/ Essays / 2003 / No.2: Letters from Delft

Friederun Hardt-FriederichsEssay No.2November, 04 2003

Letters from Delft

...or what about all those declarations of love? How does Vermeer show us the woman of his times?

Because in the closing decades of the 17th century the postal service was already working well, the art of correspondence blossomed in the Netherlands. By that time, lively interest in letter-writing had produced several advice books containing models to teach less imaginative correspondents the art of composition.
Brieflesendes Mädchen am offenen Fenster
Figure 1:
Brieflesendes Mädchen am offenen Fenster
Johannes Vermeer "van Delft" (1632-1675)
canvas, 83 x 65 cm

With friendly permission of Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
Photo: Estel/Klut, gallery-number: 1336

The Dutch master Jan Vermeer, who resided in Delft from 1632 to 1675, took up this theme many times in his painting.

Of the painter's modest life not much can be said with certainty. Yet Vermeer became known as a painter of silence, peace and poetry of the everyday life of his times. He preferred domestic scenes where his female models often engaged in household tasks, playing instruments and singing, or writing, reading or, indeed, opening letters.

These are nicely dressed young girls and women of the upper bourgeoisie engaged in such activities while maids are left to do a large portion of the work. We find these elegant women again and again in similar domestic arrangements. Clearly, the artist recycled the same furniture as background in many pictures, just as his models are often to be found wearing jackets trimmed with ermine.

The ermine's white winter coloration typically tipped in black was originally reserved for coronations. An ermine coat also distinguished cosmopolitan princes who donned the garment only on specific occasions. Therefore, Vermeer's painting his young women in ermine-trimmed jackets was no accident but suggests an intention to associate them symbolically with noble values and give them a royal sheen.

Woman in blue reading a letter
Figure 2:
Woman in blue reading a letter, C
Johannes Vermeer "van Delft" (1632-1675)

With friendly permission of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
In two paintings titled "Brieflesendes Mädchen am offenen Fenster" (figure 1) and "Woman Reading a Letter" (figure 2) we see a young woman deeply engaged in perusing a letter; she remains standing. The subjects in both paintings are turned toward the source of light or the window, allowing viewers to contemplate their profiles. They are holding their letters tightly in both hands, perhaps to ease reading if, let's suppose, they are shaking from emotion.

What the message could be, we can't really know but it looks as if the same letter has been read over and over: it is clearly wrinkled (figure 1). The painting in warm red and brown tones is often considered his best. In it he's portrayed an elegant young woman dressed in the latest fashion. In the other canvas (figure 2), in contrast, whose hues are mainly cool
The art of painting
Figure 3:
The art of painting, ca. 1665/66
Johannes Vermeer "van Delft" (1632-1675)
canvas, 120 x 100 cm

With friendly permission of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien
blues and creams, we find a model in simple maternity dress. Critics disagree, however, when confronted with a seemingly pregnant woman in Vermeer: is she really with child, or rather, in the absence of a warm coat, has she simply put on many layers of clothing?

In my view it's perfectly natural that he should have painted pregnant women. As the father of 11 children, he was used to seeing a rounded female form. But is the model in those paintings actually his wife? The thought remains unverified.
In this regard, a comparative study of the representation of pregnancy in painting would be an admirable and inspiring project. In 1906 Paula Modersohn-Becker painted herself as a naked pregnant woman in "Selbstbildnis mit Bernsteinkette" (Museum Bötcherstraße, Bremen).

In "The Art of Painting" (figure 3) we think we see the artist himself from the back although no self-portrait is known to exist. Yet, because only 31-35 pictures have been identified as definitely his, (the numbers diferr in the results of research) we can't discard the possibility.

Mistress and Maid
Figure 4:
Mistress and Maid
Johannes Vermeer "van Delft" (1632-1675)
Painted probably between 1665 and 1670, Oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 31 in. (90.2 x 78.7 cm.)

With friendly permission of The Frick Collection
"The Art of Painting" represents Clio, the muse of history. Following Cesare Ripa's Iconologia, Vermeer has painted her as a woman with designated props, including the crown of laurel and trumpet as symbols of fame as well as the book, possibly taken from Heroditus or Thucydides. In any case, today's viewer is astonished at the peace and tranquillity as well as the contemplative concentration in Vermeer's painting, the enchantment produced despite cramped quarters and the liveliness of his many children at home.

What both women might have been doing before each began reading her letter, we don't know. On the table in front of the recipient in figure 2 lies a closed book which she might well have been studying when interrupted, temporarily putting it aside. On the wall behind her we see a world map, possibly suggesting the long absence of her husband away on the business he describes in the letter.

