The textual material contained in the Essential Vermeer Interactive Catalogue would fill a hefty-sized book, and is enhanced by more than 1,000 corollary images. In order to use the catalogue most advantageously:
1. Slowly scroll your mouse over the painting to a point of particular interest. Relative information and images will slide into the box located to the right of the painting. To hold and scroll the slide-in information, single click on area of interest. To release the slide-in information, single-click on the painting again and continue exploring.
2. To access Special Topics and Fact Sheet information and accessory images, single-click any list item. To release slide-in information, click on any list item and continue exploring.
If we are to trust genre interior paintings of the 17th century, Dutch houses were full of maps. The great majority of them were meant for decorative rather than didactic or practical purposes. The map of the present painting, a map of Holland, must have been particularly pleasing to Vermeer since he inserted it in three other paintings. Although it is rendered with minimal detail, all of its features can be clearly observed in the early Officer and Laughing Girl where it appears to have been hand-colored, or more likely colored by the artist.
Since the orthogonals of the map's design and lower hanging rod converge on the vanishing point of the painting's perspectival system, the wall on which it hangs must be at right angle to the right-hand section of the wall behind the free-standing chair and musical score. No convincing explanation has been given for the front room's construction or function. It could have easily been an invention of the painter.
The floral-patterned repoussoir tapestry that doubles for a curtain is yet another element that helps separate the pictured scene from the observer's space and enhance the illusion of depth and privacy. This widely exploited pictorial device stimulates the viewer's participation by subliminally inducing him to believe it was drawn back to reveal some unexpected event which he will shortly witness.
Although the tapestry was not recorded in the inventory of movable goods taken after the artist's death, it may have been a personal possession of Vermeer since it appears in various paintings. Such an article would have clearly been considered a luxury item not available to the lower classes.
In The Lacemaker what appears to be a similarly decorated tapestry lies on the tabletop beneath the still life. In the Allegory of Faith, it lies on the raised platform. However, it produces the most stunning effect in The Art of Painting. In The Love Letter, its sinuous floral pattern alleviates the almost obsessive geometrical scheme of the composition.
Far from being a decorative filler, art-historical research conducted by art historians such as Gregor Weber and Elise Goodman, in particular, has shown that the many so-called pictures-within-picture in Vermeer's paintings relate iconographically to the scenes which unfold before them. Their meanings are drawn from 17th-century love songs (airs), love poems, courtesy literature, emblem books and even popular sayings. This picture-within-picture represents a lone wanderer (rendered with a few adept dabs of paint) in an idyllic landscape in the style of Adriaen van de Velde.
The wanderer may reflect the separation and desire for a reunion between the elegant young mistress and a distant lover represented by the missive in the mistress' hand. Goodman posits that the relationship between the seascape below and the wooded landscape may reflect Vermeer's desire to suggest through a widespread topos in poetry and songs "of the exiled lover who confides to nature his wish to return to his lover. In Petrarchan verse and in the lute songs they inspired, nature was depicted as a sympathetic witness to the lover's pains and hopes during the from the absence of the beloved."
This anonymous seascape may represent an absent loved one who presumably functions as a pictorial stand-in for the author of the letter which has just been received by the seated mistress. Large numbers of Dutch women of the time must have experienced the great distances of the globe through their loved ones at sea.
A significant percentage of able-bodied Dutchmen earned their living from sea trade or the fishing industry and both Dutch painters and poets drew heavily from seafaring experience for their imagery. On the other hand, the ship in the present picture-within-a-picture may be associated with the emblematic motif of the suitor as a ship on the sea of love searching the safe harbor of his lady's arms. The motto inscribed above Jan Krul's contemporary emblem reads: "Even Though You Are Far Away, You Are Never Out of My Heart." In any case, the calm sea and blue sky of the ebony-framed seascape in Vermeer's Love Letter may be a good omen in love providing a hint that the anxieties of the mistress are unfounded.
The hearth can be seen in a great number of Dutch interior paintings. In the arts, the hearth was a prime symbol of domesticity and love, as the seat of warmth, light and therefore, by implication, of life itself.
In general, the Dutch fireplace was open on three sides with an overhanging hood and a mantle place where porcelain could be displayed. In many Dutch interior paintings, an important painting was hung directly over the fireplace. Other than its most obvious use for cooking and warmth, the hearth had an important secondary function. During the interminable Dutch nights, the hearth became the only source of light since candles were generally too expensive to use except for finding one's way from one room to another. In night hours, the hearth must have been the gathering point of the family.
