May 12, 2009
This masterpiece has been stolen not once, but twice in the last twenty-five years. The owner, a member of Britain’s Parliament, was targeted by the IRA, who broke into his estate in 1974 and took a total of nineteen paintings. It was recovered a week later, having sustained only minor damage. In 1986, the Dublin underworld stole the painting. Only after more than seven years of secret negotiations and international detective work was the painting recovered. Hopefully Vermeer’s The Concert, recently stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston, will be recovered in a similar manner. Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid exemplifies Vermeer’s essential theme of revealing the universal within the domain of the commonplace. By avoiding anecdote, by not relating actions to specific situations, he attained a sense of timelessness in his work. The representation of universal truths was achieved by eliminating incidental objects and through subtle manipulation of light, color and perspective. The canvas presents a deceptively simple composition. The placid scene with its muted colors suggests no activity or hint of interruption. Powerful verticals and horizontals in the composition, particularly the heavy black frame of the background painting, establish a confining backdrop that contributes to the restrained mood. The composition is activated by the strong contrast between the two figures. The firm stance of the statuesque maid acts as a counterweight to the lively mistress intent on writing her letter. The maid’s gravity is emphasized by her central position in the composition. The left upright of the picture frame anchors her in place while the regular folds of her clothing sustain the effect down to the floor. In contrast, the mistress inclines dynamically on her left forearm. Her compositional placement thrusts her against the compressed space on the right side of the canvas. Strong light outlines the writing arm against the shaded wall, reflecting in angular planes from the blouse that contrast abruptly with the regimented folds of the maid’s costume. The mistress is painted in precise, meticulous strokes as opposed to the broad handling of the brush used to depict the maid. The figures, although distinct individuals, are joined by perspective. Lines from the upper and lower window frames proceed across the folded arms and lighted forehead of the maid, extending to a vanishing point in the left eye of the mistress. The viewer’s eye is lead first to the maid, then on to the mistress as the focal point of the painting. Vermeer shuns direct narrative content, instead furnishing hints and allusions in order to avoid an anecdotal presentation. The crumpled letter on the floor in the right foreground is a clue to the missive the mistress is composing. The red wax seal, rediscovered only recently during a 1974 cleaning, indicates the crumpled letter was received, rather than being a discarded draft of the letter now being composed. Since letters were prized in the 17th century, it must have been thrown aside in anger. This explains the vehement energy being devoted to the composition of the response. Another hint is provided in the large background painting, The Finding of Moses. Contemporary interpretation of this story equated it with God’s ability to conciliate opposing factions. These allusions have led critics to construe Vermeer’s theme as the need to achieve reconciliation, through individual effort and with faith in God’s divine plan. This spiritual reconciliation will lead to the serenity personified in the figure of the maid.
Information written by Mark Harden in:
May 12, 2009
It is not an easy chore to reconstruct with precision how Vermeer painted. What we now know of contemporary Dutch 17th c. painting methods is based largely on information gleaned from contemporary painting manuals integrated with the results of modern scientific analysis. Period painting manuals were more apt to discuss theoretic issues of the art of painting rather than practical side of every day studio practice. Even though basic methodology was occasionally outlined and recipes were given for specific palettes, the actual craft of making a picture was largely transmitted from masters to aspiring young artists through years of apprenticeship (normally from 4 to 6). Few historical records of studio practice survive. None of them regard Vermeer.
Although Vermeer experimented ceaselessly with specific techniques to render the effects of natural illumination, evidence points to the fact that he worked largely within the boundaries of traditional studio methods of Northern European artists. These methods were very different than those used by artists today. Modern painters usually execute their works a unified whole. They work while standing so they can walk back to envision the totality of the painting. The painting is worked up directly with full color on a white or off-white canvas. Their palettes usually contain every pigment which will likely be present in the finished work. Experimentation and improvisation play vital roles in the working process. Since craft is not is retained an indispensable component of artistic expression there no longer exists uniform instruction in regards.
Instead, 17th c. painters proceeded according to a relatively fixed step-by-step method which they had assimilated in a master’s studio. The work load was divided into distinct phases in order to deal with the principle pictorial components one at a time. The rationale behind this division of labor was based on both technical and economical reasons. It must be remembered that paintings of the 17th c. were generally far more complex in composition and great attention was given to perspective accuracy, naturalistic illumination and fine detail. Once the drawing and lighting scheme had been worked out in the drawing and underpainting stage, artists worked up their compositions in a piecemeal fashion, completing one restricted area at a time.
Almost all representations of artists at work showed them at work seated holding small palettes. The pigments they possessed were very few compared to those available to any modern painter and usually had to be hand ground each day before setting out to work. Moreover, some pigments were not mutually compatible and had to be used separately. To overcome the scarcity of pigments and the inherent limitations of available materials, artists had learned to compensate through the use of complex pictorial techniques such as monochrome underpainting, glazing and by varying paint consistencies and methods of application.
“Research into painter’s terminology has revealed that for the seventeenth-century painter there were three or four main stages: “inventing”, the “dead-coloring”, and the “working-up”, followed (according to Lairesse) by “retouching”.1
The term “inventing”, corresponds to the modern terms drawing or sketching, “dead-coloring” to underpainting and “working-up” to finishing or the application of color and detail. Each phase, along the preparation of the painting’s support, is discussed in depth on separate pages which can be accessed below. Glazing, a separate technique, is analyzed by itself.
This information is taken from: http://www.essentialvermeer.com/technique/technique_overview.html
May 12, 2009
It is believed that we may rest assured that Vermeer intended to portray a pregnant girl here. As shown above, the geometry that he used puts the focal point — the “X marks the Spot”– on the swelling stomach of the standing figure, where it is called attention to it with a small square. Can we be confident of the geometry shown above? Yes. Look at how the square 4-5-6-7 is anchored at POINT 4, where Vermeer obviously positioned two marker features that have nothing to do with the reality of the scene. Look at the elongated ellipse that I have drawn at the bottom. LINE 5–7, a side of the square, guided the border of the rug on the floor and clipped the inside corner on the bottom of the chair. This line also went exactly through a corner of the tile (circled). The diagonals of the square and of the hexagram go through several circled features clearly positioned according to the planned geometry. There are other confirming features that I did not circle for reasons of keeping the exhibit uncluttered as possible. They are there for your inspection.
Vermeer has varied the usual position of the pattern for this painting — as he has done a few other times (see, for example, “The Little Street”) — but the pattern is always the same, and it has been identified in sixteen of his works up to here (and the same pattern has been identified in this website in a Goya and in an El Greco).
The received title “Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid” implies that the pregnant girl is a servant. No, she’s too well-dressed — too poised in the presence of the letter writer. She looks out the window hopefully to the future — or is it worriedly, while Vermeer has hung a painting of a famous baby — little Moses rescued by the Pharaoh’s Daughter — prominently as a backdrop. A fictional story could be written now about that letter, about the mother-to-be, the father, the coming baby, the letter-writer (the grandmother?) — and the artist who knew the real story.
This information has been taken from:
May 12, 2009
Everything of Vermeer is in the Beit \’Letter\’ set out with a deliberation which was never his before. Form is seen as plain, free of all that has ever seemed particular or accidental. Light carves in flat facets the simplest shapes. In the bare and perfect design two characteristic creatures meet at last, in the centre the standing maid servant, carved as simply as a pillar, exerting her gentle government over the space around her, and before her the bell-like lady, engrossed in herself. They are the poles of Vermeer\’s world, revealed in their complementary character and held together in equilibrium. There is no impact, no drama: the balance is unshakable.
Information taken from: