The Love Letter

(De liefdesbrief)
c. 1667-1670
Oil on canvas
44 x 38.5.cm. (17 3/8 x 15 1/8 in.)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
there are 18 hotspots in the image below
The Love Letter, Johannes Vermeer

critical excerpt

The Love Letter (facsimile of signature), Johannes Vermeer
inscribed above the basket:(IVM in ligature)

The Love Letter (detail of signature), Johannes Vermeer

c. 1669-1670
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997)

c. 1669-1670
Walter Liedtke Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008)

The existing canvas may not be original. X-radiography shows a closed plain-weave with a thread count of 16.25 x 14 per cm ².

The apparently double ground comprises a red layer followed by a gray layer containing chalk, umber, and a little lead white. Between the two is a thin, unpigmented layer. The red layer may be related to a transfer process.

The paint surface is smooth, with few individual brushstrokes discernible. The dark, gray tiles were painted first, and then the white tiles were painted before the gray tiles were dry. The chair and part of the scarf draped over it the right foreground were underpainted with red lake. The maid's blue apron was painted with a blue-gray underpaint followed by a mixture of blue and white with a final blue glaze. The blue appears to be ultramarine, a lighter patch of which on the mistress' lap can be seen to extend under the bottom of the lute. The vanishing point of the composition is visible on the x-radiograph. The painting was cut off the stretcher during its theft in 1971. The resulting paint loss was mainly restricted to a band approximately 0.5 centimeter wide on either side of the cuts, although there are more serious losses in the top right corner and the center-right area. There is some surface abrasion.

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

literature

Johannes Vermeer's Love Letter with frame

  • Pieter van Lennep, Amsterdam (c.1810?-d.1850);
  • his daughter, Margaretha Catharina van Lennep, Amsterdam (1850-d.1891);
  • married Jan Messchert van Vollenhoven [d.1881] in 1850);
  • J.F. van Lennep, Amsterdam (1892);
  • Messchert van Vollenhoven/Van Engelenberg sale, Amsterdam, 29 March 1892, no. 14 (to J. Ankersmit of the Vereniging Rembrandt);
  • Vereniging Rembrandt, Amsterdam (1892-93);
  • purchased in January 1893 by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (inv. A 1595).
  • Amsterdam 1867
    Katalogus der tentoonstelling van schilderijen van oude meesters. Arti et amicitiae.
    18, no. 113.
  • The Hague 1890
    56, no. 116.
  • Amsterdam 1892
    "Rembrandt." Vereeniging tot behoud in Nederland van Kunstschatten. Arti et Amicitiae.
    unpaginated, no. A.
  • Amsterdam October 21–November 3, 1935
    Vermeer tentoonstelling ter herdenking van de plechtige opening van het Rijksmuseum op 13 july 1885. Rijksmuseum.
    30, no. 169.
  • New York 1954
    Dutch Painting: The Golden Age. An Exhibitio of Dutch Pitcures of Seventeenth Century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    no. 86 and ill.
  • Rome December 1956 - January 1957
    Le XVII siècle Européen. Réalisme classique baroque. Palazzo delle Esposizioni.
    245-246, no. 310 and pl. 27.
  • London 1964
    The Orange and the Rose. Holland and Britain in the Age of Observation 1600-1750. Victoria and Albertum Museum.
    44, no. 74 and ill. 5.
  • Stockholm 1967
    Holländska mästare. I svensk ägo. Nationalmuseum.
    26 and ill. 9.
  • Brussels 1971
    Rembrandt en zijn tijd. Palaeis voor Schone Kunsten.
    132-133, no. 112 and ill.
  • Amsterdam 1976
    Tot lering en vermaak. Betekenissen van Hollande genrevoorstellingen uit de zeventiende eeuw. Rijksmuseum.
    268-271, no. 71, and ill.
  • Madrid 19  February – 18 May, 2003
    Vermeer y el interior holandés. Museo Nacional del Prado.
    182-183, no. 39 and ill.
  • Dublin 1 October –  31 December 2003
    Love letters: Dutch genre painting in the age of Vermeer. National Gallery of Ireland.
    no. 38, fig. 55, repro. 181.
  • Frankfurt 10 February – 1 May, 2005
    Senses and Sins: Dutch Painters of Daily Life in the Seventeenth Century. Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie.
  • Melbourne 24 June –  2 October 20, 2005
    Dutch Masters from the Rijksmuseum. National Gallery of Victoria.
  • Rome 27 April –  18 June, 2006
    Una Lettera d'amore dall'Olanda: Vermeer a Palazzo Barberini. Galleria d'arte antica di Palazzo Barberini.
  • Amsterdam 2 October, 2008 - 18 January, 2009
    125 grote liefdes. Met steun van de Vereniging Rembrandt Van Goghmuseum.
  • Vancouver May 9 to September 13, 2009
    Vermeer, Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum. Art Gallery.
  • Paris October 7 2009 – February 7, 2010
    The Dutch Golden Age: From Rembrandt to Vermeer. Pinacothèque de Paris.
  • Doha 11 March – 6 June, 2011
    The Golden Age of Dutch Painting, Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum. Museum of Islamic Art.
  • St Petersburg 14 October – 6 November 2011
    Love Letter by Vermeer. From the collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
    In the Masterpieces from the World`s Museums in the Hermitage series. Italian Cabinet (233), New Hermitage.
  • Istanbul 21 February - 10 June, 2012
    Where Darkness Meets Light...Rembrandt and his Contemporaries. Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul.
Johannes Vermeer's Love Letter in scale
1667
vermeer's life

