excerpt

Facsimile of signature on Johannes Vermeer's A Lady Writing
center left on frame of picture on back wall: IVMEER (IVM in ligature)

c. 1666
Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1665–1666
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997

c. 1665–1667
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

c. 1662–1665
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

The ground appears to be a single layer of a warm, light ocher color, containing chalk, (plant?) black, red, and yellow iron oxide (perhaps burnt sienna and yellow ocher), and lead white.

The brushwork of the final paint layers is very thin, except in the lighter tones. Thicker paint has been used only in the form of rounded dots for the highlights. Two preparations of lead-tin yellow were used in the yellow jacket: one coarsely ground, and the other more finely ground and paler, used for the highlights on the shoulder pleats. X-radiography and infrared reflectography indicate that Vermeer made an alteration to the angle of the quill and to some of the fingers holding it.

* Johannes Vermeer (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis - Washington and The Hague, 1995, edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.)

literature

Johannes Vermeer's A Lady Writing with frame

  • (?) Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1674); (?) his widow, Maria de Knuijt, Delft (d. 1681);
  • (?) their daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1682);
  • (?) her widower, Jacob Abrahamsz Dissius (d. 1695);
  • Dissius sale, Amsterdam, 16 May 1696, no. 35;
  • J. van Buren, The Hague;
  • Van Buren sale, The Hague, 7 November 1808, no. 22;
  • Cornelis Jan Luchtmans, Rotterdam (1808–1816);
  • Luchtmans sale, Rotterdam, 20 April 1816, no. 90;
  • F. Kamermans, Rotterdam, by 1819;
  • Kamermans sale, Rotterdam, 3 October 1825, no. 70 (to Lelie);
  • Hendrik Reydon et al. sale, Amsterdam, 5 April 1827, no. 26;
  • François-Xavier, comte de Robiano, Brussels (1827–1837);
  • De Robiano sale, Brussels, 1 May 1837, no. 436 (to J. Héris for the following);
  • Ludovic, comte de Robiano, Brussels (1837–d.1887);
  • Heirs De Robiano, Brussels (1888–1906);
  • [J. & A. Le Roy, Brussels, 1907];
  • J. Pierpont Morgan, New York (1907–d.1913, from G.S. Hellman);
  • his son, J. P. Morgan, Jr., New York (1913–1940);
  • Sir Harry Oakes, Nassau, Bahamas (1940–1943);
  • Lady Eunice Oakes, Nassau, Bahamas (1943–1946);
  • [M. Knoedler & Co., New York, 1946];
  • Horace Havemeyer, New York (1946–1956);
  • his sons, Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer, Jr., New York (1956–1962);
  • National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Gift of Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer, Jr., in memory of their father, Horace Havemeyer (acc. no. 1962.10.1).
  • Brussels 1873
    Exposition de tableaux et dessins d'anciens maitres organisée par la société néerlandaise de bienfaisance à Bruxelles
    Musées Royaux
    76, no. 264
  • New York 1908 (1908 and 1909–1913)
    Loan to display with the permanent collection
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • New York September 25–October 9, 1909
    The Hudson-Fulton Celebration
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    137, no. 136
  • Rotterdam July 9–October 9, 1935
    Vermeer, oorsprong en invloed: Fabritius, de Hooch, de Witte
    Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
    37, no. 86a
  • New York April, 1939–October, 1940
    Masterpieces of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture from 1300–1800
    New York World's Fair
    195, no. 399, pl. 72
  • New York 1940
    Loan Exhibition of Allied Art for Allied Aid for the Benefit of the Red Cross War Relief Fund
    M. Knoedler & Co.
    no. 6
  • New York 1941
    Loan Exhibition in Honor of Royal Cortizzos and His 50 Years of Criticism in the New York Herald Tribune
    M. Knoedler & Co.
    18–19, no. 17
  • New York 1942
    Paintings by the Great Dutch Masters of the Seventeenth Century
    Duveen Galleries
    89 and 159, no. 68, ill.
  • Raleigh (NC) 1943
    An Exhibition of Paintings by Living Masters of the Past
    Baltimore Museum of Art, The North Carolina State Art Society Gallery
    unnumbered catalogue and ill.
  • New York 1946
    Loan Exhibition: 24 Masterpieces
    M. Knoedler & Co.
    no. 15, ill.
  • Paris 1976
    Chefs-d'oeuvre des Musées des Etats-Unis de Giorgione à Picasso
    Musée Marmottan
    no. 18 and ill.
  • Leningrad 1976
    Zapadnoevropeiskaia i Amerikanskaia zhivopis is muzeev ssha (West European and American Painting from the Museums of USA)
    State Hermitage Museum
    unpaginated and unnumbered catalogue
  • Moscow 1976