In the homes of the well-to-do, fireplaces could be found in the side room, the zaal (hall) in the dining room and even in some bedrooms, although in the decades when Vermeer lived the function of rooms n Dutch homes was not clearly distinguished.
The typical structure of the kind of hearth in the present picture may be observed more advantageously in a detail of a work by Pieter de Hooch who worked in Delft during the years that Vermeer was active there. The presence of the richly decorated hearth in Vermeer's painting indicates that the scene takes place in the grote zaal, the most important room of the household used for representation in the homes of the moneyed.
Together with the elegant mantelpiece, the two framed landscapes and the costly marbled floor, the presence of gold-tooled leather wall coverings indicate that the scene presumably takes place in the grote zaal (great hall). The grote zaal was habitually used by adults or when important visitors were present.
Cuir de Cordoue, or cordwain or cordovan, sometimes called "gold leather" (from Dutch goudleer), refers to painted and gilded (and often embossed) leather hangings, manufactured in panels and assembled for covering walls as an alternative to tapestry. In the 15th or 16th centuries, this technique reached the Low Countries. Though it was produced in several cities (Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent), the major center for gold leather was Mechelen, where it was mentioned as early as 1504. In the Dutch Republic, gold leather-making flourished in the 17th century in Amsterdam, The Hague and Middelburg. In Amsterdam, at least eleven gold leather-makers were active.
Wall-covering gilt panels were particularly fashionable the 16th and 17th centuries in the Netherlands. They offered insulation from the humid walls and were seen as hygienic protection in eating rooms. Tooled leather was also popular for small items such as boxes and dress accessories, as well as for larger objects such as trunks. Gilt wall coverings must have been common in the homes of the rich. Judging from Dutch interior paintings of the time, they covered entire rooms producing a truly dazzling effect .
Seven ells of gilt wall coverings—an ell is the distance of the inside of the arm, in Delft, 68.2 cm.—were described in Vermeer's death inventory of movable goods. The same coverings can be seen behind the still life with a golden crucifix in Vermeer's Allegory of Faith.
Together with the elegant mantelpiece, the two framed landscapes and the costly marbled floor, the presence of gold-tooled leather wall coverings indicate that the scene presumably takes place in the grote zaal (great hall). The grote zaal was habitually used by adults or when important visitors were present.
Cuir de Cordoue, or cordwain or cordovan, sometimes called "gold leather" (from Dutch goudleer), refers to painted and gilded (and often embossed) leather hangings, manufactured in panels and assembled for covering walls as an alternative to tapestry. In the 15th or 16th centuries, this technique reached the Low Countries. Though it was produced in several cities (Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent), the major center for gold leather was Mechelen, where it was mentioned as early as 1504. In the Dutch Republic gold leather-making flourished in the 17th century in Amsterdam, The Hague and Middelburg. In Amsterdam, at least eleven gold leather-makers were active.
Wall-covering gilt panels were particularly fashionable the 16th and 17th centuries in the Netherlands. They offered insulation from the humid walls and were seen as hygienic protection in eating rooms. Tooled leather was also popular for small items such as boxes and dress accessories, as well as for larger objects such as trunks. Gilt wall coverings must have been common in the homes of the rich. Judging from Dutch interior paintings of the time, they covered entire rooms producing a truly dazzling effect.
Seven ells of gilt wall coverings—an ell is distance of the inside of the arm, in Delft, 68.2 cm.—were described in Vermeer's death inventory of movable goods. The same coverings can be seen behind the still life with a golden crucifix in Vermeer's Allegory of Faith.
As of yet, Dutch painting specialists have been unable to provide a satisfactory iconographical interpretation for the foreground broom and discarded morning slippers, even though it was readily understood by Vermeer's contemporaries. The presence ofsuch mundane objects in the very foreground of the composition suggests they played a key role in the painting's storyline. Perhaps they allude to the state of emotional abandon of the mistress who has neglected her daily chores. Years before Vermeer depicted The Love Letter, the painter and art theoretician Samuel van Hoogstraten pictured both a broom and slippers in an analogous see-through room painting, which Vermeer may have used as a model. In any case, the broom, which has been painted darker than any other dark area of Vermeer's composition, bars the viewer from advancing thereby reinforcing the sense of privacy.
Housewives spent most of their time engaged in household chores, often following a fixed weekly schedule. A French traveler wrote, "Women who keep their houses cleaner than anything you could imagine. They are continually washing and polishing their wood furniture, even benches and floorboards .... No one would dare spit in these rooms, even spitting into a handkerchief is frowned upon. I feel sorry for anyone who has a bad cold." The obsession with cleanliness no doubt led to frequent representations of brooms in the visual arts. Nonetheless, in literary and pictorial tradition the broom on occasion could be used as a symbol of sex. They also were held to have magical properties such as ensuring that a house was free from evils spirits.