Vermeer's name is mentioned in a poem by Arnold Bon in Dirck van Bleyswijck's Beschryvinge der Stadt Delft (Description of the City of Delft) published in 1667. It is the most significant and direct reference to Vermeer's art to be found. The poem written by Arnold Bon, Bleyswyck's publisher, was composed in the honor of Carel Fabritius who had died in the famous ammunitions explosion. Vermeer's name is lauded in the poem's last stanza.

Thus did this Phoenix, to our loss, expire,
In the midst and at the height of his powers,
But happily there arose out of the fire
Vermeer, who masterfully trod in his path.

Maria Thins empowers Vermeer to collect various debts owed to her and to reinvest the money according to his will and discretion. Vermeer's mother-on-law evidently maintained her moral and financial support of Vermeer and his family.

Another of Vermeer's children is buried in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft.

dutch painting Gabriel Metsu, ecclectic Dutch painter, dies.
european painting & architecture

Francesco Borromini, Italian sculptor and architect, dies. Borromini designed the San Ivo della Sapienza church in Rome

Alonso Cano, Spanish painter and architect, dies.

music German composer-organist-harpsichordist Johann Jakob Froberger dies at Héricourt, France. His keyboard suites will be published in 1693, arranged in the order that will become standard: allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue.
literature

Paradise Lost is written by John Milton, who has been blind since 1652 but has dictated to his daughters the 10-volume work on the fall of man, Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Milton's Adam questions the angel Raphael about celestial mechanics, Raphael replies with some vague hints and then says that "the rest from Man or Angel the great Architect did wisely conceal and not divulge His secrets to be scann'd by them who ought rather admire." The work enjoys sales of 1,300 copies in 18 months and will be enlarged to 12 volumes in 1684, the year of Milton's death; Annus Mirabilis by John Dryden is about the Dutch War and last year's Great Fire.

Nov 7, Jean Racine's Andromaque, premiered in Paris.

science & philosophy National Observatory, Paris, founded
history Pope Alexander VII dies. Giulio Rospigliosi becomes Pope Clement IX.

c. 1667 In France, during the reign of King Louis XIV, the fork begins to achieve popularity as an eating implement. Formerly, only knives and spoons had been used.

Jun 18, The Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames and threatened London. They burned 3 ships and capture the English flagship.

Jun 21, The Peace of Breda endsthe Second Anglo-Dutch War (1664-67) and sees the Dutch cede New Amsterdam (on Manhattan Island) to the English in exchange for the island of Surinam.