    Zapadnoevropeiskaia i Amerikanskaia zhivopis is muzeev ssha (West European and American Painting from the Museums of USA)
    State Pushkin Museum
    unpaginated and unnumbered catalogue
  • Kiev 1976
    Zapadnoevropeiskaia i Amerikanskaia zhivopis is muzeev ssha (West European and American Painting from the Museums of USA)
    State Museum
    unpaginated and unnumbered catalogue
  • Minsk 1976
    Zapadnoevropeiskaia i Amerikanskaia zhivopis is muzeev ssha (West European and American Painting from the Museums of USA)
    State Museum
    unpaginated and unnumbered catalogue
  • Tokyo 1987
    Space in European Art: Council of Europe Exhibition in Japan
    National Museum of Western Art
    no. 86
  • Leningrad 1989
    Masterpieces of Western European Painting of the XVIth-XXth Centuries from the Museums of the European Countries and USA
    Hermitage Museum
    no. 14 and ill.
  • San Francisco 1990–1991
    Great Dutch Paintings from America, Mauritshuis, The Hague
    M. H. de Young Memorial Museum
    no. 67, color ill., as "A Girl Writing a Letter".
  • Frankfurt 1993–94
    Leselust: Niederländische Malerei von Rembrandt bis Vermeer
    Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt
    no. 85 and ill.
  • Washington D.C November 12, 1995–February 11, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer.
    National Gallery of Art
    156–159, no. 13 and ill.
  • The Hague March 1–June 2, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    Mauritshuis
    156–159, no. 13 and ill.
  • Washington D.C. November 24, 1999–February 6, 2000
    Johannes Vermeer: The Art of Painting
    National Gallery of Art
  • Kyoto January 30-April 4, 1999
    Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art, Washington
    Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art
    no. 83 and ill.
  • Tokyo 1999
    Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art, Washington
    Metropolitan Art Museum Metropolitan Art Museum
    no. 83 and ill.
  • Newark October 17, 2001–January 20, 2002
    Art and Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt
    Newark Museum
    no. 108, fig. 108 (shown only in Denver)
  • Denver March 2–May 26, 2002
    Art and Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt
    Denver Art Museum
    no. 108, fig. 108
  • Dublin October 1–December 31, 2003
    Love Letters: Dutch Genre painting in the Age of Vermeer
    National Gallery of Ireland
    no. 38, fig. 55 and ill. 181
  • Rotterdam October 23, 2004–January 9, 2005
    Senses and Sins: Dutch Painters of Daily Life in the Seventeenth Century
    Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
    no. 69 and ill.
  • FrankfurtFebruary 10–May 1, 2005
    Senses and Sins: Dutch Painters of Daily Life in the Seventeenth Century
    Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie
    no. 69 and ill.
  • Pasadena November 7, 2008–February 16, 2009
    Vermeer's A Lady Writing from the National Gallery of Art
    Norton Simon Museum
  • Kyoto 25 June–16 October, 2011
    Communication: Visualizing Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer
    Municipal Museum of Art
    no. 42 and ill.
  • Sendai October 27, 2011–December 12, 2011
    Communication: Visualizing Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer
    Miyagi Museum of Art
    no. 42 and ill.
  • Tokyo December 23–March 14, 2012
    Communication: Visualizing Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer
    The Bunkamura Museum of Art
    no. 42 and ill.
  • Boston October 11, 2015–January 18, 2016
    Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer
    Museum of Fine Arts
    137, 151–52, 170, cat. no. 31 and ill.
  • Kansas City February 4–May 29, 2016
    Reflecting Class in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer.
    The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
  • Norfolk November 1–December 18, 2016
    A Lady Writing
    Chrysler Museum of Art
  • Paris February 22–May 22, 2017
    Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivaly
    Musée du Louvre
  • Dublin June 1–September 17, 2017
    Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivaly
    Musée du Louvre
  • Washington D. C. October 22, 2017–January 21, 2018
    Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivaly
    Musée du Louvre
Johannes Vermeer's A Lady Writing in scale
1665
vermeer's life Pieter van Ruijven and his wife Maria Knuijt leave 500 guilders to Vermeer in their last will and testament. This kind of a bequest is very unusual and testifies a close relationship between Vermeer and Van Ruijven that went beyond the usual patron/painter one. It would seem that in his life-time the rich Delft burger had bought a sizable share of Vermeer's artistic output.
dutch painting

