May 19, 2010
WOMAN IN BLUE READING A LETTER
(Briefzende vrouw in het blauw)
‘ Catherina was standing there by the window with her loose sky blue morning dress. Comfortable but making her feel even bigger than she already was. Her bell shaped body was standing there. Just in the middle. Keeping balance of all the things in the room. She felt heavy, tired. Her belly was once again bringing a new little miracle into this world. It was her ninth pregnancy to date but this miracle was not like the other eight she previously had. This was certainly special.’
Woman in blue reading a letter, is one of the more than 30 paintings by Johannes Vermeer (1675-1632). He was a Dutch baroque painter specialized not only in interiors, as it is the case, but also outdoor pictures such as the ones of Delft where he spent his entire life. In the 17th century, painting was a very appreciated art and it had great value on the market. Thus, many artists made a living of their paintings, something which is very difficult nowadays. Johannes Vermeer, who had several economical difficulties to make ends meet, also worked at his patrons’ service. However, his paintings did not gain importance and become popular until after his death. Then, his works were widely recognized not only for his mastery in the technique and composition but also for his significant themes which have arouse a lot of debate.
Who is the woman in the picture?
Although there is no evidence connecting Vermeer’s sitter to any know individual, it is speculated that he did paint members of his family or maids. Therefore, the main candidate to represent this young woman in her morning dress reading a letter is his wife, Catharina Bolnes, which experienced more than ten pregnancies. In fact, the similarities on the faces of some of his paintings appear to match the description of his wife Catharina. She has the same high brow, straight nose and wide-spaced eyes Vermeer’s wife had. See the pictures bellow:
Moreover, pregnant women were not very common in 17th C Dutch painting since they were probably not considered aesthetically attractive. 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 depictions of pregnant women is required, the bodies of the Virgin and Saint Elizabeth were usually completely concealed by draperies.” So, unless Vermeer was asked to paint that pregnant woman by some of his clients, he should have painted it for the devotion he felt for his wife.
Motif of letter reading
Dutch artists were the first to make the private letter a central focus in “genre scenes,” or paintings of everyday life. Vermeer borrowed such a theme from Dirk Hals, who had already pioneered the letter-writing theme by 1631. The fact that the woman is reading a letter also reinforces the idea that the woman in the painting can be Vermeer’s wife, who came from a well-off family and had therefore, received proper education. It is important to consider that although the Netherlands enjoyed the highest rate of literacy in Europe, not all were able to read and write. Actually, many of his pictures show the motif of letter reading or writing and some of the models really take to each other.
Letters are very important in the subject- matter a picture evokes. The letter concerns no only the person who is reading them in the picture but also the person that had written them and is outside the picture. As we stare at the picture our imagination just flows trying to make a guess about what is the content of that letter, who might be the addressee, who might have written it, for which purpose…etc. In this case, due to her expression of silent grief, the letter could be a notification of death or something very much related to the loss of her beloved. However, even if conventions usually draw our attention to letters by and for lovers or suitors, it has been investigated that letters written by women in that time show a wider range of subjects such as social relations or friendship.
Edward Snow, who is specialized in Vermeer, defines the painting’s composition in the following way:‘Woman in Blue Reading a Letter is the only of Vermeer’s interiors framed entirely against the rear wall of the room. This enhances the sensation of a moment suspended in vision; yet it also underscores the capacity of the painting to accomplish itself as a world-to establish gravity, depth, and with them a stable sense of space and time-without reference to the room’s physical coordinates. The forms of that world reciprocate by protectively enclosing her in “an orderly coolness that nothing will disturb” .
The prevailing color is ultramarine blue mainly in the woman’s satin smock although we can also find it in the wall or chairs mixed with white and also some black shadows giving deepen to the picture. Ultramarine blue was one of Vermeer’s favorite and also most expensive colors. The fact that he preferred the best pigment available at that time, demonstrates the importance he gave to his paintings. In addition, blue is very much related to its psychological power. This color has always been related to heavenly gods and purity. Thus, Vermeer might be trying to show her wife, provided the woman in the picture was his wife, as a goddess for him.
