Lady Writing a Letter
with her Maid

(Schrijvende vrouw met dienstbode)
c. 1670-1671
Oil on canvas
71.1 x 58.4 cm. (28 x 23 in.)
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
there are 11 hotspots in the image below
Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer

critical excerpt

signed on the table, under the hand of the writing lady

c. 1670
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997

c. 1670-1671
Walter Liedtke Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

The support is a plain weave linen canvas with a thread count of 14 x 14 per cm2. The canvas has been lined and the original tacking edges have been removed, Strainer bar marks 2.6 cm long from the fold edge can be seen on the top, bottom and right edges. The lesser degree of cusping on the left side, together with the lack of strainer marks, may indicate that the canvas has been cut down on this side.

The ground, a warm buff gray visible on the window frame where the lead casts shadows,: along a few contours in the figures, and in places along the shadowed edge of the carpet.

The carpet is very sketchy and appears almost unfinished: instead of the soft transitions bright blocks of color have been placed next to each other. The lady's white sleeve was painted wet-in-wet. Incised lines were used to define the tiled floors; the trailing corner of the carpet can be seen to flow into these lines. A dent in the paint in the lady's left eye marks the vanishing point of the composition. The background paint overlaps the maid's blue apron. The edge of the lower part of the green curtain appears to have been slightly further to the left.

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

literature

framedimagegoeshere

  • The artist's widow, Catharina Bolnes (1675-76);
  • on 27 January 1676, together with another painting as security for a dept toVan Buyten;
  • Hendrick van Buyten, Delft (1676-d.1701);
  • Josua van Belle, Rotterdam (before d.1710);
  • his widow, Ida Catharina van der Meyden, Rotterdam (1710-29);
  • Van Belle sale, Rotterdam, 6 September 1730, no. 92;
  • Franco van Bleyswijck, Delft (d.1734);
  • inherited by Catharina van der Burch (wife of Hendrick van Slingelandt), The Hague (1734-61);
  • Heirs Van Slingelandt, The Hague (1761);
  • Maria Catharina van Slingelandt, The Hague (1761-71), or Agatha van Slingelandt, The Hague (1761-75);
  • (?) Barthout van Slingelandt, Dordrecht (1771-98) or Willem Bentinck, The Hague (1775-98);
  • Viktor von Miller zu Aichholz, Vienna (before 1881, sold to Sedelmeyer);
  • [Charles Sedelmeyer, Paris, sold in 1881 to Secrétan];
  • E. Secrétan, Paris (1881-89);
  • Secrétan sale, Paris, 1 July 1889, no. 140 (to Boussod, Valadon & Co.);
  • Collection Marinoni, Paris;
  • [Kleinberger, Paris];
  • Alfred Beit, London (c. 1895-1906);
  • Sir Otto Beit, Baronet, London (1906-30);
  • Sir Alfred Beit, 2nd Baronet, London and (from 1952) Russborough, near Dublin (1930-87, stolen in 1974 and 1986);
  • The National Gallery of Ireland (bequeathed by Beit in 1987; the painting was recovered in 1993).
  • Paris 1898
    Illustrated catalogue of 300 Paintings by Old Masters of Dutch, Flemish, French, and English School Being Some of the Principal Pictures Which Have at Various Times Formed Part of Sedelmeyer Gallery. Sedelmeyer Gallery.
    .102, no. 86.
  • Paris 1914
    Hundred Masterpieces. A Selection from the Pictures by Old Masters. Sedelmeyer Gallery.
    48, no. 22 and ill.
  • London 1929
    Exhibition of Dutch Art, 1450-1900. Royal Academy of Arts.
    148-149, no. 314.
  • Amsterdam 1935
    Vermeer tentoonstelling ter herdenking van de plechtige opening van het Rijksmuseum op 13 july 1885. Rijksmuseum.
    28, no. 164.
  • Rotterdam 1935
    Vermeer, oorsprong en invloed. Fabritius, de Hooch, de Witte. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.
    35-36, no. 82 and ill.
  • London 1938
    Catalogue of the Exhibition of the King's Pictures. Royal Academy of Arts.
    1: 106, no. 253, 2: 62, ill. 253.
  • Cape Town 1949
    Skilderye van ou Meesters uit de Beit- Versameling. Nationale Kunstmuseum.
    2 and 13, no. 35.
  • New York 1954
    Dutch Painting: The Golden Age. An Exhibition of Dutch Pictures of Seventeenth Century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • The Hague 25  June – 5 September, 1966
    In het licht van Vermeer. Mauritshuis.
    no. X and ill.
  • Paris 1966
    Dans la lumière de Vermeer. Musée de l'Orangerie.
    no. XI and ill.
  • Washington D. C. 12 November, 1995 - 11 February, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer. National Gallery of Art.
    186-189, no. 19, repro.
  • The Hague 1 March - 2 June, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer. National Gallery of Art.
    186-189, no. 19, repro.
  • Dublin 1 October –  31 December, 2003
    Love letters: Dutch genre painting in the age of Vermeer. National Gallery of Ireland.
    no. 39, fig. 59, repro 187.
  • Greenwich, Connecticut 30 January, 2004 – 1 May, 2004
    Love Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer. Bruce Museum of Arts and Science.
    no. 39, fig. 59, repro 187 and ill.
  • Kyoto 25 June – 16 October, 2011
    Communication: Visualizing Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer in Japan. Municipal Museum of Art.
    132, no. 43 and ill.
  • Sendai 27 October, 2011 – 12 December, 2011
    Communication: Visualizing Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer in Japan. Miyagi Museum of Art.
    132, no. 43 and ill.
  • Tokyo 23 December – 14 March 2012
    Communication: Visualizing Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer in Japan. The Bunkamura Museum of Art.
    132, no. 43 and ill.
Johannes Vermeer's Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid with frame

