Essential Vermeer 3.0
Looking for a painting by Vermeer? Find it with QUICK SEARCH!

The Complete Interactive Vermeer Catalogue

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter

(Brieflezende vrouw in het blauw)
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 39 cm. (18 1/4 x 15 3/8 in.)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
inv. C251
Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, Johannes Vermeer

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.

Who posed for this painting?

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The fact that this young woman has been often identified with the artist's wife Catharina Bolnes finds no objective support even though it is well known that artists of the time frequently employed family members as models. Gerrit ter Borch, one of the most accomplished and sought-after Dutch painters, portrayed his step-sister Gesina at least twenty times in the most delicate of modes while Frans van Mieris and his wife repeatedly appear in portraits, genre pieces and even as tronien from their marriage in 1657 onwards. The great Rembrandt cast members of his own family and intimate acquaintances as subjects for some of his most touching canvases.

Other than the obvious economic advantage, most painters would have found that working with family members eased tension and favored the complicated process of determining the exact pose and afterward holding it for long hours. Posing for such a demanding artist like Vermeer must have been hard business, especially during the long gelid Dutch winters where only the household's kitchens were regularly equipped with a fireplace.

The blue morning jacket

Costume expert Marieke van Winkel believes that the blue garment, rarely depicted in Dutch painting, is to be identified as a beddejak, a garment with straight sleeves, usually blue or white satin, closed in the front with a row of bows. As implied by its name, the beddejak was a kind of casual attire worn in bed. Being made of satin, it was most likely reserved for the well-to-do.

The intimate nature of this garment would suggest that the young woman has just risen from her morning bed and reads her letter in the morning light. Infrared reflectography reveals that Vermeer altered the shape of the woman's jacket during the course of his work. Originally, it flared out as in the Woman Holding a Balance with fur trim.

The map of the Netherlands on the background wall

Portrait of a Man in his Study, Gerrit ter Borch<

Portrait of a Man in his Study
Gerrit ter Borch
c. 1668–1669
Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Large decorative wall maps adorn countless Dutch interior paintings of the 17th century. They are found in almost every conceivable environment, from the shop of the lowly shoemaker to the refined dwellings of the Netherlands's uppermost crust. However, one has the sensation that nearly all of Vermeer's colleagues exploited them as a handy way to enliven otherwise uneventful expanses of a wall rather than convey a specific iconographic message directly related specifically to the work. Certainly, no other painter in history ever lavished such attention on them and observed them with such respectful regard as Vermeer. Perhaps only in Vermeer's maps can we feel their material reality, their delicately undulated surfaces broken here and there by creases tenderly caressed by raking light.

Vermeer's map provides a perfect foil for the geometric severity of the composition; the sinuous topographical drawing in the present work seems to allude to the inner emotions of the young woman absorbed in her reading. Vermeer's awareness of the compositional importance of the map becomes evident from the x-radiograph which shows that it originally extended a few centimeters to the left. Vermeer scholar Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. observes that the adjustment reduced the width of the wall to the left of the map so that it would be equal to the width of the wall to the right of the woman rationalizing the composition.

Decorated wall maps were made for practical purposes, for prestige and, more banally, for home decoration. In Vermeer's day, wall maps were a cheap way of embellishing bare white-washed walls and manifesting national pride for the United Provinces whose mercantile exuberance had permitted a minuscule patch of land to dominate a great part of world trade. Such maps were generally glued on heavy cloth and then hung on bare walls with the aid of wooden rods with balls at the extremes distancing their fragile surfaces from the humid walls. The demand for maps was so strong that map publishers had begun to reissue older, and in some cases, outdated ones. 17th-century catalogues employed the "suitable for framing" sales pitch adding that some could be customized with decorative additions. Some were hand painted. An extremely limited number of maps have survived compared to the amount described in inventories, catalogues and other sources. It is through Dutch painting that much of their beauty is known.

Map of the Netherlands, Balthasar Florisz van Berkenrode in 1620

The large, monochromatic wall map which hangs behind the standing woman has been identified as a map of Holland and Friesland designed by Balthasar Florisz van Berkenrode in 1620 and printed by Balthasar Jansz Blaeu a few years later. The same map, somewhat colored, appears in the earlier Officer and Laughing Girl. The only surviving example of this map (monochromatic) is in the Westfries Museum, Hoorn.

The letter

Quodlibet, Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts

Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts
Oil on canvas, 41 x 34.5 cm.
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

In Dutch painting women reading letters are almost always associated with love, and artists found various means to portray both the air of expectation at the arrival of a letter and their subsequent reaction to it.

Although Vermeer provides no clear-cut story for the letter in the present painting, it appears to have come unexpectedly, because the finely dressed woman has interrupted her morning toilet to stop and read it. Her bent neck, parted lips, and drawn-up arms create a sense of expectancy which reverberates throughout the composition.

On the table lies a discarded piece of paper which is either the letter's first or second page. Letters were usually not inserted in an envelope but folded in three and sealed with wax because paper was still expensive.

Period paintings (see trompe l'œil still lifes by Cornelis Gysbrechts left) usually show that letters were folded and either sealed or only tied up with a cord. When she was in a hurry a lady might use a ribbon of her headdress or garment, sometimes wrapped in a small piece of fine cloth. It is not known who invented the common envelope.

The "Spanish" chairs

The Duet (detail), Jan Miense Molenaer

The Duet (detail)
Jan Miense Molenaer
c. 1635–1636
Oil on panel, 42.2 x 51.4 cm.
Private collection (?)