De Verstandige Kok (The Sensible Cook) is published for the first time. Geared towards middle- and upper middle-class families, the book advises a regular and balanced diet, including fresh meat at least once a week, frequent servings of bread and cheese, stew, fresh vegetables and salads. While simple dishes, such as porridge, pancakes and soup with bread are eaten by all classes, studies reveal that only the affluent have regular access to fresh vegetables during the period; the less wealthy depend on dried peas and beans.
1668
vermeer's life Vermeer signs and dates the Astronomer 1668. Some scholars believe that  Delft citizen Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who was by then internationally recognized for his studies in optics and scientific observations, posed for the  Astronomer, although portraits of Leeuwenhoek bears little resemblance to the seated man  in Vermeer's picture.
dutch painting

Rembrandt paints Return of the Prodigal Son.

Gabriel van de Velde paints Golfers on the Ice.

Philips Wouwerman, Dutch painter, dies. He was the most celebrated member of a family of Dutch painters from Haarlem, where he worked virtually all his life. He became a member of the painters' guild in 1640 and is said by a contemporary source to have been a pupil of Frans Hals. The only thing he has in common with Hals, however, is his nimble brushwork, for he specialized in landscapes of hilly country with horses - cavalry skirmishes, camps, hunts, travelers halting outside an inn, and so on. In this genre he was immensely prolific and also immensely successful.

european painting & architecture

Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt, Austian architect, is born.

Bernini sculpts a terra cotta study for one of the angels of Rome's Port Santa Angelo.

music

Nov 10, Francois Couperin, composer and organist (Concerts Royaux), is born in Paris, France.

Danish organist-composer Diderik Buxtehude, 31, is named organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, succeeding Franz Tunder (whose daughter, Anna, he marries).His sacred Abendmusiken concerts will be presented each year during Advent on the five Sundays before Christmas. Buxtehude's cantatas and instrumental organ work will have a strong influence on other composers.

Mar 5, Francesco Gasparini, composer, is born.

literature

Apr 13, John Dryden (36) became 1st English poet laureate.

science & philosophy

Robert Hooke: Discourse on Earthquakes.

Newton invents the reflecting telescope, building the first telescope based on a mirror (reflector) instead of a lens (refractor).

First accurate description of red corpuscles by Anthony van Leeuwenhoek. Leeuwenhoek was born in the same year as Vermeer and is often associated to the artist for their interest in optics.

Chemist Johann R. Glauber dies at Amsterdam March 10 at age 63.

history

Mar 26, England takes control of Bombay, India.

Mar 27, English king Charles II gives Bombay to the East India Company.

Sep 16, King John Casimer II of Poland abdicates his throne.

Louis XIV of France purchased the 112 carat blue diamond from John Baptiste Tavernier for 220,000 livre. Tavernier is also given a title of nobility.

Feb 7, The Netherlands, England and Sweden conclude an alliance directed against Louis XIV of France.

1669
vermeer's life

Vermeer's mother, Digna Baltens, leases the inn Mechelen to a shoemaker for three years. She and her husband had worked in the place for 28 years. Afterwards she goes to live with her daughter Gertruy on the Vlamingstraat, in Delft.

Vermeer and his wife bury another child in the Oude Kerk.

Pieter Teding van Berckhout, from an important family in The Hague, visits Vermeer twice and enters in his diaries his impressions. In May 14,1669, Van Berckhout writes: "Having arrived in Delft, I saw an excellent painter named Vermeer," stating also that he had seen several "curiosities" of the artist. He had arrived in Delft accompanied by Constantijn Huygens and his friends - member of parliament Ewout van der Horst and ambassador Willem Nieupoort. Huygens was an artistic authority in his own day, maintaining contacts with the famous Flemish painters Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck and recording in his own diary some remarkably insightful comments about the art of, among others, Rembrandt van Rijn.

Van Berckhout must have been deeply impressed by the work he saw in Vermeer 's studio, since he returned for another visit less than a month later. On June 11, Van Berckhout notes: "I went to see a celebrated painter named Vermeer" who "showed me some examples of his art, the most extraordinary and most curious aspect of which consists in the perspective." This time Van Berckhout used the term "celebrated" rather than "excellent" in describing Vermeer. This testifies Vermeer had achieved a rather considerable reputation. What is most interesting about this visit is that Vermeer's studio (like Dou and van Mieris) had evidently evidentbecome a major cultural destination.

dutch painting Oct. 4, Rembrandt dies, eleven months later after his son, Titus, in 1668 - only 27 years of age. His beloved Hendrickje had died in 1663.
european painting & architecture

Le Vau begins remodeling Versailles.