image courtesy Mike Buffington

Johannes Vermeer's Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid in scale
1670
vermeer's life

Vermeer's mother is buried in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, February 13.

Geertruijt Reynier Vermeer, Vermeer's sister, is buried at the beginning of May in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft.

Vermeer inherits Mechelen from his mother, July 13. He rents it to a shoemaker caller Van Ackerdyck.

Vermeer is appointed for a second time headmen of the Guild of Saint Luke. He continues to paint in an "abstract" mode paying greater attention to pattern and the compositional structure of his works. Scholars have asserted that Vermeer may have been following the popular French mode of painting.

Delft pop. 15,000
The Hague pop. 6,000
Amsterdam pop. 219,000

dutch painting  
european painting & architecture

Louis Le Vau, Fr. architect, d. (b. 1612)

Landscape architect André Lenôtre lays out the Champs-Elysées at Paris.

music

Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme includes a ballet with music by court composer Jean Baptiste Lully, 38, who has come to France from his native Florence and changed his name from Giovanni Battista Lulli. The ballet is so popular that four performances are requested in the space of 8 days.

literature

Feb 10, William Congreve, English writer (Old Bachelor, Way of the World), is born.

John Ray prints a book of aphorisms such as: "Blood is thicker than water..." and "Haste makes waste."

science & philosophy

Italian scientist Giovanni Borelli attempts to use artificial wings to flying.

London clockmaker William Clement improves the accuracy of clocks by inventing anchor-shaped gadgets (escapements) that control the escape of a clock's driving force.

Parts of Baruch de Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus are published anonymously. Spinoza shows that the Bible, if properly understood, gives no support to the intolerance of religious authorities and their interference in civil and political affairs. The book creates a furor. It will provoke widespread denunciations as it goes through five editions in the next 5 years, and Spinoza moves to The Hague to gain the protection of influential friends. Now 37, he suffers from tuberculosis after years of inhaling glass dust produced by his lens-making.

history

Cardinal Emilio Altieri becomes Pope Clement X.

May 2, The Hudson Bay Co. is chartered by England's King Charles II to exploit the resources of the Hudson Bay area.

Oct 13, Virginia passes a law that blacks arriving in the colonies as Christians cannot be used as slaves.

The Dutch merchant marine has become larger than that of England, France, Spain and Portugal combined.

Minute hands first appear on watches.

Cafe Procope, the first cafe in Paris, begins serving ice cream.

France's Louis XIV founds Les Invalides at Paris to house up to 7,000 disabled soldiers.