The social history of the chair is as interesting as its history as an art and craft. The chair is not merely a physical support and an aesthetic object; it is also an indicator of social rank.

Perhaps the most popular form of seating in the time of Vermeer was the so-called Spanish chair, two of which are represented in this painting. Its basic model had evolved in Spain by the 15th century and was soon after adopted all over Europe. Normally, the legs of the chair are smooth, round in section and of slender dimensions. They are sometimes baluster-shaped (vase-shaped) or twisted. It was clearly a bourgeois piece of furniture and produced considerable numbers. Perhaps the hand-carved lion-head finials were made by a sculptor. The Amsterdam chairmakers' guild treated the Spanish chairmakers as a separate group from 1600.

Spanish chairs were made of many kinds of wood and in many styles. Among other precious gifts, in 1612 the city of Amsterdam presented the Sultan of Turkey 14 Spanish chairs made of different exotic woods and upholstered in satin, velvet and gold. This indicates they were considered characteristic and desirable products.

The two blue chairs

The Duet (detail), Jan Miense Molenaer

The Duet (detail)
Jan Miense Molenaer
c. 1635–1636
Oil on panel, 42.2 x 51.4 cm.
Private collection (?)

The social history of the chair is as interesting as its history as an art and craft. The chair is not merely a physical support and an aesthetic object; it is also an indicator of social rank.

Perhaps the most popular form of seating in the time of Vermeer was the so-called Spanish chair, two of which are represented in this painting. Its basic model had evolved in Spain by the 15th century and was soon after adopted all over Europe. Normally, the legs of the chair are smooth, round in section and of slender dimensions. They are sometimes baluster-shaped (vase-shaped) or twisted. It was clearly a bourgeois piece of furniture and produced considerable numbers. Perhaps the hand-carved lion-head finials were made by a sculptor. The Amsterdam chairmakers' guild treated the Spanish chairmakers as a separate group from 1600.

Spanish chairs were made of many woods and in many styles. Among other precious gifts, in 1612 the city of Amsterdam presented the Sultan of Turkey 14 Spanish chairs made of different exotic woods and upholstered in satin, velvet and gold. This clearly indicates they were considered characteristic and desirable products.

The jewelry box

WOman in Blue Reading a Letter, Johannes Vermeer

The still life on the table is perhaps one of Vermeer's most austere. It shows a string of pearls, an unfolded piece of paper (perhaps an envelope or another page of the letter), perhaps, a jewelry box and a scarf-life piece of cloth similar to scarves present in other compositions by Vermeer. Some parts of the still life, especially the box and scarf, were initially more clearly defined. The jewelry box may be the same one that appears fully illuminated in the Mistress and Maid.

Compositional layout and "negative" shapes

WOman in Blue Reading a Letter (detail), Johannes Vermeer

In painter's jargon, the shapes which represent real objects are called positive shapes and the shapes which represent areas between them objects are called negative shapes (or negative space). Inexperienced painters are prone to consider only the impact of positive shapes. Advanced painters know that negative shapes may be used to activate the composition and enhance meaning.

In Vermeer's art, negative space is given a prominence that is rare among European painters. Far from being leftovers, the observer feels that the negative spaces, each with a peculiar shape and contour of its own, play an active and subtly expressive role. This is particularly evident in two compositions of the mid-1660s, Woman Holding a Water Pitcher and the present work. The play between positive and negative space was perhaps exploited to its highest degree by Chinese and Japanese artists

In the present work, Vermeer crafted the compositional layout with great attention to the negative spaces formed by the light-gray background wall. Each of these shapes has a simple character of its own which serves to hold the woman securely in her place and make the composition easier to read. This delicate embrace of the two negative shapes, reinforced by the central position of the figure, imbues the young woman's momentary gesture with a sense of permanency and stability.

Compositional layout and "negative" shapes

Woman in Bue Reading a Letter (detail), Johannes Vermeer

In painter's jargon, the shapes which represent real objects are called positive shapes and the shapes which represent areas between them objects are called negative shapes (or negative space). Inexperienced painters are prone to consider only the impact of positive shapes. Advanced painters know that negative shapes may be used to activate the composition and enhance meaning.

In Vermeer's art, negative space is given a prominence that is rare among European painters. Far from being leftovers, the observer feels that the negative spaces, each with a peculiar shape and contour of its own, play an active and subtly expressive role. This is particularly evident in two compositions of the mid-1660s, Woman Holding a Water Pitcher and the present work. The play between positive and negative space was perhaps exploited to its highest degree by Chinese and Japanese artists

In the present work, Vermeer crafted the compositional layout with great attention to the negative spaces formed by the light-gray background wall. Each of these shapes has a simple character of its own which serves to hold the woman securely in her place and make the composition easier to read. This delicate embrace of the two negative shapes, reinforced by the central position of the figure, imbues the young woman's momentary gesture with a sense of permanency and stability.

The draping scarf

Although most of the picture is discreetly conserved, the dark blue tablecloth and a scarf-like piece of cloth that drapes below the jewelry box can be made out with some difficulty. This makeshift scarf (?) would appear to be the same type that makes minor appearances in other compositions by Vermeer including The Love Letter (draped over the foreground chair), Art of Painting (hanging down from the still life) and the Girl with a Pearl Earring (as the yellow part of the turban). Its meandering folds allow the painter to shape in any way, perhaps, in order to alleviate the strict geometrical layout of the composition. Other than its aesthetic value, it is hard to understand what function it may have had in the narrative of the painting.