Rembrandt paints The Jewish Bride.

Adriaen van Ostade paints The Physician in His Study.

c. 1665 Gerrit Dou painted Woman at the Clavichord and a Self-Portrait in which he resembled Rembrandt.

european painting & architecture

Bernini finishes high altar, Saint Peter's, Rome (begun 1656).

Murillo: Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

Nicolas Poussin, French painter, dies. Known as the founder of French Classicism, he spent most of his career in Rome which he reached at age 30 in 1624. His Greco-Romanism work includes The Death of Chione and The Abduction of the Sabine Women.

Compagnie Saint-Gobain is founded by royal decree to make mirrors for France's Louis XIV. It will become Europe's largest glass-maker.

Francesco Borromini completes Rome's Church of San Andrea delle Fratte.

music

Molière: Don Giovanni.

Sep 22, Moliere's L'amour Medecin, premiered in Paris.

literature

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society begins publication.

science & philosophy

Giovanni Cassini determines rotations of Jupiter, Mars, and Venus.

Peter Chamberlen, court physician to Charles 11, invents midwifery forceps

Pierre de Fermat, French mathematician, dies. His equation xn + yn = zn is called Fermat's Last Theorem and remained unproven for many years. The history of its resolution and final proof by Andrew Wiles is told by Amir D. Aczel in his 1996 book Fermat's Last Theorem. Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh was published in 1997. In 1905 Paul Wolfskehl, a German mathematician, bequeathed a reward of 100,000 marks to whoever could find a proof to Fermat's "last theorem." It stumped mathematicians until 1993, when Andrew John Wiles made a breakthrough.

Francis Grimaldi: Physicomathesis de lumine (posth.) explains diffraction of light.

Isaac Newton experiments on gravitation; invents differential calculus.

Robert Hooke's Micrographia, with illustrations of objects viewed through a microscope, is published. The book greatly influences both scientists and educated laypeople. In it, Hooke describes cells (viewed in sections of cork) for the first time. Fundamentally, it is the first book dealing with observations through a microscope, comparing light to waves in water.

Mathematician Pierre de Fermat dies at Castres January 12 at age 63, having (with the late Blaise Pascal) founded the probability theory. His remains will be reburied in the family vault at Toulouse.

history

English naval forces defeat a Dutch fleet off Lowestoft June 3 as a Second Anglo-Dutch war begins, 11 years after the end of the first such war. General George Monck, 1st duke of Albemarle, commands the English fleet, Charles II bestows a knighthood on Irish-born pirate Robert Holmes, 42, and promotes him to acting rear admiral, giving him command of the new third-rate battleship Defiance, but the Dutch block the entrance to the Thames in October

Feb 6, Anne Stuart, queen of England (1702–1714), is born.

At least 68,000 Londoners died of the plague in this year.

University of Kiel is founded.

The second war between England and the United Provinces breaks out. It will last until 1667 and devastate the art market.

Mar 11, A new legal code was approved for the Dutch and English towns, guaranteeing religious observances unhindered.

Nov 7, The London Gazette, the oldest surviving journal, is first published.