The semicircular Sheldonian Theater at Oxford, England, designed by Christopher Wren, is completed.

music

Royal patent for founding Academie Royale des Operas granted to Pierre Perrin.

Marc' Antonio Cesti, Italian composer, dies.

The first Stradivarius violin is created by Italian violinmaker Antonio Stradivari, 25, who has served an apprenticeship in his home town of Cremona in Lombardy to Nicola Amati, now 73, whose grandfather Andrea Amati designed the modern violin. The younger Amati has improved on his grandfather's design and taught not only Stradivari but also Andrea Guarnieri, 43, who also makes violins at Cremona.

literature  
science & philosophy

Arnold Geulincx (b. 1624), Dutch philosopher, dies.

Nicolaus Steno (1638- 1687) begins the modern study of geology.

Nils Steensen's Prodromus is first published in Italy and translated to English two years later. It explains the author's determination of the successive order of the earth strata.

Emperor Leopold I sanctions the foundation of a higher school in Innsbruck, Austria. This is considered to mark the founding of the University of Innsbruck.

A General History of the Insects by Jan Swammerdam presents a preexistence theory of genetics that the seed of every living creature was formed at the creation of the world and that each generation is contained in the generation that preceded it

history

Pope Clement IX dies at Rome December 9 at age 69 after a 2½-year reign in which he has encouraged missionary work, reduced taxes, and extended hospitality to Sweden's former queen Kristina. He will not be replaced until next year.

Feb 1, French King Louis XIV limits the freedom of religion.

Mar 11, Mount Etna in Sicily erupts killing 15,000.

Sep 27, The island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea falls to the Ottoman Turks after a 21-year siege.

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.
Woman Reading a Letter, Gabriel Metsu

Woman Reading a Letter
Gabriel Metsu
1662-65
Oil on canvas, 53 x 40 cm.
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

The theme of maid and mistress was enormously popular among Dutch genre painters. Prior to the Lover Letter, Vermeer had explored its potential in one of his largest works, the Mistress and Maid. In both works Vermeer masterfully portrays the moment in which a maid delivers (or perhaps consigned) a letter, presumably a love letter. In the present picture, the wry smile on maid's face and the questioning expression of her mistress reveals the uncertainty of love within the apparent sanctuary of well-appointed interior. To underscore the ambivalence of the moment, Vermeer depicted a laundry basket, morning slippers, a broom and even a crumpled piece of sheet music strewn about in apparent disorder.

Vermeer may have drawn inspiration from Gabriel Metsu's work of similar theme and composition painted years earlier (see image left) although it is equally possible that it was Vermeer's picture that inspired Metsu. According to the art historian Adriaan E. Waiboer, Vermeer may be credited to have influenced his collegues more than is believed. He writes, "Gabriel Metsu painted some five works in the mid-1660s that reveal his knowledge of Vermeer's work. His most renowned in this respect are the companion pieces A Man Writing a Letter and a Woman Reading a Letter. In these paintings, various the presence of white plastered back wall parallel to the picture plane and the idea of creating solidity by dividing up the composition into geometrical shapes, are instantly recognisable as Vermeer-like."

In Dutch painting, maids were generally pictured in their subservient, passive role. They care for children and are dutifully supervised by the mistress of the house. Occasionally, a few painters, including Vermeer himself ( see The) Milkmaid, portrayed maids in a sympathetic light according them a dignity reserved for members of the upper class. In emblematic and popular literature of the day, however, maids were frequently cast as a threat to the security of the home, the center of Dutch life.

With the unparalleled surge in literacy in the Netherlands, common women, for the first time, committed their feelings to paper. First person statements in the Dutch Republic, including letter writing, private diaries, journals, soul searching poems and self-portraits, proliferated far beyond their Renaissance role in aristocratic culture.

Letter writing manuals written in vernacular Dutch flourished. They offered instructions not only for fine calligraphy but in regards to style and elements of composition as well. It was only logical that this novel and widespread activity would become a favorite subject for painters.

Letters richly evoke the thoughts, emotions and locations of the depicted figures and equally of the absent ones precisely because the viewer will never know the contents of the letter. However, the love letter was far from innocuous as it may appear at first glance. Contemporary literature declared the litterae amatoriae a proper subject of legal inquiry. A love letter might imply a promise of marriage or adultery if one were already married.

