Mistress and Maid

(Dame en dienstbode)
c. 1666-1667
Oil on canvas
90.2 x 78.7 cm. (35 1/2 x 31 in.)
Frick Collection, New York
there are 8 hotspots in the image below
Mistress and Maid, Johannes Vermeer

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 seems 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

No signature appears on this work.

c. 1667-1668
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997)

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



Johannes Vermeer's Mistress and Maid with frame

  • (?) 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).
  • New York 3 June-2 November 2008
    Frick's Vermeers reunited. Frick Collection.
Johannes Vermeer's Mistress and Maid in scale
vermeer's life

The Concert presents a very similar deep spatial recession similar to the earlier Music Lesson. Vermeer's interest in the accurate portrayal of three dimensional perspective to create such an effect was shared by other interior genre painters of the time, however, only Vermeer seems to have fully and consciously understood the expressive function of perspective. The two paintings' underlying theme of music between male and female company is also analogous although few critics believe they were conceived as a pendant.

In the paintings of the 1660s the painted surfaces are smoother and less tactile, the lighting schemes tend to be less bold. These pictures convey and impalpable air of reticence and introspection, unique among genre painters with the possible exception of Gerrit ter Borch.

dutch painting Frans Hals, eminent Dutch portrait painter, dies. It was formerly believed that he died in the Oudemannenhuis almshouse in Haarlem which was later became the Frans Halsmuseum.
european painting & architecture

François Mansart, French architect, dies.

Apr 9, 1st public art exhibition (Palais Royale, Paris).

music Dec 5, Francesco Antonio Nicola Scarlatti, composer, is born.
literature Le Misanthrope by Molière is palyed at the Palais-Royal, Paris.
science & philosophy

Laws of gravity established by Cambridge University mathematics professor Isaac Newton, 23, state that the attraction exerted by gravity between any two bodies is directly proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Newton has returned to his native Woolsthorpe because the plague at Cambridge has closed Trinity College, where he is a fellow; he has observed the fall of an apple in an orchard at Woolsthorpe and calculates that at a distance of one foot the attraction between two objects is 100 times stronger than at 10 feet. Although he does not fully comprehend the nature of gravity, he concludes that the force exerted on the apple is the same as that exerted on Earth by the moon.

Calculusis invented by Isaac Newton will prove to be one of the most effective tool for scientific investigation ever produced by mathematics.

Nov 14, Samuel Pepys reported the on first blood transfusion, which was between dogs.

The plague decimates London and Isaac Newton moved to the country. He had already discovered the binomial theorem at Cambridge and was offered the post of professor of mathematics. Newton formulates his law of universal gravitation.

A French Academy of Sciences (Académie Royale des Sciences) founded by Louis XIV at Paris seeks to rival London's 4-year-old Royal Society. Jean Baptiste Colbert has persuaded the king to begin subsidizing scientists. Christiaan Huygens, along with 19 other scientists, is elected as a founding member. After the French Revolution, the Royale is dropped and the character of the academy changes. It later becomes the Institut de France.


Sep 2, The Great Fire of London, started at Pudding Lane, began to demolish about four-fifths of London when in the house of King Charles II's baker, Thomas Farrinor, forgets to extinguish his oven. The flames raged uncontrollably for the next few days, helped along by the wind, as well as by warehouses full of oil and other flammable substances. Approximately 13,200 houses, 90 churches and 50 livery company halls burn down or explode. But the fire claimed only 16 lives, and it actually helped impede the spread of the deadly Black Plague, as most of the disease-carrying rats were killed in the fire.

Because almost all European paper is made from recycled cloth rags, which are becoming increasingly scarce as more and more books and other materials are printed, the English Parliament bans burial in cotton or linen cloth so as to preserve the cloth for paper manufacture.

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.

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.
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

Vermeer had often pictured figures interacting in the intimacy of a well-appointed home. Although this motif had been pioneered decades before by other Dutch artists, Gerrit ter Borch brought it to a state of near perfection. His ability to portray the psychological undercurrents running below the surface of formal, interpersonal relationships finds no equal except in the painting of Vermeer.