1671
vermeer's life In July Vermeer appears before the notary Nicolaes van Assendelft to acknowledge that he had received an inheritance of 148 guilders from his sister's estate.
dutch painting Adriaen van Ostade paints Travelers Resting.
european painting & architecture

Lionel Bruant: Hôtel des Invalides, Paris.

Christopher Wren: The Monument to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666

music

Feb 19, Charles-Hubert Gervais, composer, is born.

Dec 1, Francesco Stradivari, Italian violin maker and son of Antonius, is born.

Paris Opera opens with Robert Cambert's opera Pomone.

The French Académie de Royale Musique opens March 3 in the Salle du Jeu de Paume de la Bouteille. Jean Baptiste Lully will take over the Paris Opéra beginning next year and run it until 1687, rebuilding the house after fires that will destroy it in 1678 and 1681

literature

Apr 6, Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, French playwright, poet (Sacred Odes & Songs), is born.

Molière writes his farce Les Fourberies de Scapin (The Wiles of Scapin or Scapin the Cheat).

science & philosophy

In Germany Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz devised a mechanical calculator to add, subtract, multiply and divide.

Astronomer Jean Picard visits the observatory of the late Tycho Brache on Hven Island, Sweden, to determine its exact location in order that observations there can be compared with precision to those made elsewhere. He returns to Paris with copies of Brahe's work and will use them to help him obtain an accurate measurement of the length of a degree of a meridian (longitude line) for use in computing the size of the Earth.

history c. 1671 first printed reference to an alphabet rhyme, a rhyme composed to help children learn their letters.

Apr 22, King Charles II sits in on English parliament.

Colonel Thomas Blood, Irish adventurer, steals the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London.
The Eavesdropper, Nicholaes Maes

The Eavesdropper (detail)
Nicholaes Maes
1657
Oil on canvas, 92 x 121 cm.
Dordrecht Museum, Dordrecht

Maids, who at times were considered a sort of necessary evil, enjoyed the dubious privilege of being the subject of popular literature and plays. They spoke their mind to their masters and mistress and were pictured as untrustworthy, the most dangerous women of all. However, the fact that they are portrayed so many times in family portraits, may be a sign that in some cases they were successfully integrated into the family, the fundamental unit of Dutch society.

Servants, largely female, made up about six percent of the Dutch population, and between ten and twenty percent of all households had servants which were largely female. Their importance was such that some towns had issued regulations to settle the disputes between masters and servants. For example, if a servant had been hired with solid references from her last employer, the new employer was forbidden to fire her before the terms of the original hire, usually six months.

Vermeer's maids, although not portraits in the true sense of the term, are nonetheless shown in a relatively neutral attitude. However, Vermeer's humble milkmaid is perhaps the most sympathetic portrayal of the maid in the history of Dutch painting and has become to stand for domestic virtue and moral value of hard-working Dutch society as a whole even though the picture may have had erotic untertones in its own time.

At the Linen Closet, Pieter de Hooch

At the Linen Closet (detail)
Pieter de Hooch
1665
Oil on canvas, 72 x 77.5 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The fact that the Dutch word for clean (schoon) also means beautiful always draws a smile from those who are familiar with the cleanliness of Dutch homes. In Vermeer's time, no visitor ever failed to note that Dutch towns were ceaselessly swept, scrubbed, burnished, mopped and washed. According to an account of an English visitor, "The beauty and cleanliness of the streets are so extraordinary that Persons of all rank do not scruple, but seem to take pleasure in walking in them."

Within the house, Dutch women followed a cleaning routine with military regimen. A popular household manual devoted an entire chapter to the weekly task which was expected to be followed with religious devotion. On every weekend morning, the steps of the house had to be cleaned, on Wednesday the whole house had to be gone over, Tuesday afternoons were devoted to dusting, Thursdays for scrubbing and scouring and Fridays the cleaning of the cellar and kitchen.

Although recent research has shown a growing concern of Italian writers in the 15th and 16th century for personal hygiene, cleanliness was confined to the higher echelons of urban society. According to contemporary writing, ordinary citizens, the poor and peasants were either ignored or used as a dirty contrasts to the aristocracy, with peasants embodying the hallmark of filth. Only maids that cleaned the houses of the bourgeois families were expected to maintain high standards of hygiene. Differently, in Holland, cleanliness involved the houses of a people both in towns and in the countryside. Foreign visitors on boat trips from Amsterdam witnessed the cleanliness in the surrounding villages.

