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Did Vermeer make mistakes? What is the Milkmaid preparing in her kitchen? Is the Girl with a Pearl Earring really a masterpiece and is her pearl a fake? Why did the artist's reputation vaporize so quickly after he died and why is he so famous today? What tricks and special colors did he use? Bolstered by his lifelong study of Vermeer and decades of experience as a professional painter, Jonathan Janson reveals Vermeer's life and art in human, down-to-earth terms.

For anyone interested in Vermeer the man and Vermeer's art, rather than his myth, 25 Things You Didn't Know about Vermeer offers rare glimpses into the artist's day-to-day experiences and struggles both inside and outside the confines of his studio.

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25 Things You (Probably) Didn't Know about Vermeer: Tricks, Troubles and Triumphs of a Great Dutch Master
Jonathan Janson
2021 | PDF | $6.95

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The Complete Interactive Vermeer Catalogue

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.

The motif

Mistress and Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The theme of a mistress and maid staged in an upper-class domestic setting was enormously popular among Dutch genre painters. Such a motif afforded artists the chance to reflect upon the current fashions and the peculiar relationship of women belonging to different social ranks. Vermeer elaborated on this theme three times, the first in the present picture, followed by two later works, the Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid and the late Love Letter.

Vermeer carefully demarks the subordinate social status of the maid. She wears a drab-colored wool garment with a practical blue apron, and her dark hair is pulled back unceremoniously. The mistress dons on an exquisite fur-trimmed jacket and sports what must be the latest hair style. Her radiant blond hair is punctuated with a myriad of costly pearls. Even though dress clearly indicates the maid's inferior social status, in all three works she is positioned above her seated mistress of the picture plane, which subliminally undermines this fact.

In this picture, Vermeer focuses on the precise moment when the plain-dressed maid consigns a letter, presumably a love letter, to her mistress. Her deferential posture seems to cast the maid in neutral, if not supportive role.

The head of the mistress

Mistress and Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The mistress is one of Vermeer's finest renderings of the female physiognomy. The perfections of her features recall classical models that Walter Liedtke, one of the most receptive of Vermeer experts, related to the pictorial sensitivity of Michael Sweerts, Cesar van Everdingen, Caspar Netscher and Karel du Jardin.

The s slightly blurred line of the mistress' profile recalls one critic's definition of the contour of the girl's face in the Girl with a Pearl Earring as "the sweetest line ever painted." The economical rendering of her anatomical features is truly astounding and finds few equals in Dutch painting. Her uncertain gaze is rendered with a few wisps of grayish paint that displays no linear definition whatsoever. Just as in the present painting, none of the women who modeled for Vermeer's paintings have ever been identified.

The writing set

Man Writing a Letter, Gabriel Metsu

Man Writing a Letter (detail)
Gabriel Metsu
Oil on canvas, 25 x 24 cm.
Musee Fabre, Montpellier

Writing sets usually consisted of a plate with two small cup-like vessels with covers: one for the ink and one for the "blotting sand" or pounce (later in the form of a salt shaker) as well as a quiver for the quills. More refined sets, like that in Vermeer's A Lady Writing or Mistress and Maid had one or two drawers to store writing utensils (quills, pen-knife, signets and sealing wax).

Although Vermeer's depiction of the writing set is somewhat vague, it must have been similar to ones depicted time and time again in letter-writing pictures of the same period. Both a writing set and one of the popular writing manuals of the time appear in Gabriel Metsu's Man Writing a Letter

Letters in the Netherlands

Vermeerderde Nederduytsche

Title page from D. Mostaert's
Vermeerderde Nederduytsche
Secretaris oft zendtbrief schryver

(Amsterdam 1656)
Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague

The Maid and Mistress shows two letters, one sealed and one unfinished. Although the first lines of the opened letter can be discerned, obviously, no words can be deciphered. But according to scholars, it must have been a love letter.

