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This green curtain functions as a familiar pictorial device called repoussoir. The term repoussoir is derived from the French verb meaning to push back. Repoussoir is a means for achieving (i.e., forcing) spatial contrast and depth by placing a large figure or object in the immediate foreground of a painting's composition. Repoussoir motifs set a dramatic entrance for the painting and enhance the viewer's awareness of scale. Caravaggio had become famous for his paintings of ordinary people or even religious subjects in repoussoir compositions. In the classical landscapes of Claude Lorraine the repoussoir element was usually a large, dimly-lit tree placed in the left-hand foreground. The Utrecht Caravaggist School frequently used human figures as repoussoir.
In a number of Vermeer's interiors there are repoussoir curtains in the foreground too, placed between the first and second window of the artist's studio. They are pushed more or less to the left and gathered up a little at the bottom giving the impression of a stage with the curtain drawn back. This creates a sense of momentary suspense in which the viewer is subliminally obliged is participate.
The repoussoir curtain has noble origins with which any educated Dutch painter would have been familiar. Zeuxis and his contemporary Parrhasius (of Ephesus and later Athens) are reported in the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder to have staged a contest to determine which of the two was the greater artist. When Zeuxis unveiled his painting of grapes, they appeared so luscious and inviting that birds flew down from the sky to peck at them. Zeuxis then asked Parrhasius to pull aside the curtain from his painting, only for Parrhasius to reveal the curtain itself was a painting, and Zeuxis was forced to concede defeat. Zeuxis is rumoured to have said: "I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis."
The large, ebony-framed painting represents a Finding of Moses attributed to Peter Lely, who was trained in Haarlem with Pieter de Grebber and who is known to have painted religious works in a similar fashion.
The figures in Vermeer's version have been strongly schematized following the same technique applied to other examples of the pictures-within-a-pictures in other works by the artist. Curiously, the same Moses appears in The Astronomer, dramatically reduced in scale. This should warn the modern observer that when he looks at a Vermeer he is not viewing a "snapshot" of 17th-century life but rather a carefully contrived mise-en-scène which combines visual fact and fiction.
Biblical scenes were generally perceived allegorically and were intended to provide insight into the nature of God's divine plan. This episode (Exodus 2:1 – 10) represents the moment in which the Egyptian Pharaoh's daughter and her handmaidens discover a Hebrew baby in a basket among the marshes. The child has been hidden by his mother to escape the Pharaoh's decree that all male Hebrew babies be put to death. The Pharaoh's daughter saves the child and names him Moses. The story generally was interpreted as evidence of divine providence and as God's ability to console opposing factions.
This Finding of Moses undoubtedly has much to do with the scene which is being acted out by the two Dutch women below it even though critics are hardly in agreement just what Vermeer had intended to say.
Peter Sutton points out that this biblical subject, expanded upon by Flavius Josephus in his widely read Jewish Antiquities, was a source of inspiration for Dutch history painters The Dutch interpreted the story as evidence of Divine Providence and God's ability to bring together opposing factions.
Art historian Lisa Vergara sees the female Biblical figures thematically aligned with those of Vermeer's picture. The "Pharaoh's daughter, known for her solicitousness, nobility, compassion and independence, serves in part to characterize modern Dutchwomen through analogy. The sentinel-like stance of the standing maid is echoed in reverse by the Biblical scene's sole standing figure, identifiable as Moses' 'sister,' a female relative who was sent to follow the child." Thus, the intended audience would have "evidently grasped a thematic connection since Moses' sister was to serve as a messenger, the anticipated role, too, of the writer's maid."
Behind the seated mistress stands a maidservant dressed in a subdued gray outfit with a blue apron. A calm and columnar figure, her arms folded patiently on her chest, she gazes sidelong out the window waiting for her mistress to finish the letter so she may consign it to the receiver or to the postal system. In marked difference with the psychological state with her mistress, the maid's statuesque calm is conveyed by her folded arms, and her central position in the composition.
The maid may have been derived from a work of a similar letter theme by fellow genre painter Gabriel Metsu. Although in Metsu's version the maid turns her back to the viewer while she momentarily distracts herself as her mistress reads a letter, she wears a surprisingly similar outfit and fulfills essentially the same role.
More than once Vermeer experimented with the possibilities of subverting the hierarchy of the figures' social positions within his compositions. In this case, the maid, who belongs to an inferior social class, stands at the exact center of the painting placed above her mistress.