Proteus Ofte Minne-Beelden Verandert,Proteus Ofte Minne-Beelden Verandert, in Sinne-Beelden

The title page of:
Proteus Ofte Minne-Beelden Verandert
In Sinne-Beelden

Jacob Cats
1627

Understanding the symbolic content of Vermeer's paintings has proved particularly problematic. The complicated Love Letter, with its clutter of objects, has given birth to variety of supposed meanings. But some Dutch art specialists now believe that the difficulty in explaining Vermeer's paintings may be due to the fact that the artist deliberately left his meanings open.

Dutch art historian Eddy de Jongh point out that the concepts of hidden meaning, concealment, deception (schijn sonder sijn, seeming without being) and iconographic flexibility were characteristic features of 17th-century culture. Jacob Cats, the author of numerous popular emblem books (see image left), wrote that concealment is often more effective than saying things openly. Moreover, this "pleasing obscurity" gives the reader "a rare inner satisfaction" when he later [discovers] "the true aim and purpose." These concepts were also present in the preambles of Dutch novels and plays and it seems highly likely that painters were sensitive to them as well.

The Love Letter (detail), Johannes Vermeer

It is largely accepted that Vermeer used a camera obscura (a kind of precursor to the modern photographic camera) as an aid to his painting. The camera obscura was well known in both scientific and artistic circles and was recommended to painters for both studying nature as well as tracing its image to shortcut problems of drawing and perspective. Although the camera obscura leaves no physical trace on the canvas, many of the peculiar characteristics of the image it produces may be found in the Love Letter and in many other paintings by Vermeer, especially the so-called pointillés. Pointillés, or spherical disks of light are produced by the imperfect lens of the 17th-century camera obscura in situations of extreme light contrast. Pointillés can clearly be observed on the clothes hamper and on the gilded leather wall covering (see detail left) behind the maid and mistress.

Couple with Parrot, Pieter de Hooch

Couple with Parrot
Pieter de Hooch
1668
Oil on canvas, 73 x 62 cm.
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

During his career Vermeer devised various means to establish and enhance the private spaces for little bourgeois dramas. In this picture the viewer stands in another room, distant from the unfolding scene of the maid and mistress who remain unaware of his presence. This pictorial convention, called doorkijkje, was practiced by other Dutch genre painters as well. On the basis of costume, scholars believe that Peter de Hooch's Couple with a Parrot (see left), which is strikingly similar to Vermeer's composition. The fact that Vermeer drew heavily from models invented by lesser artists should not surprise. In the 17th century, intellectual property was an unknown concept. Everyone could draw on the storerooms of tradition. It was a matter of course that painters freely traded with each other technical, stylistic and iconographical inventions in order to speed production and cater to constantly changing tastes of the art market.

It is almost certain that De Hooch's (or Vermeer's) composition was based on a third work by Samuel van Hoogstraten, Interior with Slippers, painted at least ten years earlier. Vermeer had painted at least one other doorkijkje (which has not survived) described in the Dissius auction of twenty-one Vermeer paintings in Amsterdam in 1696: "a gentleman washing his hands through a see-through room with sculpture."

Cupid with a Messanger, emblem from Otto Vaenius, Amorum Emblemata

Cupid with a Messanger
emblem from Otto Vaenius, Amorum Emblemata...
Antwerp, 1608
Faculty of Arts, Utrecht University Library

Although an upsurge letter writing had given birth to a thriving postal service in 17th-century Netherlands, it was far from organized. Messengers multiplied but complaints often arose about these "hirelings" who tended to inflate postage rates. They were also noted for their impertinent behavior. Some great men and well-to-do private citizens retained their own trusted private couriers in order to maintain communication secret. Servant girls could rarely sign their name and probably could not read, suggesting that they provided an exceptionally discreet corps of letter delivery.

Even though the literacy rate in the Netherlands was unusually high, females were less literate since they were usually given less formal education and were not permitted to attend Latin school. The Hague poet Jacob Westerbaen, enlarging on Ovid's Art of Love, recommended women to "show your mind with letters," to learn to hold the quill in the right hand and the lyre in the left, and to entrust letters with suitable maids.