In the Netherlands, letters, a necessity for the sprawling Dutch trade empire, had reached profusion unknown in other European states. Non-commercial letter writing and calligraphy manuals were issued in great numbers to instruct and inspire members of the upper social classes. One of the most popular letter-writing manuals and one that Vermeer's young mistress may have been familiar with was Jean Puget de la Serre's Le Secrétaire à la Mode, first published into Dutch in 1651. It offered letter-writing advice and exemplars to cover every conceivable social situation. About one-fifth of the text is devoted to love letters. The reader could choose from model letters professing varying degrees of love and devotion each followed by a range of possible responses, from timid encouragement to outright refusal.

The yellow fur-trimmed morning jacket

Mistress and Maid, Johannes Vermeer

This garment appears in five other paintings by Vermeer but none of them have been treated so lavishly. Such a jacket was called a jak, sometimes referred to in Delft as a mantelje, and was worn by middle- and upper-class women. At home, it offered elegant protection against the cold of the long Dutch winters as they performed household chores. However, it would not have been worn on formal occasions, and it is never pictured in a formal portrait.

This jacket must have bene the very same as the one in the Woman with a Pearl Necklace and the Lady Writing. Both the distribution of the black spots below the neckline and the folds created by the piping along the foreground sleeve correspond quite accurately.

Different from the earlier pictures, here, the jacket's stiffness and material presence are particularly emphasized through chiaroscural contrast and the impasto and lively brushwork which flows with the direction of the folds. The black spots of the fur trim, probably not authentic ermine tails but painted onto an inferior quality fur such as cat or squirrel, are rendered with greater precision and contrast. The vitality of the treatment of the jacket underscores the mistress' momentary state of anxiety as she attempts to divine the content of the missive that has just arrived.

In Vermeer's death inventory of 1676 a "yellow satin mantle with white fur trimmings" was found in the "groote zael" (great hall) of the artist's home, which likely belonged to his wife Catharina Bolnes.

The blue tablecloth

Mistress and Miad, Johannes Vermeer

Although the still life of this painting is very similar to that of the earlier A Lady Writing, the stronger illumination scheme of the Mistress and Maid produces a sharper contrast between the lights and darks on the folds of the blue tablecloth charging them with a life of their own. The blue provides a visual contrast to the yellow of the mistress' jacket, Vermeer's signature color harmony.

The dark background

La belle Ferroni,

La belle Ferronière
Leonardo da Vinci
c. 1490
Oil on wood, 63 x 45 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Dark backgrounds, from Leonardo da Vinci onwards, were widely used in portraiture to isolate the figure from distracting elements and enhance the sitter's three-dimensional presence.

Although the dark background contributes to the dramatic effect of this composition, it was certainly not a part of Vermeer's original concept. Observing the painting directly one can clearly make out a series of sweeping diagonal shifts in tone behind the figures which suggest the presence of a drawn-back curtain. However, it has been recently discovered that the curtain, originally intended to be a (deep?) green, was added after the artist had removed a large-scale Flemish-style tapestry that featured multiple femal figures. The effect might have been similar to Vermeer's Girl with a Red Hat in whose background loom the abstract designs of a tapestry.

The fancy veneered casket

Mistress and Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer

On the table rests a fancy veneered casket, which has been identified as an import from Goa in Western India, and metal writing set on a tray behind it. Both objects, arranged in a slightly different manner, appear in another painting by Vermeer, A Lady Writing. Some critics have speculated on the purpose of the casket was to hold jewelry or in this case, an even more precious commodity, the love letters of the mistress. This kind of writing set was represented in numerous canvases of Vermeer's contemporaries such as Nicolaes Maes, Gabriel Metsu and Gerrit ter Borch. In any case, such a casket would have been identified as a luxury item.