The gray skirt

In terior wiuth a Woman Peeling an Apple, by Gerard ter Borch

A Woman Peeling an Apple (detail)
Gerard ter Borch
c. 1660
Oil on canvas, 36.3 x 30.7 cm.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Although not noticeable in most reproduction, the presence of a few barely visible black stripes along the very front of the skirt indicates that it was similar to similar garments featured in Dutch genre painting. The same gray skirt appears, with its decorative stripes again barely noticeable, in Vermeer's Woman with a Pearl Necklace. A similar garment is represented more advantageously in a number of elegant interior scenes painted by Gerard ter Borch, including the Interior with a Woman Peeling an Apple. Judging by its thick folds this garment was meant to protect women from the chilly Dutch winters while attending to their household duties.

The tabletop still life

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter

On the tabletop to the right of the jewelry box lies a few casually arranged objects: a piece of paper (perhaps a discarded envelope) a pearl necklace and what may be the necklace's bluish ribbon. This passage has suffered considerably. The six or seven pearls in the foreground were once echoed by another group of pearls behind the sheet of paper. In a recent restoration, however, it was discovered that the background pearls were not original. At a later date, someone had transformed a few dots of light paint on the tabletop into pearls, which were removed. The tabletop has a slightly greenish tinge when compared to the pure blue of the figure's morning jacket, but this area of the painting had not been investigated so it is not possible to know which pigments were used.

The blue tablecloth

The same deep-blue tablecloth appears in various compositions by Vermeer, at times rucked up to one side of the sill life, at other times carefully stretched over the table as to avoid creating any folds. Vermeer possibly intended it to have a different color given that the illuminated portion is slightly greenish when compared to the pure blue painting of the young woman's morning jacket. Since greens were often made by mixing a yellow and blue pigment, it may be one of those that fade. This phenomenon is visible in many Dutch still-life and landscape paintings that show blue vegetation where the painter had originally intended to be green. Some widely used yellows, including the pigment called weld, are known to be subject to fading. This phenomenon may be responsible for the light blue color of the landmasses of the map in Vermeer's Officer and Laughing Girl, the bluish vegetation of The Little Street as well as the bluish laurel wreath and the large blue leaves of the decorative motif on the foreground tapestry's decorative motif in The Art of Painting.

Critical assessment

Vermeer's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter seems so harmonious in color, theme and mood that it is hard to imagine any other compositional solution. Indeed, as in others of his paintings, one has difficulty imagining Vermeer at work, as an artist who had to somehow compose and make tangible a concept he had conceived in his mind. Part of the problem in visualizing Vermeer's working procedure stems from the lack of available information. No drawings, prints or unfinished paintings-indeed, no records of commissions-offer clues to his intent or aspects of his working process.

Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., 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.)


Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1663–1664
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 2000

c. 1663–1664
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

c. 1662–1665
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

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

Technical report

The support is a fine, plain-weave linen with a thread count of 14.3 x 14.4 per cm². The support has been wax-resin lined and the original tacking edges have been removed. The dark gray ground contains chalk, umber, and lead white. The paint layers extend to the edge of the trimmed canvas on all sides. Some areas, such as the chair and the woman's yellow skirt, have ocher underpainting.

The surface is pitted, primarily in the white mixtures, but also in the blue parts of the background and jacket. Some blanching is evident in the blue tablecloth. The paint surface is slightly abraded, particularly in the raised edges of the paint.

* 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.)

The painting in its frame

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

Johannes Vermeer's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter with frame


  • (?) Pieter van der Lip sale, 14 June, 1712, no. 22;
  • Mozes de Chaves, Amsterdam (1759); De Chaves sale, Amsterdam, 30 November, 1772, no. 23;
  • P. Lyonet sale, Amsterdam, 11 April, 1791, no. 181, to Fouquet;
  • sale, Amsterdam (Ph. van der Schley), 14 August, 1793, no. 73;
  • Herman ten Kate, Amsterdam (?1793–1800);
  • Ten Kate sale, Amsterdam, 10 June, 1801, no. 118, to Taijs?;
  • Lespinasse de Langeac sale, Paris (Paillet), 16 January, 1809, no. 85;
  • Lapeyriè re sale, Paris, 19 April, 1825, no. 127, to Berthaud;
  • [John Smith, London (after 1833–1839), sold to Van der Hoop];
  • Adriaan van der Hoop, Amsterdam (1839–1854);
  • Academy of Fine Arts, Amsterdam (1854–1885);
  • city of Amsterdam, since 1885 on loan to the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (inv. C251).


  • London 1929
    Exhibition of Dutch Art, 1450–1900
    Royal Academy of Arts
    141, no. 298 and ill.
  • London 1929
    Dutch Art. An Illustrated Souvenir of the Exhibition of Dutch Art at Burlington House
    Burlington House
    87, no. 105 and ill., as "The Letter"
  • Amsterdam 1935
    V ermeer tentoonstelling ter herdenking van de plechtige opening van het Rijksmuseum op 13 July, 1885
    30, no. 168
  • Rotterdam July 9–October 9, 1935
    Vermeer, oorsprong en invloed. Fabritius, de Hooch, de Witte
    Museum Boijmans- van Beuningen
    37, no. 86 and ill. 67
  • Washington D.C. November 12, 1995–Febraury 11, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    National Galley
    134–139, no. 9 and ill.
  • The Hague March 1–June 2, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    134–139, no. 9 and ill.
  • Kyoto June 25–October 16, 2011
    Communication: Visualizing Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer
    Municipal Museum of Art
    128, no. 41 and ill.
  • Sendai October 27, 2011–Decembe 12r, 2011
    Communication: Visualizing Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer
    Miyagi Museum of Art
    128, no. 41 and ill.
  • Tokyo December, 27–March 14, 2012
    Communication: Visualizing Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer
    The Bunkamura Museum of Art
    128, no. 41 and ill.
  • Shangai October 1–October. 31, 2012
    Woman in Blue Reading a Letter
    China Art Palace
  • São Paulo December 12, 2012–February 10, 2013
    Vermeer: Mulher de Azul Lendo uma Carta
    Museu de Arte in São Paulo
  • Los Angeles February 16–March. 31, 2013
    Johannes Vermeer's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter
    J. Paul Getty Museum
  • Minneapolis (MN) January 16–May 3, 2015
    Centennial Exhibition
    Minneapolis Institute of Arts
    no catalogue
  • San Diego CA May 14–September 11, 2015
    The Private World of Vermeer
    The Timken Museum
    no catalogue
  • Washington D.C. September 19–December 1, 2015
    Vermeer's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter from the Rijksmuseum
    National Gallery of Art
    no catalogue
  • Sydney November 11, 2017–February 18, 2018
    Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum
    Art Gallery of New South Wales
  • Canberra November, 2020–March 14, 2021
    Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery
    National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia
  • Dresden June, 4–September 12, 2021
    Vermeer: On Reflection
    Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

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

Vermeer's life

Vermeer's income in the 1660s was probably higher than in the 1670s. In the1660s, sales of paintings and especially his mother-in-law's (Maria Thins) substantial financial contributions together probably ranged from 850 to 1,500 guilders a year. A mason earned about 500 guilders.

Vermeer is elected for the first time headsman of the Guild of Saint Luke in Delft at the age of 30 for a two year term. However, by this time many artists resident in Delft had left for the more prosperous Amsterdam and so his election may have had less significance than once believed. He was the youngest artist to become headmaster since the guild was organized in 1611.

Many of the luxury items seen in Vermeer's interiors such as the virginal seen in The Music Lesson were economically out of reach of the artist. They may have been lent to him by affluent men of culture or clients such as Diego Duarte, a rich Antwerp banker, in whose important art collection was cited "a young lady playing a clavecin, with accessories, by Vermeer." The virginal seen in Vermeer's Music Lesson was built by Johannes Ruckers. These rare instruments were sold at about 300 guiders, about half the cost of Gerrit Dou, a Frans van Mieris. An averge Dutch house might cost 1,000 guilders. In Delft, hese instruments were owned by the official town musician Scholl.

Dutch painting

Pieter Saendredam (b. 1597) dies in Haarlem.

Despite its decline, Delft remained and important city of passage for artists passing from Haarlem, Utrecht and Amsterdam. It contained a number of fine art collections. Ferries parted many times a day to the nearby The Hague and Amsterdam was less than a days away on an inexpensive horse-towed barge.

European painting & architecture André Le Nôtre designs park and gardens of Versailles Louis XIV begins to build palace of Versailles; he makes Charles Lebrun his chief artistic adviser.
Music Composer Henry Lawes dies at London October 21 at age 66.
Science & philosophy

New Amsterdam colonist John Bowne is arrested for permitting Quakers to hold meetings in his Flushing house, completed last year at what will become 37–01 Bowne Street, Queens (see Mathematician-physicist-philosopher-theologian Blaise Pascal dies at the Jansenist Port-Royal monastery in Paris August 19 at age 39.

Publication of a world atlas in eleven parts by Joan Blaeu in Amsterdam.

Remonstrance, 1657). Bowne is convicted of having violated Governor Peter Stuyvesant's ban on Quaker assemblies. He is jailed and banished, but when he reaches Holland and appeals to the Dutch West India Company, it acquits him of all charges, frees him, and rebukes Governor Stuyvesant, thereby establishing the right to free practice of religious worship.

Blaise Pascal proposes the introduction of a public transport system in Paris. Coaches would travel along predetermined routes and take passengers for a small fee. The first coach goes into service during the following year.

Founding of the Academia Leopoldina in Vienna

The Royal Society receives charter from Charles II.

Holland and France form an alliance against possible attack by England.

Vermeer's life

In the early and mid-1660s Vermeer paints a series of extraordinary pictures of single women in the corner of a room absorbed in their activity. Even their most striking passages of observation are always subordinated to the impression made by the whole composition.

A French diplomat and art connoisseur Balthasar de Monconys visits Vermeer in Delft. In his diary he notes that he was unable to see any paintings there and had to visit the house of a baker where he saw a painting with a single figure.

De Monconys comes initially as a tourist, evidently unaware of Vermeer's presence. A few weeks later, he went to pay his respects in The Hague to Constantijn Huygens, an important art connoisseur and theorist of Dutch culture. De Monconys admired his art collection and described it in detail. However, one can only imagine how amazed Huygens must have been to hear that the Frenchman had been in Delft, without visiting Vermeer. It seems a reasonable assumption that Huygens urged de Monconys to meet with the Delft painter, given the Frenchman's predilection for fine art. Not long afterward, de Monconys did indeed visit with Vermeer at his house, and wrote the following account in his diary journal, which was published in 1665, the year of his death: "In Delft I saw the painter Verme(e)r who did not have any of his works: but we did see one at a baker's, for which six hundred livres had been paid, although it contained but a single figure, for which six pistoles would have been too high a price." Simply put, de Monconys thought the painting he saw was worth less than a tenth of the price mentioned.

c. 1663 a son named Johannes, named after himself, is born to Vermeer.

Dutch painting

Rembrandt depicts himself as a bit player in his painting The Raising of the Cross.

Jan Steen paints The Drawing Lesson.