Ceylon becomes important trade centre for the VOC

1666
vermeer's life

The Concert presents a very similar deep spatial recession similar to the earlier Music Lesson. Vermeer's interest in the accurate portrayal of three dimensional perspective to create such an effect was shared by other interior genre painters of the time, however, only Vermeer seems to have fully and consciously understood the expressive function of perspective. The two paintings' underlying theme of music between male and female company is also analogous although few critics believe they were conceived as a pendant.

In the paintings of the 1660s the painted surfaces are smoother and less tactile, the lighting schemes tend to be less bold. These pictures convey and impalpable air of reticence and introspection, unique among genre painters with the possible exception of Gerrit ter Borch.

dutch painting Frans Hals, eminent Dutch portrait painter, dies. It was formerly believed that he died in the Oudemannenhuis almshouse in Haarlem which was later became the Frans Halsmuseum.
european painting & architecture

François Mansart, French architect, dies.

Apr 9, 1st public art exhibition (Palais Royale, Paris).

music Dec 5, Francesco Antonio Nicola Scarlatti, composer, is born.
literature Le Misanthrope by Molière is palyed at the Palais-Royal, Paris.
science & philosophy

Laws of gravity established by Cambridge University mathematics professor Isaac Newton, 23, state that the attraction exerted by gravity between any two bodies is directly proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Newton has returned to his native Woolsthorpe because the plague at Cambridge has closed Trinity College, where he is a fellow; he has observed the fall of an apple in an orchard at Woolsthorpe and calculates that at a distance of one foot the attraction between two objects is 100 times stronger than at 10 feet. Although he does not fully comprehend the nature of gravity, he concludes that the force exerted on the apple is the same as that exerted on Earth by the moon.

Calculusis invented by Isaac Newton will prove to be one of the most effective tool for scientific investigation ever produced by mathematics.

Nov 14, Samuel Pepys reported the on first blood transfusion, which was between dogs.

The plague decimates London and Isaac Newton moved to the country. He had already discovered the binomial theorem at Cambridge and was offered the post of professor of mathematics. Newton formulates his law of universal gravitation.

A French Academy of Sciences (Académie Royale des Sciences) founded by Louis XIV at Paris seeks to rival London's 4-year-old Royal Society. Jean Baptiste Colbert has persuaded the king to begin subsidizing scientists. Christiaan Huygens, along with 19 other scientists, is elected as a founding member. After the French Revolution, the Royale is dropped and the character of the academy changes. It later becomes the Institut de France.

history

Sep 2, The Great Fire of London, started at Pudding Lane, began to demolish about four-fifths of London when in the house of King Charles II's baker, Thomas Farrinor, forgets to extinguish his oven. The flames raged uncontrollably for the next few days, helped along by the wind, as well as by warehouses full of oil and other flammable substances. Approximately 13,200 houses, 90 churches and 50 livery company halls burn down or explode. But the fire claimed only 16 lives, and it actually helped impede the spread of the deadly Black Plague, as most of the disease-carrying rats were killed in the fire.

Because almost all European paper is made from recycled cloth rags, which are becoming increasingly scarce as more and more books and other materials are printed, the English Parliament bans burial in cotton or linen cloth so as to preserve the cloth for paper manufacture.

Curiosity, Gerrit ter Borch

Curiosity (detail)
Gerrit ter Borch
c. 1660
Oil on canvas, 76 x 62 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Art historian Mariët Westermann pointed out that in 17th century there was a sudden and unprecedented increase in first person statements in the Dutch Republic. Diaries, journals, soul-searching poems, self-portraits and not the least, private letters and that "reading and writing have in common the capacity of independent thought associated with not only men but for the first time with the women who pose in Vermeer's painting. This mental ability is figured not merely by the theme of writing and reading or by averted gazes." However, it was not Vermeer who pioneered this way of representing the Dutch woman, but Gerrit ter Borch in a series of nuanced interiors (see detail left) where women began to receive the same intellectual and psychological regard that was hitherto afforded only to the male figure in the visual arts." Nonethless, Vermeer's elegant letter writer cannot be be taken as the norm, becasue, as Ann Jensen Adams pointed out, "a substantial proportion of 17th-century men and women were litereate to some degree, but fewer were able to compose a formal lettter or craft letters in a fine hand."