The maid in Dutch painting

The Cook, Gabril Metsu

The Cook
Gabriel Metsu
1657–1667
Oil on canvas, 40 x 34 cm.
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

As maids had become an indispensable part of Dutch upper-class living, so genre painters, who tailored their works to this class's aspirations, represented them infinite times in a variety of attitudes. Their working dress, however, must have been fairly standardized. In fact, the maid in Gabriel Metsu's The Cook is dressed almost identically to the maid in present work by Vermeer.

Unlike the grinning maid in Vermeer's later Love Letter, who seems to quite informed as to the content of the missive she has just consigned, her neutral facial expression and respectful demeanor appear to suggest that she plays a relatively neutral role in the painting's narrative. Her open mouth, however, indicates that she may have just announced the letter's arrival helping to create a suspenseful moment of Vermeer's quiet drama.

How did Dutch maids behave? In theory, at least, maids were hard-working, supportive and loyal. In practice, things could be very different. In emblematic and popular theatre of the day, maids were frequently cast as a threat to the security of the home, the cherished center of Dutch life. As Simon Schama wrote, in the 17th-century maids were "indisputably regarded as the most dangerous women of all..."

However, in Northern Europe, maids were represented in a more neutral role, caring for children or themselves supervised by the mistress of the house. Occasionally, a few painters, including Vermeer himself (The Milkmaid) portrayed them with dignity and empathy. Pieter de Hooch pictured them in a sympathetic light in some works of his Delft period as they diligently assist their mistress or care for the children of the house.

The mistress' gown

Mistress and Maid, Johannes Vermeer

The red strips of vermilion, which ignite the characteristic yellow/blue harmony of the painting, represent two ribbons used for tying the yellow gown. Similarly colored ribbons appear between the opening of the figure's jacket in Vermeer's earlier Woman Holding a Balance.

Critical assessments

Departing from the traditional iconography of the letter writer, Vermeer nevertheless relied upon the underlying thematic content to give poignance to his scene. The mistress' expression reveals the uncertainties of love that disrupt the serenity of ordered existence. The mistress' controlled demeanor and fashionable wardrobe seem to suggest that such fleeting doubts affect even those who are most secure and content in their lives. The maid, while offering the letter, responds to her mistress' gaze with a caring yet concerned look. With her slightly opened mouth and lowered eyelids, her expression is as restrained as her mistress', yet Vermeer created a visual dialogue between them that conveys the intense psychological impact of the letter's arrival.

Arthur K. Wheelock, Vermeer and the Art of Painting, 1995

The signature

No signature appears on this work.

(Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)

Dates

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

c. 1667–1668
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 2000

c. 1666–1667
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

c. 1667–1668
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).

The painting in its frame

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in their frames).

Johannes Vermeer's Mistress and Maid with frame

Provenance

  • (?) Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1674); (?) his widow, Maria de Knuijt, Delft (d. 1681);
  • (?) their daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1682);
  • (?) her widower, Jacob Abrahamsz Dissius (d. 1695);
  • Dissius sale, Amsterdam, 16 May, 1696, no. 7;
  • sale, Amsterdam, 15 October, 1738, no. 12 (to Oortman);
  • probably Van Helsleuter et al. sale, Paris (Paillet), 25 January, 1802, no. 106 (bought in);
  • [Ch. Lebrun, Paris];
  • sale, Paris (Paillet), 16 January, 1809, no. 34 (to Lebrun);
  • Lebrun sale, Paris, 20 March, 1810, no. 143 (to Chevallier);
  • sale, Paris (Paillet), 24 March, 1818, no. 48;
  • Dufour, Marseilles (from 1819 or earlier);
  • Duchesse de Berry sale, Paris, 4–6 April, 1837, no 76 (to Paillet);
  • E. Secrétan sale, Paris, 1 July, 1889, no. 139 (to Sedelmeyer);
  • A. Paulovstof, St. Petersburg;
  • [Lawrie & Co., London]; [Sulley & Co., London, in 1905];
  • James Simon, Berlin (?1906-at least 1914);
  • [Knoedler, New York];
  • Henry Clay Frick, New York (in 1919; d. 1919);
  • The Frick Collection, New York (acc. no. 11.1.126).