Pieter de Hooch: At the Linen Closet.

Adriaen van de Velde paints Cattle near a Building.

Pieter de Hooch, who had moved away from Delft to Amsterdam to seek more patronage, returns to Delft at least once in this year.

European painting & architecture

Bernini: Scala Regia, Vatican, Rome

Building of Castle Nymphenburg, near Munich.

Nicolas Poussin paints The Four Seasons.

France's minister of finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert appoints painter Charles Le Brun director of the Gobelins, which will grow under Le Brun's direction from a small tapestry manufactory into a vast enterprise that supplies all of the royal houses. The Academy of Painting and Sculpture is reorganized, with Le Brun as its director.


Mar 7, Tomaso Antonio Vitali, composer, is born.

Pascal: L'Equilibre des liqueurs (posth.)


The Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres (the Academy of the Humanities) is founded in Paris.

John Milton marries Elizabeth Minshull.

Science & philosophy

Isaac Newton discovers the binomial theorem.

Physicist Otto von Guericke invents the first electric generator. It produces static electricity by applying friction against a revolving ball of sulfur, and Guericke will show in 1672 that the electricity can cause the surface of the sulfur ball to glow.


Dutch forces hold the best pepper ports of India's Malabar Coast, giving them a virtual stranglehold on the spice trade once controlled by Portugal.

A Third Navigation Act adopted by Parliament July 27 forbids English colonists to trade with other European countries. European goods bound for America must be unloaded at English ports and reshipped, even though English export duties and profits to middlemen may make prices prohibitive in America.

Vermeer's life

In a death inventory of the English sculptor Jean Larson, who lived in the Hague, is listed "a head by Vermeer." Some critics believe it may have bee the Girl with a Pearl Earring.

In the early to mid-1660s Vermeer refined all the qualities of his mature style. In his orderly designs, Vermeer gave new life to familiar patterns of contemporary genre painting by closely studying the subtleties of appearance.

Dutch painting

Pieter de Hooch paints Young Woman Weighing Gold

Jan Steen: paints The Christening Feast.

Frans Hals, one of the most fashionable portraitists of his time and now in his late sixties, paints two of his most significant group portraits, the Regents and Regentesses of the Old Men's Alshouse at Haarlem. Owing to his dire poverty he will be given a small allowance by the town of Haarlem.

European painting & architecture

Nicola Poussin paints Apollo and Daphne

John Vanbrugh, Eng. architect and dramatist, is born.

Christopher Wren: Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford.

Francisco de Zurbaran, Spanish painter, dies.


The French horn becomes an orchestral instrument.

Oratorio: Christmas Oratorio by Heinrich Schütz at Dresden.


William Shakespeare - the second impression of the Third Folio, which added seven plays to the thirty-six of the First Folio and the Second: Pericles, Prince of Tyre and six works from the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

Thomas Killigrew and the King's Company stage Killigrew's The Parson's Wedding with an all-female cast. Killigrew attempts a similar all-female production of his play Thomaso, though the project is never realized.

Science & philosophy

Robert Hooke discovers the Great Red Spot (an extremely persistent storm) on Jupiter and uses it to determine the period of Jupiter's rotation, which is astonishingly less than ten hours despite Jupiter's great size.

Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, calculates the orbit of a comet and finds that it is a parabola (not a circle, ellipse, or line as expected in various earlier theories).

Descartes' Traité de l'homme et de la formation de foetus (treatise on man and the formation of the fetus), printed posthumously, describes animals as purely mechanical beings; that is, there is no "vital force" that makes animals different from other material objects.

Christiaan Huygens proposes that the length of a pendulum with a period of one second should be the standard unit for length.


Aug 29, Adriaen Pieck/Gerrit de Ferry patented a wooden firespout in Amsterdam.

New Amsterdam handed over by Peter Stuyvesant to the English, who renames the city New York

Amsterdam passes a regulation banning the sale of "rotten, spoiled, or defective spinach, cucumbers, and carrots, ears of corn, radishes, or other fruits [vegetables] because pride could not be taken in or from such things."

Slavery is introduced into the Caribbean island of Montserrat and will not be abolished until 1834.

The Black Death kills 24,000 in old Amsterdam while the English are taking Nieuw Amsterdam. The plague spreads to Brussels and throughout much of Flanders, and in December it kills two Frenchmen in London's Drury Lane. Men who put the dead into the deadcarts keep their pipes lit in the belief, now widespread, that tobacco smokers will somehow be spared.

Samuel Pepys buys forks for his household, but most Englishmen continue to eat with their fingers and will continue to do so until early in the next century lest they be considered effete or, in the opinion of some clergymen, even sacrilegious. A man going out to dinner has for centuries brought his own spoon and knife, the spoon being folded into the pocket and the knife carried in a scabbard attached to the belt; more men now carry folding forks as well.

The Kronenbourg Brewery founded in Alsace will continue into the 21st century to produce beer.

Vermeer's life Pieter van Ruijven and his wife Maria Knuijt leave 500 guilders to Vermeer in their last will and testament. This kind of a bequest is very unusual and testifies a close relationship between Vermeer and Van Ruijven that went beyond the usual patron/painter one. It would seem that in his life-time the rich Delft burger had bought a sizable share of Vermeer's artistic output.
Dutch painting

Rembrandt paints The Jewish Bride.

Adriaen van Ostade paints The Physician in His Study.

c. 1665 Gerrit Dou painted Woman at the Clavichord and a Self-Portrait in which he resembled Rembrandt.

European painting & architecture

Bernini finishes high altar, Saint Peter's, Rome (begun 1656).