Critics have often noted that women in Vermeer's paintings cannot be considered beauties in the conventional sense of the word. Their beauty derives from the way they are painted and from their elegant context. Lisa Vergara wrote that "the qualities that we attribute to Vermeer's work as a whole apply equally to the women they picture: paintings and personages share dignity, equilibrium and an exceptional of both vivid presence and abstract purity. The figures range from girlish to maternal, yet all are youthful, with high curved foreheads, features that evenly balance the individual and the classical, and simple believable postures. Their costuming—its coloring, shapes and associations—contributes so much to bodily construction and expression that the absence of nudes from Vermeer's oeuvre hardly seems surprising."

Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst, Samuel van Hoogstraten

A page from
Inleyding tot de Hooge
Schoole der Schilderkonst

Samuel van Hoogstraten
Rotterdam, 1678

To comprehend the artistic climate in which Vermeer worked, it is useful to consult prevalent art theory. In those times, it went without being questioned that history and the painting of human figures were the highest forms of art.

Samuel Van Hoogstraten, who introduced the doctrine of the hierarchy of subjects to Dutch art theory in his Inleiding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkunst, wrote that the highest level (the third in his scheme) of painting was to show the noblest emotions and desires of rational human beings. In regards to portraiture: "Indeed, those portrait painters who make reasonable likenesses, and imitate eyes and noses and mouths all prettily, I would not wish to place...above the first grade, unless they make their faces overflow with the quality of the intellectual soul."

This young woman seems to be wearing a glass "drop earring" which has been varnished to look like an immense pearl. Such earrings were fashionable in Holland, and there are many examples of them in paintings by Van Mieris, Metsu and Ter Borch. Artificial pearls were invented by M. Jacquin in France around this time, thin spheres of glass filled with l'essence d'orient, a preparation made of white wax and silvery scales of a river fish called ablette, or bleak, but cultured pearls were also coming in from Venice.

Pearls are linked with vanity but also with virginity - a wide enough iconographic spectrum. In the 17th century, pearls were an important status symbol. In 1660 English diarist Samuel Pepys paid 4 1/2 pounds for a pearl necklace, and in 1666 he paid 80 pounds for another, which at the time amounted to about 45 and 800 guilders respectively (an average Duthc house might cost 1,000 guilders). At about the same time the traveling French art connoisseur Balthasar de Monconys had been shown a single-figured painting by Vermeer which had reputedly been paid 600 guilders and that he considered the price outrageous.

The largest know pearl with a perfect skin or "orient" had a circumference of 4 1/2 inches.

Portrait of Johan van Beverwijck (1594–1647) in his Study, Jan Olis

Portrait of Johan van
Beverwijck (1594–1647) in his Study

Jan Olis
c.1640
Oil on panel, 25.7 x 20.5 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Although the intimate mood of this work is impressing, its compositional origin does not derive soley from conventional portraiture. Vermeer expert Walter Liedtke pointed out that Vermeer, "with his gift for creative synthesis, saw that a newly fashionable type of genre picture, which was evidently introduced by Gerrit ter Borch, could be modified expressively by adopting an arrangement familiar fron Dutch and Flemish 'scholar portraits' such as Rubens' Caspar Gevartius (see Related Image no. 11), Van Dyck's Lucas van Uffel and Rembrandt's Portrait of a Scholar. The type was well known through prints and had been treated on small scale by several Dutch painters, as seen in Jan Olis's Portrait of Johan van Beverwijck in his Studio (see left), of about 1640."

Although we know not of a single still life painted by Vermeer, the informal still life grouping of the present work is considered among the artist's most delicate passages. Vermeer seems to have relegated his concerns about still life painting to the recess of the background wall in the form of a dark Vanitas. This anonymous work, which can barely be read today, very likely belonged to his mother-in-law Maria Thins. Most historians would concur that Vermeer would have never included in an arbitrary manner such a large element in his composition even though symbolic readings thus far proposed by art hsitrians are not unanimous.