Exhibitions

  • Paris 1889
    Catalogue of the celebrated collection of paintings by modern and old masters and of water colors and drawings formed by Mr. E. Secrétan
    Charles Sedelmeyer Galleries
    138, no. 139 and ill., as "The Lady and the Servant," from the collection of Dufour Marseille)
  • New York 3 June–2 November, 2008
    Frick's Vermeers Reunited
    Frick Collection

(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).

The painting in scale

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in scale).

Johannes Vermeer's Mistress and Maid in scale

Two women: vis-à-vis

Cupid Presenting a Letter to a Maid (Pampiere Wereld), Emblem from Jan Harmenz. Krul

Cupid Presenting a Letter to a Maid
Emblem from Jan Harmenz. Krul, Pampiere Wereld
(Amsterdam, 1644), vol. 2
Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague

As maids had become an indispensable part of Dutch upper-class living, so genre painters, who tailored their works to this class's aspirations, represented them infinite times in a variety of attitudes. Their working dress, however, must have been fairly standardized. In fact, the maid in Gabriel Metsu's The Cook is dressed almost identically to the maid in present work by Vermeer.

Unlike the grinning maid in Vermeer's later Love Letter, who seems to be informed as to content of the missive she has just consigned, her neutral expression and respectful demeanor suggests that she plays a relatively a neutral role in the work's narrative. Her open mouth, however, indicates that she may have just announced the letter's arrival helping to create a suspenseful moment of Vermeer's quiet drama.

How did Dutch maids behave? In theory, at least, maids were hard-working, supportive and loyal. In practice, things could be very different. In emblematic and popular theater of the day, maids were frequently cast as a threat to the security of the home, the cherished center of Dutch life. As Simon Schama wrote, in the 17th-century maids were "indisputably regarded as the most dangerous women of all..."

However, in Northern Europe, maids were represented in a more neutral role, caring for children or themselves supervised by the mistress of the house. Occasionally, a few painters, including Vermeer himself (The Milkmaid) portrayed them with dignity and empathy. Pieter de Hooch pictured them in a sympathetic light in a number of works of his Delft period, as they diligently assist their mistress or care for the children of the house.

Vermeer had often pictured figures interacting in the intimacy of a well-appointed home. Gerrit ter Borch brought this motif to a state of near perfection. His ability to portray the psychological undercurrents below the surface of relationships finds no equal.

Although the narrative in this work is apparently straightforward, its psychological implications are complex. Two themes are subtly intertwined. On one hand, the elegant mistress ponders the arrival of a sealed love letter, suggesting some kind of relationship with a distant loved one. On the other hand, the more visually explicit, but veiled relationship of the mistress and her subordinate maid is evoked by furtive glances and body language.

The psychological uncertainty of the mistress is subtly conveyed by her pensive gaze, which the artist does not allow us to fully see, her parted lips and the questioning gesture of he fingertips just brought to her chin. The maid's gaze, although more directly portrayed, is nonetheless undecipherable. Her open mouth does not tell us what the words she has just spoken even though the deference of her posture seems to cast her in a supportive, positive role. How much does the mistress know about the missive she is about to receive? Is it from the same person to whom she is writing her own letter? And is the maid onto something more about the letter through her role as a go-between?

Just what goes on behind the fleeting exchange of words and glances between the two women, like the unopened letter itself, is suspended for an eternal moment allowing each viewer to interpret the exchange in the light of his own experience and expectations.

A special painting technique

Mistress and Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The canvas appears well conserved. The original color scheme of yellow and blue probably appears much as it did when the canvas sat on the artist's easel. Nonetheless, this work presents several stylistic and technical anomalies: the exceptionally large scale of the figures, the pitch-black background and the particularly marked modeling.