There are also many other elements to mention in the picture. The bell-shaped woman occupies the center of the painting, the large wall map behind her and the table to the lower left and also the chair to the lower right forming a perfect balance. If we draw our attention to the lighting scheme, it is easy to see how Vermeer adjusted the balance in his painting by playing with the areas of light and shadow. Vermeer changed the jacket which was originally wider and also moved the map to the left to improve the composition:
Spanish chairs represented in the picture are not just an aesthetic characteristic but show social rank. They were first adopted in Spain and then, they were spread all over Europe. It was clearly a ‘bourgeoisie chair’. Indeed, it could be easily distinguised as it was very smooth and had a certain shape.
Wall maps were very typical in 17th century paintings. The same or similar map is reflected in many Vermeer’s pictures such as A Young Woman With a water Pitcher or Officer and Laughing girl. In this picture, the map could represent a distant love, in fact, the one who would have written the letter. Just in the same way as John Donne compared the two lovers to a compass, maps are very much related to the importance of cartography during the scientific revolution. According to Gerad ter Borch, “No other painter in history ever lavished such attention on them and observed them with such respectful regard as Vermeer.” It is possible to feel the material as if it was real with its undulate surfaces broken here and there. What is more, it provides geometric perfection to the composition and the map itself appears to allude to the inner emotions of the young woman absorbed in her reading.
Who bought the painting?
Never too wealthy, Vermeer had several economic problems. He painted very slowly and he needed other sources of income such as his parents’ business or his wife’s fortune. Nevertheless, he sold many paintings and he had patrons for whom he painted. One of the most important ones was Pieter van Ruijven. However, it is speculated that the owner of the painting Woman in Blue Reading a Letter was Hendrick van Buyten . He had hanging on his wall a small painting of a single figure by Vermeer, perhaps the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter or the Woman with a Water Pitcher. In 1663, it is thought that the baker told a visitor, the French aristocrat Balthasar de Moncoys, that he paid 600 guilders for this painting, a price that seemed to shock de Monconys in 1676.
- K. Wheelock JR Arthur, (1995). Johannes Vermeer. In Essential Vermeer. Retrieved 14.00, February 23, 2010, from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/cat_about/blue.html#Arth
- Snow Edward.(1979; p138) A Study of Vermeer . London, Los Angeles. Retrieved 14.30, February 23, 2010, from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/cat_about/blue.html#Arth
- C.Sutton Peter (2003; pp.22-23) Love Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer,Singapore. Retrieved 14.45 February 23, 2010, from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/cat_about/blue.html#Arth
- Vermeer-foundation; Jan Vermeer Van Delft – The complete works (2002-2010) Retrieved, 17.15 March 2010 from http://www.vermeer-foundation.org/
- Torres Louis (March 2004). Messages from the heart. Retrieved 18.15, February 2010 from http://www.aristos.org/aris-04/loveltrs.htm
- Gurney, James (March 28, 2010). Vermeer’s Pigments. Retrieved 18.45, April 14, from http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2010/03/vermeers-pigments.html
- Essential Vermeer Resources (June 2001). Retrieved 22.00, 13 May 2010 http://www.essentialvermeer.com/index.html
- Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (2010, April 18). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:46, March 10, 2010 fromhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woman_in_Blue_Reading_a_Letter
May 19, 2010
Every night Rainilda would dream of the letter. It was in her thoughts, on her mind, all day, every day. Every morning she looked out the window thinking that that particular day someone from the Dutch East India Company would bring her a letter from her beloved husband who was far away on the other sea of the world in the East Indies. Holland was fighting for control of the Spice Island but the Portuguese and their allies were resisting.
Days went by, weeks and months passed by and still she received no letter from her faraway love. She knew that any letter would take several months, perhaps nearly a year between she would get one but she still had hope. It was the hope of hearing something from Maarten that gave her the strength to continue to go on. However, she often got scared and thought the worst possible things that could had happened to Maarten.