Although the narrative in this work is apparently straightforward, its psychological implications are complex. Two themes are subtly intertwined. On one hand, we observe the elegant mistress as she 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 the fingertips just brought to her chin. The maid's gaze, although more directly portrayed, is none the less 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 needs and expectations.

Mistress and Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The canvas appears well conserved and presents the typical Vermeer color scheme of yellow and blue which probably appears much as it did when the canvas was on the artist's easel. Nonetheless, this work presents a number of stylistic and technical anomalies in respects to Vermeer's oeuvre: the exceptionally large-scale of the figures, the pitch black background and the particularly dramatic modeling.

Vermeer, like other Dutch interior painters variegated the way 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 insistently 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 could no more faithfully be 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.

Mistress and Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer

One can easily recognize the ink-stained tip of the woman's quill which 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 AD, the quill pen was the dominant writing instrument until 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) and lasted only about a week, then had to be replaced. This is why in paintings showing lawyers or scholars in their studio we sometimes find a number of 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 AD a stable form of ink developed: a composite of iron-salts, nutgalls and gum as the basic formula for the iron-gall inks, used from the Middle Ages (c. 12th century) until 19th /20th century, despite its possible destructive properties of gradual fading and weakening the paper. Iron gall inks were certainly used in 17th-century Netherlands, as in entire Western Europe, for writing in general. With Netherlands' increasing oversea's trade the Chinese Indian ink became probably available in Holland and soon the preferred ink for special (official) documents due to its improved durability and saturation. Lawyers for instance may have favored this ink, and from a conscious look on the Vermeer-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.

Mistress and Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer

In no other painting by Vermeer do we find such an abundance of pearls as in the present work. The comely mistress wears a pair of oversized drop earrings (artificial), a pearl necklace and strings of pearls arranged in courtly fashion. In the present work, no scholar has remarked upon their eventual iconographic meaning, they seem to have been simply included for their pure aesthetic value and as a means for defining the elevated 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 contradictory, ranging from vanity to truth.

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.

Wherever it may be positioned in Vermeer's oeuvre, the scale of the figures in the Mistress and Maid comes 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 theme contains nothing that would seem 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 which aimed to convey messages of universal import. History paintings inevitably carried a religious or civic message which could be appreciated by multiple viewers. Civic group portraits, such as Rembrandt's Night Watch, were often commissioned for important public buildings and could assume truly monumental dimensions. Another genre which favored large-scale figures was the gaudy Dutch Caravaggesque brothel scene populated by extravagantly dressed prostitutes whose prime function was to seduce the viewer's eyes as she seduces her pictured client. Oppositely, the restrained intimacy and private dwellings of interior genre paintings found its natural expression in the small-scale "cabinet" format which encourages the viewer to draw close to the painting and engage in a one-to-one, exclusive relationship with the image.

Vermeer's image as we see it today may not have been what he originally had in mind. 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, less prosaic explanation, could be that the artist himself was curious to experiment his tried-and-proven interior compositions in a new format and test the impact of the enhanced scale.

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

To be truthful, it would appear that Vermeer did not assign the same hierarchical importance to the painting of flesh as did the best Northern painters. His flesh tones lack the opalescent freshness of Rubens' women, the indescribable nuances of Rembrandt's portraits a or even the rosy, albeit somewhat formulaic, complexions of Gerrit Dou's pretty damsels (see detail left). 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 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 lends her an air of 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 alchemical process of transubstantiation. Many example in art literature describe this process. Dolce states that Titian's skill in colouring assure 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 relatively 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, vermillion, umber, red madder and black - taking advantage of the intrinsic qualities of each paint and capitalizing on the optical properties of multi-layered painting such as the turbid medium effect.

One of the most recurrent formulas of portrait painting was the use of the simplest mixture of lead white and vermilion to represent the basic flesh color. Only fair complexions - certainly those most frequently encountered in Northern countries like the Netherlands - can be represented more or less faithfully but, in any case, the painter had no lack of standard recipes for almost any skin color he may have encountered.