Vermeer, like other Dutch interior painters, varied how he applied the paint to the canvas in order to evoke the texture and the play of light. For example, the illuminated parts of the yellow jacket are modeled with sumptuous, sweeping brushstrokes of lead-tin yellow, while the shadows are defined with knife-like precision creating a sparkling, almost material sense of light unfound in his other renditions of the same garment. On the other hand, the flesh of the seated mistress is executed with the tonal transitions so vague yet so refined that the transparency and delicacy of the mistress' milk-white skin can be no more faithfully represented.

Particularly effective is the daring simplicity with which the profile of the mistress is rendered. On close inspection, the anatomical structure of her eye has been replaced by a cloud-like smudge of light gray paint, and yet the observer instantly comprehends her apprehensive glance.

The folded letter held by the maid is executed with a thick layer of lead white which stands out in material relief, a fact which is hardly apparent in reproduction, underlining the central importance of the letter in the painting's terse narrative.

A quill pen & an open letter

Mistress and Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer

One can easily recognize the ink-stained tip of the woman's quill that is momentarily at rest as she briefly contemplates the arrival of a missive. On the open letter, about ten written lines, indicated by delicate dabs of light-gray paint, can be made out.

Introduced around 700 A. D., the quill pen was the dominant writing instrument until the 19th century (replaced by the dip pen and later the fountain pen). Feathers from the left wing were favored as they curved to the right, away from the hand of the commonly right-handed writer. Quills had to be sharpened frequently, using a special "pen-knife" (see paintings by Frans Mieris or Gerrit Dou). These lasted only about a week, then had to be replaced. This is why in paintings showing lawyers or scholars in their studio we sometimes several quill pens lying on the desk. A hand-cut goose quill pen is still the preferred tool for calligraphy as it provides a sharp stroke but more flexibility than a steel pen.

About 400 A. D. a stable form of ink developed, made of a composite of iron salts, nutgalls and gum as the basic formula for the iron-gall inks. Despite its possible destructive properties of gradual fading and weakening the paper, it was used from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. Iron gall inks were certainly used in 17th-century Netherlands, as in entire Western Europe. With the Netherlands' ever-expanding trade, Chinese Indian ink became available in Holland and soon the preferred ink for special (official) documents, owing to its improved durability and saturation. Lawyers, for instance, may have favored this ink, and from a careful look on the Vermeer-related documents, it seems likely that Vermeer (and Catharina) had signed the documents using the lawyer's (e.g. Willem de Langue) ink, which was probably an Indian ink. The tint appears quite clear and dark, no brownish fading (as with iron-gall inks) and no weakening of the paper (of strong, solid quality) are visible.

An abundance of pearls

Mistress and Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer

In no other painting by Vermeer do we find such an abundance of pearls. The comely mistress wears a pair of oversized drop earrings, a pearl necklace and strings of pearls arranged in courtly fashion. No scholar has remarked upon their eventual iconographic meaning, they seem to have been simply included for their purely aesthetic value and as a means for defining the social standing of the mistress.

Pearls were an important status symbol of the age and they held for the educated Dutch picture-viewer a number of associations, some of them, ranging from vanity to truth, contradictory.

Since ancient times, the pearl has been a symbol of unblemished perfection. It is the oldest known gem, and for centuries it was considered the most valuable. To the ancients, pearls were a symbol of the moon and had magical powers. In classical Rome, only persons of an elevated social rank were allowed to wear pearl jewelry. The Latin word for pearl literally means "unique," attesting to the fact that no two pearls are identical. In many archaic cultures the marine shell, because of its appearance, is associated with the female genitalia, and the pearl is believed to be both the sacred product and the emblem of the feminine generative power. The pearl thus symbolizes both the life that is created and the mysterious force that generates life. Analogous to the pearl's origin, Aphrodite was born from a marine conch.