It is not impossible that Vermeer shunned the still life genre. According to Samuel van Hoogstraten, a painter and art theoretician who codified the hierarchical status of subject matter in painting, still life occupied the very bottom tier. He demeaned still life painters as "the foot soldiers in the army of art." Although it might be admirable from a technical point of view, Van Hoogstraten held that still life did not require the artist to exercise his imagination the way history paintings or paintings of figures did.

Notwithstanding theoretical warnings, still life paintings far outstripped in number history paintings which Van Hoogstraten placed at the uppermost tier, history paintings, which he claimed revealed "the noblest actions and intentions of rational beings."

A Young Woman Playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man, Jan Steen

A Young Woman playing a Harpsichord
to a Young Man
(detail)
Jan Steen
c. 1659
Oil on oak, 42.3 x 33 cm.
National Gallery, London

If natural ultramarine blue may be considered the king of Vermeer's palette, lead-tin yellow would be justly called its queen. All of the yellow morning jackets were painted with lead-tin yellow and it was used as an admixture to modify the color of other paints. Lead-tin yellow is a thick grainy paint which brushes well and has great hiding power. It was one of the most common bright pigments (see detail left) being evidently relatively inexpensive to produce.

Lead-tin yellow had several different names in the past. Italian manuscripts described a color, giallolino, which is identical to lead-tin yellow. The current name lead-tin yellow is self explanatory. It is a result of heating a mixture of red lead and tin dioxide at about 650 C to 800 C. Warmer hues of yellow appear at the lower temperature, and more lemon-colored hues develop at the higher temperature. This pigment presents a fine uniform particle size with a strong opaque color, which makes it particularly suitable for paintings that demand precise execution. In the Netherlands, it was favored by flower painters as the base color for all yellow flowers. Due to its high lead content, lead-tin yellow is very poisonous. After 1750, it gradually disappeared, but there is no satisfactory explanation for this fact.

The conservator Melanie Gifford found that two different preparations of lead-tin yellow were used in the yellow jacket of A Lady Writing. Vermeer seems to have first modeled the strong lights with a coarser variety of lead-tin yellow and then refined the modeling and chiaroscuro with a finer one. Melanie Gifford of the National Gallery points out that Vermeer "textured the underpaint by using granular pigments and strongly marked brush handling. These textured passages of underpaint were used in the final image, where they draw the viewer's attention. The lightest passages are literally the most light-catching parts of the painting."

Vermeer mixed lead-tin yellow with various shades of blue to obtain greens of great delicacy. The green trompe l'œil curtain in the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window was made by combining lead-tin yellow and azurite. The same combination occurs in the green shutter in The Little Street.

When compared to the startling range of paints available today in any art supply store, the 17th-century Dutch painter had to make do with a paltry few. Especially scarce were the so-called strong colors, or bright colors. Even the finest paints of those times cannot compare in brilliancy to the modern cadmium reds or yellows to say nothing of a dazzling array of artificially manufactured greens and violets which were introduced towards the end of the 19th century.

In order to expand the visual effects of their pictures and to enhance color intensity, 17th-century artists like Vermeer had learned to exploit not only contrast in tone and color temperature but the natural consistency, coarseness and transparency of paint. A vital role was also played by brushwork.

Painters knew that different paint consistencies evoke different kinds of space. Heavy impasto seems to advance toward the viewer and becomes "more real" while thin, transparent paint tends to recede and evoke atmosphere rather than substance. Thus, the bright passages of a painting, which generally corresponded to the most important parts of the composition, were executed in thick course impasto. Oppositely, the areas of shadows were done with thin paint in order to evoke the immaterial nature of shadow itself. By actively counterposing areas of impasto with thin paint, the picture's surface becomes more stimulating than if it had been painted with a continuous layer of homogeneous paint.