‘I will send you a letter as soon as I get there my dear’, he kept telling as she saw him off at the port when his ship set sail for the East Indies. His words, as he waved goodbye, kept repeating in her ears and continued even in her dreams. Knowing the possible dangers of the bitter conflict that her lover was to face, Rainilda feared that he would never come back and that was very hard on her.
As every morning, she got up at 9 am and after having a nice breakfast, she sat in front of the window waiting for somebody from the Company to come. Day after day, week after week, no one with a letter came. Eight and a half months after Maarten had gone away, an old man with a special bag came knocking at her door. She knew instantly what is was and thankfully snatched the letter from the man in excitement. Rainilda held on to the the precious letter in her hand. She broke the wax seal and quickly opened it. Maarten’s familiar writing reached out to her and said:
My Dear Rainilda,
It has been a long time since I had an opportunity to write you, and I am so happy to have the opportunity now. I am not certain that I will have a chance of sending this but I will write a few lines any how and try and get it off to let you know that I am among the living.
We advanced on Macassar but I have not time to give you the details of our expedition. I will write in a few days if I can get a chance to send it and write you a long one. I was quite sick three or four days while in Macassar, but have entirely recovered. We captured a good many prisoners while in there and killed a good many. We fought them nearly all day at Macassar on Sunday two weeks ago today. The Ambonese and Portuguese boasted that we would never get back to Ambon but they were badly mistaken because we are back again. We lost quite a few man out of regiment. I wish I had time to tell you more but I don’t want to worry you. I would like to write you so many things that would be very interesting to you I know; but you will have to put up with this little letter for the present. I am in hopes that I will get a letter from from you in a few days. I never wanted to see you half as bad in all my life as I do now. I would give anything in the world to see you and the baby. I have no idea when I will have that pleasure. We can’t get any news here – do not know what is going on over there in our beloved Holland. I am so nervous now as the savage Ambonese have started their onslaught on us and
She turned the letter over anxiously anticipating the rest. She suddenly realized that the hand writing was different. It was not as neat as the other one, and also it seemed it had been written in a hurry. She panicked. She was afraid of what was going to be said. After some minutes of hesitating, she decided to read on:
Dear Mrs. Van der Gelder,
This is your husband’s captain, I am so sorry to have to tell you that we came under heavy attack yesterday and that your husband along with other has been captured by the Ambonese and the Portuguese. He fought brilliantly and we fear for his life. With great pain in my heart I have to tell you that we have been trying to do our best to find them but nothing looks clear enough so far.
At this moment Rainilda dropped the letter and cried for hours. She felt so heart broken. Life had no sense suddenly. She started thinking how brave and kind her husband was. He had told her that that would be his last time he would go to war. He promised her to bring lots of money back and that, after that they would settle down and raise the child. All these memories brought her real pain. At one moment her heart filled up of hatred; she had told Maarten that she didn’t want all that money he promised her and that she rather life with fewer money but not having to fear for his death every day. However, the lovechild in her reminded her, the child that Maarten knew nothing about, she had to go on living, no matter what.
Rainilda knew the letter was not over. She had to finish reading it, but she was to afraid to read the final part. After some rest, and when she felt strong enough again she got the letter and continued reading it. She realized that the hand writing was different again. She got really scared again but decided to read it.
My dear love,
This is Maarten again. I was captured by the Ambonese who suddenly attacked us from the jungle. They slaughter most of my men but we ran into the jungle. However, they managed to capture us. We were horribly treated and only the possibility of a ransom for us saved our lives. We hardly had any food to eat or water to drink. My hand is wounded and that is why you probably haven’t recognized my hand writing. We are short of paper and I want this letter to reach you even though I fear I won’t get to send my letter off. Write often I will get them some time. I will write every chance, do not be uneasy when you do not get letters because it is often impossible even to write and finding someone to take them to Ambon and then onto a ship. Give my love to your mother and all the friends. My love and a thousand kisses to my own sweet Railinda. How my heart yearns for you. In spite of the distance, you are still near and dear to me. Goodbye my own sweet wife, for the present.
As ever your devoted and loving Husband, Maarten.
Rainilda put the letter down, relieved, and thought about the next letter from Maarten.