In Vermeer's picture, the broom bristles are unusually short because the long-bristled broom that we think of today appears to have entered the scene in the colonies in the late 1700s. Legend has it that before the battle of Dungeness the Dutch admiral Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp allegedly hoisted a broom on his ship to demonstrate his intention to sweep the ships of England from the sea.
According to music expert Albert P. de Mirimonde, the crumpled piece of sheet music (tablature) does not make musical sense. Whether Vermeer's inaccuracy was accidental or deliberate cannot be known.
In Vermeer's time, lute and cittern music was written in tableture. Tablature was a common medieval and renaissance form of musical notation that could be written for any fretted string instrument, including the cittern held by the seated mistress (this instrument has been many times mistakenly referred to as a lute by past art historians). Rather than notes, tablature tells the reader which frets to press and which strings to play. Tablature is still used for guitar music today.
Music songbooks flourished in the Dutch Republic. French and Italian models were popular since Dutch music was relatively uninventive and undistinguished.
The cittern achieved its greatest importance in the 16th and 17th centuries and was held in high esteem both as an accompanying instrument for the singing voice or for dance music. Many compositions were written expressively for it, often intricate and difficult to play. The solo repertoire required substantial technical virtuosity.
Later citterns* are made with a flat back, bent ribs and separately carved neck. Since the back of the cittern can be made of a single piece of wood, whereas the lute has ten or more ribs which must be separately bent and joined to create its typical bowl shape, the lute is more difficult to build and less sturdy than the cittern. The cittern has an unusually shallow body compared to that of the lute and has no internal supports. Most citterns had four courses (strings) although in Italy the six-course cittern was not uncommon. A distinctive feature of cittern tuning is that the pitch of the strings does not proceed from highest to lowest going from the first course to the last. Most depictions of the cittern show it being plucked with a quill or plectrum and all surviving cittern tablature is playable with a plectrum.
* "The Renaissance Cittern," by Lord Aaron Drummond
Whatever its intended function may have been, the long piece of fabric that wraps around the foreground chair appears to be represented in at three other pictures by the artist. Making allowance for its "optical" rendering, both its design and consitency seem reasonably comparable to those of the light-yellow, blue-bordered cloth which spills over the front of the foreground table in The Art of Painting. The same cloth appears in the Allegory of Faith, and it may also be the hanging tail of the makeshift turban worn by the young girl in the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Judging by Vermeer's rendering it may be made of some kind of reflective cloth, such as silk or caffa, the latter a rich silk cloth with printed or woven designs popular in the 16th century. Vermeer's father had been trained to work in caffa. A somewhat similar, winding cloth hides in the shadow of the still life of the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, but its color can barely be made out.
Some art historians hold that clothes hamper and the blue naaikussen (sewing pillow) that lay unattended may have been meant to signal the anxiety of love that has kept the mistress from her domestic responsibilities. From a technical point of view, the hamper in the present work is an amazing piece of pictorial abstraction whereby the complexities of the optical world are reduced to daring shorthand brushwork. The reduced number of shapes and tones comforts those who believe that Vermeer used the camera obscura as an optical aid for his painting.
A large clothes hamper once appeared behind the standing maid in Vermeer's early Milkmaid but was painted out by the artist himself for unknown reasons. A similar sewing pillow is featured in the still life of The Lacemaker. Lacemaking and sewing were activities associated with one of the principal values of 17th-century Netherlands society: domestic virtue.
We know the real identity of neither the young woman who posed for the seated mistress or the standing maid. In fact, not a single sitter in Vermeer's oeuvre has ever been identified even though specialists tend to believe that Vermeer used his own family members as did other genre painters of the time.
Although Vermeer is generally not credited for the psychological profundity in the painting of faces, the present picture exhibits notable attention to the emotional interaction between the standing maid and her mistress. While the mistress clearly belongs to a socially elevated class, the maid's wry smile, central position and upright posture threaten to overturn the hierarchical superiority of her mistress. Art historian Lisa Vergara observed that her posture, with her arms akimbo, is in fact, usually reserved for men in Dutch art. She claims that "the diagonal white sash adds to her confident, nearly cocky demeanor (as if she were a domestic, feminine version of a civic guardsman), and an exceptionally high, white head covering further increases her stature."