Although in emblematic and popular literature maids were frequently represented as a threat to the security of the home, Dutch genre painters sometimes represented the maid in a more neutral role, mindfully doing housework, caring for children or themselves supervised by the mistress of the house. In this case, the maid is treated neutrally even though Vermeer has given her an important role in the composition. Her gaze, whose emotional contents remains open for the observer to fill, amplifies the intensity of her mistress' writing.
Of the many carpets represented in Vermeer's oeuvre, this one is the most abstractly painted. The decorative designs are reduced to a sort of calligraphic shorthand and the knotty texture, meticulously rendered in The Music Lesson, has been completely obliterated by flat patches of unmodulated paint. The lower viewpoint assumed by the artist in the present work reduces the volume of the imposing carpet-covered table and diverts the viewer's full attention to the letter-writer.
Although the features of the young mistress' face have been strongly stylized, the spectator can nonetheless intuit her rapt attention as she bends over her missive, hands joined for writing. She dons a lovely starch-white cap, whose lacework is only hinted at, a smart green bodice with puffy white sleeves and a discreet jeweled broach, an unusual accessory for Vermeer.
The artist was able to accent the mistress' importance in respects to the standing maid by placing the perspective's vanishing point on the left eye of the mistress herself. Although relegated to the farthest right-hand side of the composition, her material presence is emphasized by contrasting her right-hand silhouette with a patch of bright white wall behind her, which, however, appears illogically fully lit considering the illumination of the rest of the room. The razor-sharp planes that define her billowing blouse seem, as Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. put it, "to suggest the acuity of her emotional state."
The pose of the seated mistress seems to draw inspiration from The Lacemaker (see left, the detail has been reversed to facilitate comparison) and in both pictures the women's' anatomical features have been abbreviated with surprising economy.
This minor detail subtly animates the scene and subtly enhances its meaning. It contains a letter, a stick of sealing wax, a bright red seal and an object that has been interpreted alternatively as a small book, or more likely, a letter with its wrapper crumpled. If it is a letter, it may be one that the lady has received or an unsatisfactory draft. If the letter is not her own, the fact that it has been cast to the floor suggests that its contents was disturbing.
Letters were considered precious items in 17th-century Netherlands. They were sometimes enclosed in cloth or paper (the envelope we know it was not yet in use in the 17th century) but usually were simply folded, sealed with wax, and addressed, and sometimes secured with twine. In either case, the fact that the letter and postal instruments have been cast to the floor of the otherwise impeccable interior implies a state of some agitation that belies the calm atmosphere of the interior.
Chairs, which until the Renaissance were not common in lower- and middle-class households, appear in a great many Dutch paintings. Some critics have hypothesized that the empty chairs in Vermeer's paintings may allude to an absent person, most likely a suitor or loved one. Such a reading cannot confirmed by any period writings on genre painting. But since chairs were normally placed flat against a walls when they were not being used, its oblique position near the table in this painting may have been complimentary to its narrative.
In the present work, the presence of the free-standing chair and the objects tossed nearby on the floor might indicate that some action would have just taken place otherwise the vigil maid would have certainly put them both in order.
The economy of the means by which Vermeer represents reality in his late works has reached an apex in the present work. The observed world has been purged of extraneous detail to make evident only the core theme and composition. By according the utmost pictorial weight to every element the spectator is subliminally lead to believe that he is witnessing an event of great import instead of a minor incident of an individual's life.
The leadings of the window seem to be identical in design to those seen in the earlier Music Lesson, but in the present picture the central design has been colored. No one has been able to make out a figural meaning of the motif and, perhaps, rather than a result of observed reality, the blank glass was colored so that it might bond the relatively empty left-hand side of the painting to that of the right.
This transparent hanging curtain enhances the air of hushed privacy which, perhaps, in no multi-figure work by Vermeer pervades so strongly. Despite the fact that incidental details are purposely ignored, the hang and transparency of the materiel are evoked with exceptional accuracy by the attention to tonal variation.
From a composition point of view, the curtain establishes one of three strong diagonal lines which energize the composition and alleviate the composition's strict, rectilinear design.