Murillo: Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

Nicolas Poussin, French painter, dies. Known as the founder of French Classicism, he spent most of his career in Rome which he reached at age 30 in 1624. His Greco-Romanism work includes The Death of Chione and The Abduction of the Sabine Women.

Compagnie Saint-Gobain is founded by royal decree to make mirrors for France's Louis XIV. It will become Europe's largest glass-maker.

Francesco Borromini completes Rome's Church of San Andrea delle Fratte.


Molière: Don Giovanni.

Sep 22, Moliere's L'amour Medecin, premiered in Paris.


Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society begins publication.

Science & philosophy

Giovanni Cassini determines rotations of Jupiter, Mars, and Venus.

Peter Chamberlen, court physician to Charles 11, invents midwifery forceps

Pierre de Fermat, French mathematician, dies. His equation xn + yn = zn is called Fermat's Last Theorem and remained unproven for many years. The history of its resolution and final proof by Andrew Wiles is told by Amir D. Aczel in his 1996 book Fermat's Last Theorem. Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh was published in 1997. In 1905 Paul Wolfskehl, a German mathematician, bequeathed a reward of 100,000 marks to whoever could find a proof to Fermat's "last theorem." It stumped mathematicians until 1993, when Andrew John Wiles made a breakthrough.

Francis Grimaldi: Physicomathesis de lumine (posth.) explains diffraction of light.

Isaac Newton experiments on gravitation; invents differential calculus.

Robert Hooke's Micrographia, with illustrations of objects viewed through a microscope, is published. The book greatly influences both scientists and educated laypeople. In it, Hooke describes cells (viewed in sections of cork) for the first time. Fundamentally, it is the first book dealing with observations through a microscope, comparing light to waves in water.

Mathematician Pierre de Fermat dies at Castres January 12 at age 63, having (with the late Blaise Pascal) founded the probability theory. His remains will be reburied in the family vault at Toulouse.


English naval forces defeat a Dutch fleet off Lowestoft June 3 as a Second Anglo-Dutch war begins, 11 years after the end of the first such war. General George Monck, 1st duke of Albemarle, commands the English fleet, Charles II bestows a knighthood on Irish-born pirate Robert Holmes, 42, and promotes him to acting rear admiral, giving him command of the new third-rate battleship Defiance, but the Dutch block the entrance to the Thames in October.

Feb 6, Anne Stuart, queen of England (1702–1714), is born.

At least 68,000 Londoners died of the plague in this year.

University of Kiel is founded.

The second war between England and the United Provinces breaks out. It will last until 1667 and devastate the art market.

Mar 11, A new legal code was approved for the Dutch and English towns, guaranteeing religious observances unhindered.

Nov 7, The London Gazette, the oldest surviving journal, is first published.

Ceylon becomes important trade centre for the VOC

Violence in Vermeer's life

Judging by the serenity which reigns in Vermeer's painting of the early 1660s, one could never imagine how troublesome the artist's family life was in those years. In 1663, Willem Bolnes, the brother of Vermeer's wife Catharina, had targeted the artist's family with uncontrollable fits of violence as he had done to his own family of origin. The situation deteriorated to the point that his sister, Cornelia Thins, who was about to die in 1661, decided to disinherit him.

On various occasions, Willem Bolnes had created a violent commotion in the house, to such an extent that many people gathered before the door. He swore at his mother, calling her an "old popish swine," a "she-devil" and other such ugly swear words for which in the words of an eye witness, "for the sake of decency, must be passed over." Vermeer's maid, Tanneke Everpoel, saw that Bolnes had pulled a knife and tried to wound his mother with it. She further declared that Maria Thins had suffered so much violence from her son that she dared not go out of her room and was forced to have her food and drink brought. Bolnes committed similar violence from time to time against the daughter of Maria, the wife of Johannes Vermeer, "threatening to beat her on diverse occasions with a stick, notwithstanding the fact that she was pregnant to the last degree."

An "ideal world" or "snapshot" of daily life?

The Letter, Gerrit ter Borch

The Letter
Gerrit ter Borch
c. 1660–1662
Oil on canvas, 81.9 x 68.2 cm.
The Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace

Art historians have definitely overturned the long-held belief that Dutch interior painters, like Vermeer, painted literal transcriptions of 17th-century daily life in the Netherlands. We now know that such interiors were "constructed" rather than "found." Thus, rather than a snapshot of reality, they offer a highly selective view of an ideal world. The art rt historian Alison Kettering suggests that such elaborate paintings not only registered prevailing ideals about women's behavior but help construct and define models to which the owners of such paintings could aspire.

In particular, Maria de Knuijt, the wife of Vermeer's patron Pieter van Ruijven, might have found the chaste dignity which signals Vermeer's interpretations of femininity particularly appealing. Encouragement by faithful, sympathetic patrons to explore domestic subjects no doubt nourished Vermeer's inborn perfectionism.

Is the young woman pregnant?

According to the Dutch costume expert Marieke de Winkel, pregnancy "was not a common subject in art and there are very few depictions of maternity wear (in a pendant of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit painted by Rembrandt in 1634, Oopjen appears visibly pregnant: she gave birth to her first child shortly after the picture was finished.). Even in religious paintings such as the Visitation, where the depictions of pregnant women are required, the bodies of the Virgin and Saint Elizabeth were usually completely concealed by draperies." De Winkel further argues that "to my knowledge there are no examples of pregnant women in Dutch portraiture, an interesting fact considering that many women were painted in their first year of marriage, a time when they could have been with child." Pregnancy was most likely not seen as aesthetically attractive.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. corroborated De Winkel's position: "Dutch fashions in the mid-17th century seemed to have encouraged a bulky silhouette. The impression of the short jacket worn over a thickly padded skirt in Vermeer's painting in particular may create just such an impression."