The mistress' yellow satin morning jacket must be the one listed in Vermeer's death inventory of movable goods and no doubt, to Catharina Bolnes, Vermeer's beloved wife who gave the artist 11 children during their twenty-year marriage. This jacket, or manteltge as it was called in Delft, allowed Dutch upper-class women to elegantly protect themselves against the cold of the interminable Dutch winters while they performed household chores. Its loose fit permitted freedom of movement. Judging by the number of times they appear in Dutch interior painting, the manteltge must have been an immensely popular garment in the mid-17th-century Netherlands.
This elegant gown was most likely made of caffa, a luxurious material made principally for upholstery and fine clothing. It is known that Vermeer's father worked in caffa and, thus, some specialists have supposed that the artist's penchant for depicting this kind of material was linked to his parental affection.
The gown's simple yet elegant block-like shape is a masterpiece of pictorial synthesis which describes both the material's substance and the position of the mistress' legs with a paltry few tones of yellow and ochre. Its golden hue differs subtly from the more lemonish tint of the fur-lined morning jacket. In order to achieve its peculiar luster, Vermeer may have glazed the passage with a transparent layer of pigment called woude (weld), a natural dyestuff obtained from the cultivated plant Dyer's Rocket. Weld was one of the most widely used dyes for cloth and was used by painters as well, even though it tended to fade.
As Vermeer expert Albert Blankert pointed out, music making is a sign of love in many emblem books. "Sometimes the lover is compared with a musical instrument, whose strings or keys are touched by the beloved."
The cittern—and not lute or mandolin as it has been erroneously described—held by the mistress was one of the most popular musical instruments of the 16th and 17th centuries and it was also the one most frequently depicted by Vermeer and his colleagues. Although its form may recall the more familiar lute, it has a very different history and above all, it produces a very different sound making it adapted for different music. Its brisk metallic sound, somewhat like a banjo, adapts itself perfectly to the brilliant coloring and sharp divisions between lights and darks of the present composition.
The cittern's body is flat and easily constructed while the lute's pear-shaped body demands considerable talent and experience to construct. The cittern's strings are made of metal while the lute's are made of natural animal gut. In particular, the brass strings of the cittern sound much louder, also because they are played with a plectrum. Instead, the lute is plucked by the bare fingers and produces a softer, nostalgic tone. Vermeer may have chosen to depict this particular instrument according to the painting's iconographic program. Perhaps it held a particular meaning which was more evident to his viewers, although it can certainly not be ruled out that the curious almond-like form would have struck the painter's aesthetic sensibilities.
Slippers are frequently represented in Dutch interior paintings of the time even though they had been depicted many years before by Flemish painters, Jan van Eyck's famous Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, surely one of the most illustrious examples.
Like many other objects which populate Northern paintings, experts have come to agree that many carried different and even contrasting symbolic meanings depending on the context in which they were portrayed. For example, a mirror, one of the most ubiquitous symbols in the history of Western painting, could allude to vanity or self-knowledge, while pearls, one of the most characteristic accessories in Vermeer's work, are linked with vanity but also with virginity, a wide enough iconographic spectrum. Discarded slippers could be used as a sexual innuendo—in Dutch painting shoes and slippers were used as a metaphor for female genitals—although in the present case, they could be a more literal sign of an unkempt house. In any case, it should be noted that slippers were worn in the bedroom. For some reason, in the present picture they are instead found in the grote zaal (great hall) used for adults and receiving important visitors.
The depiction of the two female figures is a masterpiece of painting, body language and theater. One can almost feel a flicker of electricity that flows through their glances and the momentary upsetting of social rank. For a brief moment, it appears that it is the maid who is in control while the mistress cautiously pleas for assistance.
The body language of the maid, who has presumably just consigned a love letter, contrasts with that of her uncertain mistress. Her billowing white cap, which is echoed in the clouds of the background painting, makes her seem even taller. Her positive demeanor and cocky smile tell us, according to art historian Lisa Vergara, that the "lady's concern will prove unfounded. The calm sea represented in the large painting behind the two women to support this conclusion. Since the missive is sealed, however, we wonder how the maid could have discerned its contents." Dutch plays and popular literature often dealt with the household maid who overstepped their station.
Even though the two figures would not have touched in reality, Vermeer emphasized their emotional exchange by bonding them on the surface of the canvas via the lengthy, shared contour.
Willemijn Fock, a historian of the decorative arts, has revealed that floors paved with marble tiles were extremely rare in the Dutch 17th-century houses. In the homes of the very wealthy, where floors of this type were occasionally found, they were usually confined to smaller spaces such as voorhuis, corridors and upper story sleeping or storage rooms. To establish the complicated perspective of the receding tiles Vermeer most likely worked from a mathematical grid based on real, common ceramic tiles and subsequently adapted their patterns and colors to the necessities of each composition.
