A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window
May 16, 2010
This oil on canvas was created in 1657 and it is a genre (an interior) scene. Nowadays it is housed in Gemaldegalerie (Berlin). This painting depicts a corner of a room where there is a young woman reading a letter by an open window. We can see an Orienatl rug and a bowl of fruit on a table. If we focus our eyes on the window we see the reflection of the girl’s face. In the right side of the painting we see a large green curtain and there is a bare wall in the back.
Some critics say that the first time we look at this painting we focus our eyes first on the window, then on the chair and finally, on the letter. The frame of the window drives our eyes to the chair that it is placed below the window, and this one drives our eyes to the letter the girl reads. The angle of the bowl of fruit and the girl’s forearm are parallel so we relate them visually.
This painting seems to be a photograph since it has no movement. The lack of movement makes the viewer be a mere observer of the scene, they cannot participate in it.
Johannes Vermeer was a master in the way he focused the light. He chose the places where set the light up carefully because the light drives the viewers’ eyes. This painting has five points of light that emphasize the most important elements of it:
* The window
* The curtain
* The girl’s face
* The bowl of fruit
* The letter
When the painting was analysed by X-rays a painting of a Cupid appeared on the wall. Since that moment many theories that try to explain why Vermeer decided to removed it have appeared. Some of them are:
*He removed it because it would call the attention of the viewers and he wanted them to observe the scene as a whole.
* Vermeer did not want the viewers to know the subject of the letter. Having a painting of a Cupid would tell them that it was a love letter.
We can also guess that it was a love letter if we look at the bowl of fruit that contains apples (remind the viewr of Eve’s sin) and peaches. Taking into account the removed Cupid the viewers come to the conclusion that it is a love letter and because of the bowl of fruit they imagine that the girl has an extramarital love relationship.
Alejandro Vergara claims that “the reflection of the girl in the window emphasizes the importance of the letter, which becomes the psycological axis of the painting.” The girl is reading alone in a room. The window is opened so she has the outside world in front of her but she did not care about it. Nothing but the letter is important for her.
The girl’s face matches with the one of “The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter”. Some critics claim that the woman of these two paintings is Vermeer’s wife, Catharina Bolnes. This theory can be true because when Vermeer lived this was considered a demonstration of affection. The girl’s face is blank so it does not provide the viewers with any type of information of what the girl thinks about.
Another important element of this painting is the curtain, that became popular in the mid 17th century. Vermeer placed a curtain because he wanted to provide the whole scene with intimacy. The viewers realize that they were watching a private scene through it. Vermeer was very good at defining the physical limits of the space of a painting. This was one of his strategy in order to separe the viewers from the figure. In this painting, the physical limits are defined through the walls, the curtains and the table.
The letter is an upper class element because in the 17th century only privilege people were able to write. The letter can be seen as a metaphore about the importance of privacy. The girl keeps her life private from the audience by ignoring it. The viewer is unable to know the feelings of the girl.
If we look carefully at the letter we realize that there is nothing written on it. This is another Vermeer’s strategy to separate the viewers from the figure of the painting because they cannot know what it is happening, only the girl knows the meaning of the letter.
In order to do this painting, Johannes Vermeer used trompe-l’oeil and impasto techniques. Through trompe-l’oeil the curtains appear to be three dimensions. Impasto was usually used to highlight the main parts or elements of the painting because it attrack the viewers’ eyes. This technique consisted of an application of a thick opaque layer of paint.
*Johannes Vermeer. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:07, March 15,2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Vermeer
*Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Johannes Vermeer. Retrieved 17:24, April 2, 2010, from http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/v/vermeer/02a/06gread.html
*A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window by Johannes Vermeer. In Essential Vermeer. Retrieved 20:15, April 10, 2010, from http://www.essential vermeer.com/cat_about/open.html
*Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window by Johannes Vermeer. In Virtual Vermeer. Retrieved 10:43, April 25, 2010, from http://www.virtualvermeer.com
*Private Correspondences. Retrieved, 15:03, May 2, 2010, from http://www.jmu.edu/writeon/documents/2004/herman.pdf
*Trompe-l’oeil. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved, 17:36, May 16, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trompe-l’%C5%93il
*Impasto. In Essential Vermeer. Retrieved, 21:02, May 16, 2010, from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/details/details_girl_reading_at_an_open_window