Why are the figures so large?

Wherever its position in the chronological order of Vermeer's oeuvre, the scale of the figures in Vermeer's Mistress and Maid come as a surprise. Although not life-size, these figures are the largest ever painted by Vermeer, after those of the early Procuress.

More puzzling is the fact that the work's simple domestic theme contains nothing special that would elicit a larger format.

Although large-scale human figures were not a distinctive occurrence in Dutch interior painting, in general, they were reserved for history painting. History paintings were often made for public viewing and carried important religious or civic messages. Civic group portraits, such as Rembrandt's Night Watch, were often commissioned for public buildings and could assume near monumental dimensions. Another genre that favored large-scale figures was the gaudy Dutch Caravaggesque brothel scene. These works were populated by extravagantly dressed prostitutes whose prime function appears that of seducing the spectator's eyes as she simultaneously seduces her pictured client. Oppositely, the restrained intimacy and private dwellings of interior genre paintings found their natural expression in the small-scale, or so-called "cabinet" format, which encourages the viewer to draw close to the painting and engage in a one-to-one, intimate relationship with the painting's story.

The Mistress and Maid we see oday may not be what Vermeer indended. The broad diagonal shifts in tone of the dark background indicate the presence of a large pulled-back curtain behind the figures parallel to the picture plane. Was it a simple mono-colored curtain or a tapestry with a fanciful design? The presence of a curtain might have been intended to create a more natural setting rather than the artificial black void that prevails today.

One explanation for the painting's unusual dimensions is that Vermeer's patron desired a large-scale format adapted to a particular viewing condition in his home. Another explanation, certainly less prosaic, could be that the artist himself was curious to test the impact of his tried-and-proven formulas for interior compositions on the grand scale history painting.

Vermeer's skin tones

With its grand dimensions, the treatment of human flesh in the present painting is more evident that in the tiny figures of his cabinet-sized interiors. The flesh of the maid has a tawny, olivaster tint, while that the mistress is a clear, impalpable pink, a difference, perhaps, which was meant to differentiate the maids lower and the mistress' higher social standing, as fair skin (and blond hair) was in those times a prime attribute of beauty.

From the dawn of European easel painting, the depiction of human flesh was given great importance, and still constitutes one of the most telling technical challenges for the artist. Willem Beur, painter and art writer of Vermeer's time, wrote: "Just as we humans consider ourselves the foremost amongst animals; so too, are we the foremost subject of the art of paintings, and it is in painting human flesh that its highest achievements are to be seen, whenever a painter succeeds in rendering the diversity of colors and strong hues found in human flesh and particularly in the faces, adequately depicting the intricacy of the diversity of people or their different emotions." This is why in depictions of artists working in their studios, the painters' palettes were almost always set with the pigments necessary for painting flesh.

Portrait of a Young Woman, Gerrit Dou

Portrait of a Young Woman (detail)
Gerrit Dou
c. 1655
Oil on oak, 14.5 x 11.7 cm.
National Gallery, London

It would appear that Vermeer did not assign the same hierarchical importance to the painting of flesh as did the best Northern painters. Aside from the Mistress and Maid, Study of a Young Woman and the Girl with a Pearl earring, the artist's flesh tones lack the opalescent freshness of Rubens' women, the nuances of Rembrandt's portraits or even the rosy, albeit 8 formulaic, complexions of Gerrit Dou's pretty damsels. From a technical point of view, Vermeer's faces appear to be painted adequately; a few under par. We have the impression that for the artist, the definition of female physiognomy or the rendering of the flesh are investigated with the same care with which he might paint a porcelain wine jug or the intricate design of a Turkish carpet.

Perhaps the most convincing rendering of nude female flesh is to be found in the mistress of the present work. The skin's pearlessence and luminosity lend her an ethereal perfection which ably contrasts with the olive tone of the skin of the simple maid.