In The Love Letter, a row of five successive white tiles guides the viewer's attention away from the foreground towards the mistress and maid. Vermeer has given the black tiles a distinctive cool bluish cast which subtly activates the warmth of the figure's dress. The veins of the white tiles are rendered with calligraphic brushstrokes free from constraints of descriptive fidelity.
The long, quickly painted brushstrokes were evidently meant to suggest a soiled wall, a curious anomaly in Vermeer's pristine interiors. No critic has ever brought this fact in relation to the painting's meaning although it is hard to believe that such a carefully constructed composition, where each and every detail is determined with the utmost deliberation, could have been casual.
Inscribed above the basket:(IVM in ligature)
(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 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 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 in right-hand 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 centimeters 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 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 scale).
The theme of maid and mistress was enormously popular among Dutch genre painters. Prior to the Lover Letter, Vermeer had explored its narrative 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 consigns) a letter, presumably a love letter. In the present picture, the wry smile on the maid's face and the questioning expression of her mistress underline the uncertainty of love within the sanctuary of a 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, 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 colleagues 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 recognizable as Vermeer-like."
In Dutch painting, maids were generally pictured in a 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 to them a dignity reserved for members of more socially elevated classes. 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 the 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.
Comprehending the symbolic content of Vermeer's paintings has proved particularly problematic. The complicated Love Letter, with its clutter of objects, has given birth to a wide variety of interpretations. 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 explains that the concepts of hidden meaning, concealment, deception (schijn sonder sijn, seeming without being) and iconographic flexibility were, in fact, characteristic features of 17th-century culture. Jacob Cats, the author of numerous popular emblem books, 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.
It is largely, but not completely, accepted that Vermeer used a simple optical device called the 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 studying nature as well as tracing, to shortcut problems of drawing and perspective. Although the camera obscura leaves no physical trace on the canvas, the peculiar characteristics of its image may be found in The Love Letter and in many other paintings by Vermeer, especially the so-called pointillés. Pointillés are the pictorial translation of spherical disks of light ("halations" or "disks of confusion" as they are referred to in modern photography) that are produced by the imperfect lens of the 17th-century camera obscura in situations of strong light contrast. Halations may also occur with modern lenses when they are not in focus. Pointillés can clearly be observed on the clothes hamper and on the gilded leather wall covering behind the maid and mistress.
Detractors of the camera obscura theory note that many, perhaps the great part of, pointillés appear in Vermeer's paintings where they would have never been seen with a real camera obscura, for example, along the shadowed underside of the boats anchored on the far shore in Vermeer's View of Delft. Thus, the pointillés can be considered stylistic quirks, derived independently from observation or optical devices. Other art historians occupy a middle ground and hold that while pointillés may have been originally derived from camera obscura observation, they became a stylistic device applied discretionarily to heighten the illusion of sparkling light.
During his 20-year career, Vermeer devised various means to establish and enhance the private spaces for his quiet bourgeois dramas. In this picture the viewer stands in another room, distant from the unfolding scene of the maid and mistress, and "sees through" the doorway. This device, called doorkijkje, offers an opportunity to create a more complicated architectural space and contemporarily expand narrative and spatial depth. It was practiced by many other Dutch genre painters besides Vermeer. The art historian Martha Hollander found that among more than 160 paintings attributed to Pieter de Hooch, only 12 do not exhibit this device. Interestingly, Hollander linked the doorkijkje device to a compositional device to force perspective called doorsien (view through), used primarily for history paintings with landscape settings which overlap secondary vignettes in the distance. On the basis of costume, some scholars hold that De Hooch's Couple with a Parrot, which is strikingly similar to Vermeer's composition, was the inspiration for The Love Letter.
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."
Although an upsurge of 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 to maintain communication secret. Servant girls, who could rarely sign their name and probably could not read, 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.
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 England it was held in high esteem both as an accompanying instrument for singing 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 reasons for its great popularity.
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 with each other's 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 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 marketplace. The scene exudes serenity and good intentions. On the other hand, as befits his more complex temperament, Vermeer investigates the psychological undercurrents at work between the two women who are linked by their sex but divided by their social standing. The tough-looking servant hovers over her mistress, her hand confidently on her hip. A wry smile informs the viewer 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 was ambivalent. In some instances, they were considered a sort of necessary evil, especially in popular literature. Theatrical satires and household manuals warn of their natural laziness and propensity for all sorts of mischief, from eavesdropping to drunkenness. One of their bad habits was 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.