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
there are 9 hotspots in the image below
Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, Johannes Vermeer

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

No signature appears on this work.

c. 1663-1664
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997)

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

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 Wheelock)

literature

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 (1839-54);
  • Academy of Fine Arts, Amsterdam (1854-85);
  • city of Amsterdam, since 1885 on loan to the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (inv. C251).
  • Tokyo 20 September - 24 November, 1974
    Meisterwerke der Europäischen Kunst – Dresden.
  • Kyoto 2 December, 1974 – 26 January, 1975
    Meisterwerke der Europäischen Kunst. Nationalmuseum.
  • Moscow 10 October - 18 November, 1984
    Gerettete Meisterwerke. Puschkin Museum.
  • Leningrad [St. Petrsberg] 6 December, 1984 – 20 January, 1985
    Gerettete Meisterwerke. Staatliche Eremitage.
  • Madrid 19 February – 18 May,  2003
    Vermeer y el interior holandés. Il Prado.
    165-167, no. 32 and ill.
  • Kobe January – 22 May, 2005
    Dresden-Spiegel der Welt. Die Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden in Japan. Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art.
  • Tokyo 28 June - 19 September, 2005
    Dresden-Spiegel der Welt. Die Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden in Japan. National Museum of Western Art.
  • Dresden September 3 – November 28, 2010
    Der frühe Vermeer. Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.
1662
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 The 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.
literature

 

science & philosophy  
history

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.

1663
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.

music

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

Pascal: L'Equilibre des liqueurs (posth.)

literature

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.

history

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.

1664
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.

music

The French horn becomes an orchestral instrument.

Oratorio: Christmas Oratorio by Heinrich Schütz at Dresden.

literature

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.

history

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.

1665
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.

music

Molière: Don Giovanni.

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

literature

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.

history

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 (1702-14), 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

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

On various occasions in the past, 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 a testimony, "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. Also that Bolnes committed similar violence from time to time against the daughter of Maria's, 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."

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 tenet that Dutch interior painters, like Vermeer, furnished literal transcriptions of the daily life in 17th-century Netherlands. We now know that such interiors were "constructed" rather than "found." Thus, they offer a highly selective view of an ideal world rather than a snapshot of reality. In reference specifically to the art of Gerrit ter Borch, perhaps Vermeer's most talented colleague, art 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 particularly appealing the chaste dignity which signals Vermeer's interpretations of femininity. Encouragement by faithful, sympathetic patrons to explore domestic subjects no doubt nourished his artistic perfectionism as well as his sense of self.

According to Marieke de Winkel, Dutch costume expert, pregnancy "was not a common subject in art and there are very few depictions of maternity wear. 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 Wheelock has written that "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."

Woman Tearing a Letter, Dirk Hals

Woman Tearing a Letter
Dirck Hals
1631
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 a painter himself, was the first to point out that it is hard to find a single theme of any boldness in his work which is not based on precedent. After decades of analysis and comparative study, it has become evident that the majority of his motifs, including letter readers or writers, are directly derivative.

Dirk Hals (1591-1656), 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 subject, Vermeer had only just turned from his first faltering history paintings to this 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 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.

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

The immensely popular 17th-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 pictorial convention suggests that private letters were written by suitors or lovers, recent investigation 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.

Curiously, 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, had also become an accepted art form in 17th-century Dutch literature in spite of the classic 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.

Houwelijck, Jacob Cats

Houwelijck
"Virgin, Lover, Bride, Wife, Mother, Widow"
Jacob Cats
1652

By the time Vermeer approached his first letter themed paintings, love letters became a widespread fashion in the Netherlands. Although the love-letter motif may at first glance seem innocuous, contemporary literature of jurisprudence had declared that litterae amatoriae were subject to legal enquiry. 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 "best-seller" of Dutch moralistic literature, took as 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.

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 preferred 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 and it is not out of the question that the noble lineage of this "pigment of pigments" may have come into play. In the later years of financial hardship, his patron Pieter van Ruijven may have financed such an expensive habit.

Perhaps the satin dress of the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter best illustrates the psychological 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, which seems to have been employed almost obsessively in the present picture, is even found 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 washings, 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.

Although iconographic studies of Vermeer's paintings have yielded important insights into his mode of constructing and conveying concealed meaning, caution should not be put aside when examining the minutiae of his motifs.

On several occasions Vermeer included the same precise objects in significantly different settings and activities. The map of the Netherlands which 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.

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 analogous to the scores of other Dutch interior painters of the time.

The narrative of the picture is of the utmost simplicity and is, perhaps, Vermeer's interior which has most successfully 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 securely embraces 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 which might distract the viewer from the central theme are religiously excluded. The few objects on the table constitute perhaps 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. 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 edge of the map too, once extended a few centimeters to the left.

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

Willem Pieterszoon Buytewech was the first painter to include large wall maps in the background of his works. Moreover, Buytewech, virtually unknown to the public at large, is credited as for being nothing-less than the inventor of the Dutch genre interior. 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 immodest conduct of foppish Dutch youths.

Merry Company, Willem Buytewech

Merry Company (detail)
Willem Buytewech
1620-22
Oil on canvas, 34.5 x 27 cm.
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

The maps in Buytewech's paintings may have served as a unifying background for the variety of lively-colored figures placed in front of them and historians have speculated that their prominent position suggests that they were included to lend further meaning to the scene. In one picture, it has been suggested that the richly attired woman who stands in a colorful map (see image left) represents Vrouw Wereld, or Lady World, the embodiment of all earthly desire, and that 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 century 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."

Many regard Buytewech's merry company pictures as a warning of the pitfalls of worldliness, an appropriate background for the fashionably dressed men who indulge in the sensual pastimes of smoking and drinking. Geroen Giltay, curator of Old Master paintings of Boijmans Van Beuningen, offhandedly rejects the notion that Buytewech's meant much more than what they appear to represent. "In most current literature it is assumed that Buytewech is castigating the foolish young men and warning them of the transitoriness of mortal existence." Giltay states unequivocally, "These are true-to-life characterizations of idle young men, depicted with humor."

In 2010, the Rijksmuseum undertook a full restoration of this picture. Other than the overall refreshed appearance, the most striking difference of the restoration is the renewed brilliant coloring of the woman's silk morning jacket which now appears to be 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 of the pictured space.

Also to be noted is the discovery of a row of tiny brass nail-heads which run along the horizontal, shadowed edge of the foreground chair. 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 and detail which had lacked before the restoration. This curious scarf-like object most likely is the same that gracefully drapes off 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.