A Lady Writing
Figure 5:
A Lady Writing, ca 1665
Johannes Vermeer
Oil on canvas; 45 x 39,9 cm

Image permitted for this size by: National Gallery of Art, Washington. For a larger image it is necessary to visit the website.
Women in other paintings by Vermeer appear quite differently. A young blond in a yellow dress with an ermine-trimmed jacket sits at a table and writes. Holding a letter her maid enters (figure 4), (thus the title, "Mistress and Maid"). The young author stops writing, her left hand at her chin in surprise as she sends the maid a questioning look. Sadly, the viewer can't hear the servant's answer. Could it be that the delivered letter's author is the addressee of the present script? Has he anticipated her? Is it a love letter? Or maybe a refusal? She can't yet know, of course, only guess, since the letter hasn't been opened yet.

Both similar and different is the situation in Vermeer's "A Lady Writing" (figure 5). Again we find the blond in her yellow ermine-trimmed jacket sitting at a table pen in hand. Still holding her feather, she looks up and seemingly at us, the viewers, with a tiny, surprised and mildly embarrassed smile. A moment ago she was composing undisturbed. What might have agitated her we'll never know. Had she intended to notify an admirer? At least she is dressed carefully as though for a rendezvous, her hair festive with ribbons.

Let's now turn to the scene in "The Love Letter" (figure 6). We gaze from the adjoining room out through the open door into a second room in which a young woman in an ermine-trimmed dress sits among evidence of daily domestic activity and plays the lute. With a slightly astonished expression, still holding the unopened, just-delivered letter in her hand, she gazes up at the savvy maid standing resolutely next to her. Does she not dare to open the missive? On the wall, a sailboat on a stormy sea and a broom leaning against the doorframe forebode evil. Vermeer loaded this painting with symbols but should they be interpreted ironically?

The Love Letter
Figure 6:
The Love Letter
Johannes Vermeer "van Delft" (1632-1675)

With friendly permission of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
In "Lady writing a letter with her maid" (figure 7), in contrast, a young woman, leaning over, concentrates on her writing. Maybe this is a second attempt since a first draft lies crumpled on the floor in front of the table. Her maid, quiet and relaxed, waits next to her, looking with anticipation out the window. Will the postal carrier be by right away to pick up the letter-in-progress? The young woman's hat discloses no hair. Both figures are drenched in full sunlight. The picture exudes harmony and peace. Writing is a valued activity but there's no hurry. The letter should be done neatly and well. Luxury and a high style of living are here less in evidence than in those paintings where young women are decked out in fur and pearls.

Lady writing a letter, with her Maid
Figure 7:
Lady writing a letter, with her Maid
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675)

With friendly permission of The National Gallery of Ireland. Copyright: Any form of reproduction, transmission, performance, display, rental, lending or storage in any retrieval system without the consent of the copyright holders is prohibited.
All pictures reveal a solid domesticity suggesting bourgeois affluence. Vermeer leads us into this world of tidy interiors characteristic of Delft's upper middle class. He portrays the environment in loving detail. At that time, young women and girls played a significant social role. Well-educated and independent, they could control their own agendas and bore full responsibility for household affairs, relieving their husbands to pursue business outside. Women of this class could afford to develop their talents, whether in music or writing. They seem responsible for cultural life as a whole.

In Vermeer's paintings we see Dutch women of the 17th century as active agents. Nothing holds them back from pursuing their interests, not even housework just begun. Their elegant clothes, pearls, and hair, perfectly coifed and adorned, indicate a solid bourgeois life, as does the furniture. Nothing suggests an exceptional situation, that it might be
Johannes Vermeer: Allegory of the Faith
Figure 8:
Allegory of the Faith, ca. 1670
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675)
Oil on canvas; 45 x 35 in. (114.3 x 88.9 cm)
The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 (32.100.18)

With friendly permission of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
atypical to find a woman reading or writing. Vermeer permits an intimate look into living rooms. We see the space in which his protagonists lead their normal daily lives. This impression is heightened by the maids portrayed as their mistress's intimates, initiated into secrets both big and small. So let's keep this image of an emancipated 17th century Dutch lady in mind. Yes, her main task lay in running the household and raising the children, but this included culture, reading, writing, and music.


Vermeer, whose pictures so often include letters, shows in "The Allegory of the Faith" (figure 8), painted between 1672 and 1674, an allegory of faith portrayed as a woman. Cesare Ripa's Iconologia inspired her typical accessories and symbols. Among them, we see a large, open book, the Bible, revealing Christ. Other recurring props include the strand of pearls, the black and white tiles, the chair and the globe.


[translated by Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen]

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