The black and white marble floor of the present painting denotes an exceptional habitat. In reality, such floors would have been observable only in prestigious public constructions or the front room of the wealthy home where visitors would have been received and duly impressed. Marble was both costly to import-there is no marble in the Netherlands-and work. Very likely, Dutch painters, like Vermeer, vastly overstated their real frequency and variety in order to create images that encapsulated the most desirable qualities of bourgeois life. Thus, in Vermeer's composition, rather reality we confront a skillfully constructed ideal, somewhat like the advertisements in today's interior design magazines whose propose to stimulate the imagination and appetite of their readers.
Even the most well-to-do preferred floors made of large planks of plain wood that were able to mitigate in part gelid Dutch winters. As an example, the image to the left represents Constantijn Huygens, one of the most influential men of culture in the Netherlands, at his desk in a princely palace in The Hague attended by a servant. Behind him hangs a rich tapestry with his coat of arms as well as various objects that would have been in economic reach only for privileged members of upper class, and yet the floors is clearly made of simple wood planks.
Utilizing a method called reversed geometry, the London architect Philip Steadman was able to show that the black and white floor tiles in Vermeer's interiors are the same size in every painting: only the patterns are altered.
Vermeer has paid an understated tribute to his beloved Delft by including a row of locally-made floor tiles. These stock tiles were hand-decorated with images of children's games or fantasy motifs and for many years were a secondary product of the famous Delft faience industry. They served to protect the lower walls from the daily assault of mops and brooms, to cover fireplaces and to isolate walls from humidity. Even they were depicted innumerable times by Vermeer's colleagues, no one but Vermeer accorded them with dignity.
Delft potters made such tiles in vast numbers (estimated at eight hundred million) over a period of two hundred years. Some Dutch houses still have tiles that were fixed in the 17th and 18th century. They were also used as ship ballast during the long dangerous voyages to the orient, which could be sold for a profit on destination.
These humble objects rarely bore factory markings of any kind. The approximate dating of surviving Delft blue tiles depends largely on company archives, the date of the building where they are set, the design and image. Both the size and thickness of the tiles may also be helpful. The largest photographic archive, in the Nederlands Tegelmuseum in Otterlo near Arnhem, contains 70,000 images.
Signed on the table, under the hand of the writing lady.
(Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)
Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 2000
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015
(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).
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 K. Wheelock Jr.)
(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).
(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in their frames).
image courtesy Mike Buffington
(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in scale).
Maids, who 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 indicate that some were successfully integrated into the family, the fundamental unit of Dutch society.
As Wayne Franits pointed out, the maid's presence in the present picture "is not coincidental since in popular literature and theater (and in genre painting)servants function as vital confidants in their mistress' and masters' amorous pursuits, In fact, many of the practical guides to courtship advised lovers to use servants as go-btweens in their relationship, especially for the purpose of delivering letters."
Servants, largely female, made up about six percent of the Dutch population, and between ten and twenty percent of all households had servants. 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.
Most of Vermeer's maids are shown in a relatively neutral attitude. The Milkmaid, however, 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.
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 an 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.
The mimetic rendering of the present 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 escapes 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.
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.
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. This accomplishment is never achieved at the cost of subverting naturalism .
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. In this system, all lines parallel with the viewer's line of sight recede to the horizon towards the vanishing point. The vanishing point stands opposite to the viewer.
When the traceable orthogonals of the perspectival system of the present work are extended to locate the vanishing point, we find that they converge precisely on the right-hand eye of the seated mistress. Thus, while working, Vermeer sat directly in front of her with his eye at the same height from the ground as hers. Consequentially, even though the maid is placed at the geometrical center of the painting, the perspectival system leads the viewer's eye to the mistress, 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, reality and painting and interwoven with exceptional mastery, each one discreetly enhancing the other. Particularly successful is the sub-theme which concerns the relationship between the mistress and her maid who belong to different social classes. 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 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.
In The Love Letter, the two women, whoc make direct eye contact, are entangled in a subtly confrontational relationship. 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 encounter 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 two women in The Love Letter, their contours converge but never touch (see diagram lower left). The 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 painting 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 even 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.
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 believable illusion of three-dimensional space. Proper houding avoided a painting appearing, as the Dutch painter and art theorist Samuel van Hoogstraten claimed, "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 remains 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.
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 solution 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 dark side is contrasted by and passage of light wall. The effect is so effective that few observers note that 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 the art historian Robert Wald). The Dutch abstract painter is said to have been sensitive to Vermeer's uncanny sense of design.