The letter-writing theme

Woman Tearing a Letter, Dirk Hals

Woman Tearing a Letter
Dirck Hals
Oil on panel, 45 x 55 cm.
Mittelrheinisches Landesmuseum, Mainz

Although his genius has never been questioned in modern times, Vermeer was not a particularly inventive painter. Lawrence Gowing, one of the most perceptive Vermeer critics and himself painter, was the first to point out that it is hard to find a single theme of any boldness in his work that is not based on precedent. After decades of analysis and comparative study, it has become evident that the majority of his motifs, including the letter readers or writers, are directly derivative.

Dirk Hals, the brother of the famous portraitist Frans Hals, had already pioneered the letter-writing theme by 1631, one year before Vermeer was born. By the time Ter Borch had virtually perfected the motif, Vermeer had only just turned from his first faltering history paintings to the new idiom. Ter Borch's Woman Writing a Letter predates in composition, theme and mood Vermeer's own work by the same title by almost a decade. A comparison between De Hooch's Goldweigher and Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance provides an astounding example of to what extent Vermeer was willing to appropriate thematic and compositional elements, practically verbatim, from his colleagues.

Borrowing successful motifs was standard procedure at the time when painters sold their works on the open, competitive market. Originality did not have the same importance as it does today.

The letter motif in Dutch painting

Cupid Presenting a Letter to a Maiden, Emblem from Jan Harmenz. Krul

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

Seventeenth-century paintings of letter reading and letter writing evoke two separate worlds of time and space—the world of the writer or reader depicted by the artist on his canvas and the world of the absent person. These images are so captivating, especially when we are dealing with the love-letter theme, precisely because we will never know the contents of the letters. However, even if convention suggests that private letters were written by suitors or lovers, recent investigations of period letters written by women show that they deal with a much wider range of subjects than love. Most, in fact, were designed to strengthen social relationships or maintain friendships.

The present-day reader must take into account that although the Netherlands enjoyed the highest rate of literacy in Europe, not all who read were able to write, this being especially so with women who generally were given less formal education than boys and were prohibited from attending Latin schools. Marriage registries in Amsterdam, which had to be signed by both the bride and groom, reveal that one out of three men and two out of three women could not sign their own name. Even accounting for the fact that Amsterdam was a magnet for foreign workers, the statistics are nonetheless high by the standards of the day.

Letters, not only a means practical means for communication of business matters, but had also become an accepted art form in 17th-century Dutch literature despite classical and Christian ideals of poetry and pose. However, contemporary emblem books characterize letter writing, especially love letters, as a vain pastime and admonish the reader of the transitory nature of worldly existence.

Danger lurks within the love letter

Houwelijck, Jacob Cats

"Virgin, Lover, Bride, Wife, Mother, Widow"
Jacob Cats

By the time Vermeer approached his first letter-theme paintings, love letters became a widespread fashion in the Netherlands. Although the love-letter motif may seem innocuous, contemporary literature of jurisprudence had declared that litterae amatoriae were subject to legal inquiry. Lawyers could use them as evidence of either a promise of matrimony or if one of the writers was already married, infidelity.

Jacob Cats, the unchallenged master of Dutch moralistic literature, took a disapproving attitude to females writing love letters in his Houwelijck (Marriage, 1652), a monumental written example of female conduct described through successive stages of a woman's life.

Cats describes how within the early months of marriage—the woman had to transform herself from vrijster (courtship girl) to vrouwe (housewife, house manager). To what point real Dutch woman heeded Cats' warnings is unknown.

In the section called "Trouringh" a young female called Rosette dialogues with a slightly older, recently married woman called Sibille about the dangers in composing love letters. To Rosette's question concerning the opportunity to express her feelings through writing, Sibille responds thus:

To write to a young fellow
Is never becoming of a maid;
Your good name, oh demure creature,
Must not be committed to paper;
If someone even lets one word slip out
When the youth gather,
It flies like the wind
So that no one can find it again;
Yet it is not as enduring
As that which is written by the bold pen;
And there follows a quarrel,
As often arises between lovers,
So your letter' and its outrageous statements,
Is announced to the public
And there is no denying it,
The big letters are clearly visible,
And leaves you with the greatest regret,
You will then suffer reproaches;
Thus have you shamed honorable love;
Never write stupid letters.

Ultramarine blue: the king of pigments

Lumps of lapis lazuli

The woman's satin garment is painted almost entirely with varying shades of ultramarine blue, white and small quantities of black in the deepest shadows. Vermeer used blue more than any other "strong" color. The fact that he used the highest grade of natural ultramarine, the most brilliant and expensive blue pigment available of his time, testifies to the importance he associated with its optical quality. It is not out of the question that the noble lineage of this "pigment of pigments" may have come into play as well.

Perhaps the satin dress of the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter best illustrates the power of blue. Throughout history, blue was the color of all heavenly gods. It stands for distance, the divine and the spiritual. This interpretation goes back to ancient Egyptians and was taken on by later cultures. From a psychological point of view, blue tends to invoke dreamlike states. It instills yearnings, has a calming effect and leads to meditative introspection. Ultramarine blue was employed almost obsessively in the present picture, is found even in the light gray mixtures of the wall and the round ball of the map hanger. Vermeer used the same technique in the Woman Holding a Water Pitcher of the same years.