The origins of Dutch cleanliness has never been fully explained. Contemporary observers linked the vehement cleansing of houses, streets, and ships to the destructive humidity typical of Dutch climate. Regular scrubbing would prevent furniture and wooden floors from moulding and rotting. However, weather conditions were quite similar in other parts of the North Sea area where no such culture of cleanliness existed. In a recent study the historians Bas van Bavel and Oscar Gelderblom have argued convincingly that Dutch cleanliness was closely bound to the commercialization of the all-important butter and dairy products both which require a extraordinary attention to hygiene. They estimate that by the turn of the 16th century half of all rural households and up to one third of urban households in Holland produced butter and cheese.

Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The rendering of this work is so uncomplicated that some critics have asserted it was not finished when it left the painter's easel. Nonetheless, it compares quite well with the artist's late style which tends towards generalized, abstracted forms and broken tones instead of descriptive detail and continuous modeling. In fact, Vermeer's art was to be championed by some 20th-century abstract painters who saw him as spiritual precursor the art-for-art's-sake doctrine. The degree to which Vermeer abstracted the observed world into pictorial terms is so authoritative that it frequently excapes notice. If one isolates the billowing starch-white sleeves from the rest of the painting, they are almost unrecognizable.

Man's propensity towards abstracting visual phenomena has proved troublesome to explain in detail but it is generally held that the human mind tends to organize shapes in accordance with its own principal function: recognition and the retrieval of stored information. In short, abstraction reflects the way the human mind thinks. It tends to reduce the infinite complexities of visual phenomena to its simplest structure working towards the most regular, symmetrical geometrical shape attainable under the circumstances. The mind abstracts visual information automatically without any conscious intervention whatsoever.

For the painter, abstraction is a tool which is consciously employed to aid recognition, but also to enhance those aspects of reality which he deems most important to communicate.

Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (diagram), Johannes Vermeer

Perhaps one of the greatest talents of Vermeer was his uncanny ability to relate painting technique, compositional design and, at times, even linear perspective to the theme of his work. Moreover, this accomplishment is never won at the cost of subverting the naturalistic reading of the depicted scene.

Linear perspective is an all-important tool used to establish a coherent sense of depth to a realist image and to create the sensation that the objects which appear in different positions and at different distances from the viewer can be intuitively, yet securely located within that space. In this system, all lines parallel with the viewer's line of sight recede to the horizon towards the so-called vanishing point. The vanishing point stands opposite to the viewer which in the case of a painting, the painter.

If the traceable orthogonals of the perspectival system of the present work are extended to locate the vanishing point, we find that they converge on the face (precisely, the right-hand eye) of the seated mistress. Thus, while working, Vermeer sat directly in front of the seated woman with his eye at the same height from the ground as hers. Consequentially, even though the standing column-like maid is placed dead-center at the heart of the composition, the perspectival system leads the viewer's eye to the mistress who is the expressive heart of the painting.

Although Vermeer's paintings may appear straightforward depictions of reality, they are highly complex behind-the-scene elaborations of theme and pictorial language. In the present work, these two values are interwoven with exceptional mastery, each one discreetly enhancing the other. Particularly successful is the sub theme which concerns the relationship between the two women who belong to different social classes, the writing mistress and her attending maid. This asymmetric relationship appears to have intrigued Vermeer since he elaborated on it more than once. A revealing comparison between the Love Letter and the present work can be made.

In both pictures Vermeer placed the maid standing behind her mistress who, however, is positioned lower on the picture plane than her social subordinate. Here, the similarities between the two pairings stop because the emotional interaction that Vermeer intends to convey is quite different.

Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (diagram), Johannes Vermeer

In the Love Letter (see detail left), the two women are entangled in a subtly confrontational relationship making direct eye contact. The maid lowers her head towards her mistress in a relaxed, easy-going pose. The mistress, instead, is constrained to raise her head as she nervously investigates the expression of her maid who most likely knows something more about the contents of the letter than she. The relationship of the two figures is enhanced on the pictorial level by the sinuous, shared contours of the figures. They touch not only with their eyes. The transitory nature of their enounter is reinforced by the gesture of the mistress who momentarily holds her unopened letter in the air.