As This Weststeijn observed, "In the 17th century, the ability to transform lifeless pigment into living skin was likened to the alchemical process of transubstantiation. Many examples in art literature describe this process. Dolce states that Titian's skill in coloring ensure that "his figure is alive; it moves, and its flesh pulsate" ; (Le carni tremano). The painter's ability to render incarnate eventually leads to the popular comparison of blood and paint." Art historian Paul Taylor observes that Dutch painters were particularly attentive to the flesh "glow" or gloeyend, referring to the spirits which actually flow underneath the skin.

The actual number of pigments employed by artists for rendering human skin were few even though, certainly, there existed no single, fixed procedure for painting flesh in every time and place. Artists generally worked with a few base colors—white, yellow ochre, vermilion, raw and burnt umber, red madder and black—capitalizing on the particular qualities of each paint and the optical properties of multi-layered painting, such as the turbid medium effect.

One of the most recurrent formulas for painting fair complexions—certainly those most frequently encountered in Northern countries like the Netherlands—was a simple mixture of white and vermillion, a strong red pigment with a distinct orange undertone.

A faded tablecloth and curtain

Although it cannot be seen very well from most reproductions, a series of diagonal curves are faintly visible in the dark background, which appear, however, to be folds of a large curtain. Since these features were absent in a line engraving of the painting by Jean-Baptist-Pierre Lebrun published in 1809, critics questioned if Lebrun had intentionally omitted the curtain or if it had been added afterward. William Suhr, the then conservator of the Frick Collection, determined in 1950 that the curtain was an integral part of the painting. In a recent examination at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was discovered that the curtain's unfortunate state can be attributed to the fact that a green pigment, which would have made its color and contrasting tones much more conspicuous, has completely degraded. It was also determined that the blue tablecloth was originally green as well, although lighter and richer in color. However, since the green pigment of the curtain differs from that of the tablecloth perhaps the two would have appeared as different fabrics.

A missing tapestry

For many years the dark background of the painting has caused considerable debate in that it is the only genre scene by Vermeer not staged in a contemporary setting. This prompted some critics to believe the background was not by Vermeer's hand, even though on close inspections it shows what appear to be remnants of a large curtain with large diagonal folds. Surprisingly, in a recent examination of the painting by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an infrared reflectogram (IRR) revealed that the background was covered with a large tapestry, most likely in the manner of Vermee's Girl with a Red Hat. The reflectogram revealed multiple large-scale with a section that seems to represent a sculpture in a niche as well as hanging garlands, which bring to mind certain Flemish-style tapestries designed by Jacob Jordeans. It is believed that Vermeer painted out the tapestry himself and added a sweeping green curtain to draw focus to the foreground figures. The original green color of the curtain has so degraded that it cannot generally be seen in reproductions.

One of the first paintings by Vermeer to be reproduced

Mistress and Maid, engraving by Lebrun

Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748–1813), one of the most gifted connoisseurs in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century France, was trained as a painter and over his father's art business in 1771. He is noted for having written in various publications about artists and artistic education, predominantly about the painters of the schools of the north. Between 1792 and 1796 Le Brun published a comprehensive survey of northern school painters called Galerie des peintres flamands, hollandais et allemands which listed 1,350 Flemish, Dutch and German artists known to him at that time. The vast editorial project was published in both Paris and Amsterdam, and was partly financed by Pierre Fouquet Jr., Le Brun's principal business partner in the Netherlands. Following the Galerie, he published Recueil de gravures au trait, which contained a series of simplified engravings of paintings which he purchased during a journey in 1807 and 1808. In the Recueil he discussed Vermeer's Mistress and Maid, the second work by Vermeer ever to be reproduced. In total, two Vermeer paintings had gone through Le Brun's hands, one of which was Mistress and Maid, the latter of which he sold in 1811. Le Brun became the principal point of reference for those interested in the as yet little-known Dutch master, initiating the rise of his reputation in France.

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