Such a juxtaposition can be noted in the Lady Writing. The yellow satin sleeves are built up with a coarse but pure lead-tin yellow. Brushwork, which defines the patterns of tuck and fold of the fabric is clearly visible. The combined effect of the impasto paint and the irregularities casued by the brush create a sparkling effect to which the eye is naturally drawn, augmenting the material presence of the garment. Instead, the deep gray of the background wall is painted with unmodulated paint so thinly that it leaves the brown underground peer through here and there.

The play of light on a Delft antique shop window

The play of light on a Delft antique shop window

Although the dim illumination of the present picture reminds us of the difficulties faced by the painter who worked there, with respect, for example, to southern European artists who enjoyed sunlight nearly all year around.

Perhaps, it is precisely because light was such a scarce commodity in the Netherlands that Dutch painters devoted so much of their talents to rendering its innumerable activities. Certainly, of all its practitioners, Vermeer was the Dutch artist who made light itself one of the principal subjects of his art.

Dutch weather was, and still is, characterized by heavy rain, intermittent drizzle and cloudy skies much of the year. Even on the sunniest days, rapidly passing clouds can dramatically change indoors light within minutes, if not seconds. While the fickleness of northern light probably affected the activities or humors of the working population to some degree, it must conditioned the painter more deeply. By force, the Dutch artist was constrained to develop his powers of observation and visual memory beyond those of his southern counterparts.

Vermeer writers have recurrently singled out Vermeer's works for their compositional refineries and exquisite aesthetic balance. In a recent paper, the art historian Paul Taylor argued that the concept of aesthetic balance, which is a fundamental precept of 20th-century pictorial art, was simply not available to the 17th-century Dutch artist. Taylor's objection rests on the fact that "contemporary art theoretical texts written in Dutch provide no evidence that 17th-century Dutch and Flemish artists tried to achieve an overall balance of design." "In fact, I do not know of any use of the idea of compositional balance in any art theoretical text in any language before the 19th century: the earliest instance of the concept's employment that I have been able to find is in the work of John Ruskin."

How then, did Vermeer organize his compositions if not according to aesthetic criteria? Taylor argues that Gérard de Lairesse, an accomplished history painter and most influential art writer of the time, maintained that composition, or ordinantie, "was not a matter of patiently balancing the different shapes and contours of a scene until they pleased the eye. Composition was first and foremost the attempt to tell a story clearly and logically." Particularly relevant to Vermeer's essential mode on organizing the appearance of his interiors was de Lairesse's warning that the meaning and emotional power of a painting would be swamped by the extraneous details.

Another concept which de Lairesse associated with composition was "probability," in Dutch, waarschynelykheid. "Probability is the most important thing to bear in mind when composing a picture." He adds that "one must make it evident not only in the general disposition, but also in each particular object, and attentively reject things which are in conflict with it."

Vermeer writers have recurrently singled out Vermeer's works for their compositional refineries and exquisite aesthetic balance. In a recent paper, the art historian Paul Taylor argued that the concept of aesthetic balance, which is a fundamental precept of 20th-century pictorial art, was simply not available to the 17th-century Dutch artist. Taylor's objection rests on the fact that "contemporary art theoretical texts written in Dutch provide no evidence that 17th-century Dutch and Flemish artists tried to achieve an overall balance of design." "In fact, I do not know of any use of the idea of compositional balance in any art theoretical text in any language before the 19th century: the earliest instance of the concept's employment that I have been able to find is in the work of John Ruskin."

How then, did Vermeer organize his compositions if not according to aesthetic criteria? Taylor argues that Gérard de Lairesse, an accomplished history painter and most influential art writer of the time, maintained that composition, or ordinantie, "was not a matter of patiently balancing the different shapes and contours of a scene until they pleased the eye. Composition was first and foremost the attempt to tell a story clearly and logically." Particularly relevant to Vermeer's essential mode on organizing the appearance of his interiors was de Lairesse's warning that the meaning and emotional power of a painting would be swamped by the extraneous details.

Another concept which de Lairesse associated with composition was "probability," in Dutch, waarschynelykheid. "Probability is the most important thing to bear in mind when composing a picture." He adds that "one must make it evident not only in the general disposition, but also in each particular object, and attentively reject things which are in conflict with it."