On the other hand, the maid and mistress in the present picture speak of division. The two women face different directions. The maid looks out the window away from her mistress attempting to isolate herself from the uncomfortable situation while her mistress is emotionally involved in the response to a letter hastily cast down on the floor. As with her folded arms, the maid keeps her thoughts to herself. While the two figures are in close proximity analogous to the pair in the Love Letter, their contours converge but never touch (see diagram lower left). The two women remain divided both on the picture plane and in thought. The same devise animates the early Officer and Laughing Girl.

The distance which separates the 21st-century viewer from Vermeer's paintings regards not only their symbolic meaning, but of the artist's formal, aesthetic goals as well. As scholar Paul Taylor has pointed out, the concept of pictorial balance, one of the cardinal values associated with Vermeer's art by modern criticism, is completely lacking in 17th-century art writing. Likewise, hauding, or houding, which appears to have been a key term for art writers of the time, is unknown to the public and little understood by scholars. Taylor writes, "Given the stress laid on houding in the theoretical texts, it seems reasonable to suggest that the concept was one often used in Dutch ateliers. The very fact that the word was adopted as an artistic term leads one to suppose that the notions to which it referred were widespread. For a word to enter a language, a fair number of users must have an interest in deploying it."

Houding, wrote Willem Goeree in his Inleyding tot d'Algemeene Teykenkonst of 1668, "is one of the most essential things to be observed in a Drawing or Painting...there is nothing in the whole of art which runs more against reason, than to place things without [it]." Houding was likewise a fundamental concept for artists and art writers of the age like Gérard de Lairesse and Joachim von Sandrart.

Portrait of Willem Goeree

Willem Goeree

Willem Goeree wrote, when houding is lacking, "things appear entangled in one another, packed together, or falling towards us in a tumble" and is "that which makes everything in a Drawing or Painting advance and recede, and makes everything from the nearest point to the most central, and from there to the most distant, stand in its own position, without seeming nearer or further, lighter or darker, than its distance or closeness permits; placing each thing, without confusion, separate and well apart from the objects which are next to and around it."

Houding, therefore, seems to indicate the harmonization of the opposing pictorial values (light and dark, strong and weak colors) in order to produce an illusion of three-dimensional space. Proper houding avoided a painting appearing, as in the words of the Dutch painter and art theorist Samuel van Hoogstraten put it, "like a chessboard." If houding is achieved, the observer feels that the painting is "accessible with one's feet," that is, as if he could walk in and about the pictured space.

As in few other works, the space of the present painting appears so real that the viewer feels as if he could almost walk into it. However, any attempt to interpret Vermeer's canvas in the light of the Dutch term houding would be highly speculative. But it is nonetheless instructive for the modern museum-goer to comprehend that while Vermeer's painted illusions appear speak to us directly to us, they are more complex than we imagine and it is best to remain aware of the pitfalls of reading into them meanings never intended.

Piet Mondriaan, contraposto

Early in his career Vermeer developed a penchant for placing his figures against light backgrounds, a practice tactfully avoided by most Dutch painters who preferred dark backdrops. Although he may have arrived at this pictorial devise independently, it is possible that he was following the advice of the great Leonardo da Vinci who had noted "objects placed against a light background.will naturally appear detached from that background." Moreover, in the present work and others Vermeer employed what we might call lighting contrapposto recommended by Leonardo in order to augment the plasticity of forms: "put the light side against a dark background, and the light side against the dark background."

The light side of the seated mistress' head and bodice is contrasted with the deep tones of the ebony frame and shadows while the darks side is contrasted by and passage of inexplicably light wall. The effect is so convincing that few note that according to the illumination of the composition, the wall could never have received such intense light so distant from the light source.

A similar effect was employed by Piet Mondriaan in a photographic self portrait (brought to the attention of the author by Robert Wald). The Dutch abstract painter is said to have been deeply sensitive to Vermeer's uncanny sense of pictorial design.

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