The Voice of the Ghost [1.62 MB]
Anthony Holborne
performed by Lee Santana

Cittern

The Cittern

In Italian Renaissance humanist culture the cittern was regarded as a classical revival of the ancient Greek kithara even though it seems to have its direct development from the medieval citole. It presents some similarities with the fiddle, as its plucked form.

The structure and tuning of the cittern varied almost from country to country. While in England, France and northern Europe, the small four-course-instrument was commonly used, Italian musicians preferred the larger six-course instrument.

The cittern achieved the height of its diffusion in the 16th and 17th centuries. Above all, in Italy and in England it was held in high esteem both as an accompanying instrument for the singing voice or for dance music. Many compositions written expressively for it, often intricate and demanding to play.

The great number of paintings depicting citterns proves the instrument's widespread popularity in the 17th-century Netherlands. With its flat back it was more robust in structure than the fragile lute, therefore cheaper and more portable. The cittern's playability made it the preferred instrument especially of the middle and upper classes for song accompaniment and dance music.

The cittern has a shallow round or pear-shaped body tapering from the bottom towards the neck. The body is carved from one piece of wood and only the soundboard and fingerboard were added separately. The use of metal strings plucked with a quill or plectrum gives the instrument its sprightly and cheerful sound, one of the reason for the its great popularity.

A Woman Handing a Coin to  a Serving Woman with a Child, Pieter de Hooch

A Woman Handing a Coin to
a Serving Woman with a Child

Pieter de Hooch
c. 1668-1672
Oil on canvas, 73 x 66 cm.
Private collection

Vermeer needn't look far for inspiration for the present work. The interplay between the mistress and maid was a recurrent theme in Dutch interior painting, especially in Southern Holland. A Woman Handing a Coin to a Serving Woman with a Child by Pieter de Hooch makes a revealing comparison. While scholars assume that the two painters assiduously interacted to each others work, the exact nature of their give-and-take relationship is hard to define.

In both paintings, we view a seated mistress who temporarily suspends her activity and interacts with a standing maid. To the left is an elaborate fireplace, to the right a clothes basket and behind framed objects on the wall. As would be expected, the mistresses flaunt their most elegant household clothing and hairstyles while the maids wear standard working garments. De Hooch's picture allows us to imagine the nearby opened window which is concealed in Vermeer's version. Unfortunately neither of the works bears a date so we cannot know who drew inspiration from whom.

De Hooch's narrative couldn't be simpler. The mistress hands a coin to the maid, who carries a shiny marketing pail looped over her arm, so that she can make her purchases. The primped-up daughter of the mistress pulls at the maid's skirt, anxious to tag along to the market place. The scene exudes serenity and good intensions. On the other hand, as befits his more complex temperament, Vermeer investigates the psychological undercurrents at work between the two women who are divided by their social class but linked by their sex. The tough-looking servant hovers over her mistress, her hand confidently on her hip. A wry smile informs us that she may be in the know regarding the contents of the letter she has just handed over to her maid.

The role of the maid in Dutch society is ambivalent. In some instances they were considered a sort necessary evil, especially in popular literature. Theatrical satires and household manuals warn of their natural laziness and propensity to all sorts of mischief, form eavesdropping to drunkenness. One of their bad habits was to their tendency to dress as well as their mistress. Countless stories involve enterprising maids who cunningly take advantage of the sexual advances of the mistress' foolish husband.

However, according to eye-witnesses, Dutch maids were generally treated favorably, occasionally, too much so. Written accounts describe close relationships between the mistress and maid, to the point that the maid could be mistaken for a family member. A visiting Frenchman told of a wife who scolded her husband for asking the maid to fetch something, ordering him to fetch it for himself.

In painting, Dutch maids were treated negatively and positively. Nicolas Maes shows them asleep neglecting her duties or eavesdropping on an amorous meeting in her mistress' household. On the other hand, De Hooch could show a maid working together with her mistress in cheerful serenity. In visual terms De Hooch's pictures portray the sort of collaboration auspicated in handbooks on housekeeping. The good mistress was encouraged to keep a watchful eye on their servant but at the same time able to work alongside them as well in harmony.

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