Natural ultramarine pigment (the coloring substance of paint) is made of the powder of the crushed semi-precious stone lapis lazuli. After being thoroughly purified by repeated washing, the powder is bonded to a drying oil through hand mulling. Only stones of the highest quality could be prepared just by washing and grinding. For lower qualities, a laborious method of extracting the mineral lazurite was necessary, which Cennini described in his treatise (c. 1390). The best varieties of lapis lazuli were imported from Afghanistan via Venice.

The pitfalls of symbolic interpretation

Although iconographic studies of Vermeer's paintings have yielded important insights into how the artist conveyed concealed meaning, particular caution should be used when examining the minutiae of his motifs.

On several occasions, Vermeer included the same precise objects in different settings and activities. The map of the Netherlands that appears in the present painting, for example, also appears bathed in sunshine in early Officer and Laughing Girl and shrouded in darkness in the late Love Letter. Moreover, Vermeer painted out two large maps, one in the Woman with a Pearl Necklace and the other in The Milkmaid. While the map of Holland in the Officer and Laughing Girl has been linked to the courting soldier who attempts to "conquer" the young girl much as a military campaign conquers land, the same reading would be disastrous if associated with the other pictures.

In fact, the appearance of the same map in different contexts tends to undermine the idea of a specific symbolic function for each painting. In his seminal study of Pieter de Hooch, an artist who deeply influenced Vermeer's choice of subject matter, Peter Sutton wrote that it is more probable that the artist was in the habit of quoting familiar sources, usually prints, without much concern for their symbolic content, rather than invoking multiple interpretability. No iconographic interpretation has been advanced in the case of De Hooch's omnipresent maps. It is more likely that Vermeer deployed his maps as compositional and decorative elements like many other Dutch interior painters of the time.

An extraordinary composition

The narrative of the present picture is simple in that it is one of the few pictures by Vermeer that has resisted scholarly interpretation. It shows a young woman in her morning dress as she carefully reads the contents of a letter. Art historians are sure that it is a love letter.

The bell-shaped woman occupies the center of the painting, her tight pose exalting both intensity of her emotions and her withdrawal from the surroundings. The large wall map behind her and the table to the lower-left embrace her within a rectangular pictorial world. The chair to the lower right protects her from lateral intrusion while the back of the chair which surfaces from behind the table seals her in from the left. The only signal of her thoughts is suggested by the swirling patterns of the map which swirl around her. Anecdotal details that might distract the viewer from the central theme are religiously excluded. The few objects on the table constitute the most Spartan of still lifes in the artist's oeuvre.

However, the composition's deceptive simplicity was not achieved without significant revision and artistic license. Autoradiograph and x-ray images reveal that the woman originally wore a different kind of jacket, which presumably had fur trimming and flared out like the ones in many other pictures by Vermeer. The edge of the map too once extended a few centimeters to the left. Given the lighting scheme and restricted distance of the figure from the back wall, Vermeer eliminated a large shadow which the woman would have cast on the background wall.

The painting in scale

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

Johannes Vermeer's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter in scale

"Jolly" Willem Buytewech

Willem Pieterszoon Buytewech, the inventor of the Dutch interior, was the first to place large wall maps on the background wall. His acute irony won him the nickname "Gheestige Willem" (Jolly William). His genre pieces, which are more specifically categorized as merry companies, portray luxurious fabrics, overflowing tables and the immodest conduct of foppish Dutch youths.

Merry Company, Willem Buytewech

Merry Company (detail)
Willem Buytewech
Oil on canvas, 34.5 x 27 cm.
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Art historians have speculated that the prominent position maps in Buytewech's paintings may have served as a foil for the lively colored figures placed in front of them and, perhaps, to lend further meaning to the scene. In one picture, it has been suggested that the richly attired woman who stands in front of a colorful map represents Vrouw Wereld, or Lady World, the embodiment of all earthly desire. The map replaces her more traditional attribute, a globe or imperial orb on her head. The bright coloring on Buytewech's two maps resembles that of original cartographic material from the period. The artist may have wished to offer a contrast to the plain, light gray walls of a typical Dutch interior.

As noted by art historian James A. Welu, "Those unfamiliar with cartography of the sixteenth and seventeenth century may not recognize the geographical contents of Buytewech's two maps of Holland, for both are oriented with south at the top. At this time the designing of maps with north at the top was not yet a standardized practice; a map could be arranged with north at the left, right, or bottom, according to the preference of the cartographer. Wall maps of this period were usually made up of a number of engraved sheets which for display purposes were mounted onto a linen backing, then hand colored and given a coat of varnish.

Because of their size and exposure to light and climatic changes, wall maps were much more vulnerable than atlas or folio-size maps. The number of originals that survive from the 16th and 17th centuries is extremely low. In fact, catalogues, inventories and other documents from the period list numerous wall maps of which not a single original is known."

Recent restoration

In 2010, the Rijksmuseum undertook a full restoration of the present picture. The overall appearance was refreshed and the coloring of the woman's silk morning jacket is much more intense than the upholstery coverings of the two chairs to the right and left of the standing figure. This blue's intensity gives the figure more volume, projects it towards the viewer's eye and enhances the sense of three-dimensional depth.

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (detail), Johannes Vermeer

A row of tiny brass nail-heads that run along the horizontal shadowed edge of the foreground chair was discovered. The curious, brownish scarf-like object which meanders in the deep shadow and hangs off the foreground edge of the table has acquired more substance. It may be the same cloth that drapes from the table in The Art of Painting and over the foreground chair in the late Love Letter.

Minor retouches that had previously altered some of the map's topographical features have been removed.

EV 3.0 Newsletter ✉