A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window

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 žhttp://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

3 responses to “A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window

  1. Pointille is the name for a technique used sometimes in metalwork decoration which is descriptive of the hammered dots that make up the entire pattern of the design. That is part of the reason that Pointillism in the paintings of those like Georges Seurat was coined, and in derision by critics, for its dots of pure colour paint covering the entire surface of the canvas, as an intellectual answer to the Impressionists (another derogatory term) attempts to portray how colour is mixed directly by the eye that receives the everchanging light of day.
    As we move onward into today, we have the mixture of the dots of the photograpic inage and television and pixelization of images of which Suerat, in hindsight, may be considered the prophetic voice.
    Vermeer knew nothing of these things. That he enjoyed the photograhic images of the Camera Obscura, I do not doubt; but, that he was using a pointillist technique is not true. That he adopted using dots of paint occassionally with no set pattern is evident. This, very likely the result of his “photographic” observations, he used on bread or the side of a docked boat to great effect, as a device, possibly to heighten a sense of reality, but that was not his technique. Vermeer was studied and admired, much as Turner was, in the English tradition, as the precursors to Impressionism, and I think that that is a legitimate insight. Vermeer was not a fly speck painter like Gerritz Dou. Vermeer’s technique was not every detail, but was every necessary detail and LESS.
    Woman in Blue Reading a Letter is as close to a portrait as the Girl by the Open Window, but the women are no the same person in my view. It is seductive to believe they are due to the twin-like character of the poses. Close observation, even remembering that these are paintings and not photographic works, will attest tha the shapes of the heads and features are different. The more obvious difference is the hair colour. I suggest that a reasonable comparison is found in the sleeping girl with the, later, Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid. As I have formerly pointed out, a reversal, mirror image of one of these beside the other makes a good match. It is not that there can’t be differences in the painted images – the Astronomer and the Geographer are different, but the same man. The ladies in question, though, are discrepant figures in a common pose.
    Vermeer was, of course, not above repeating themes. Yet, his ideas were always evolving, as did also, his growth in technique. Leonardo da Vinci was less inclined to repeat ideas, but even if there were similarities, such as using a profile for a portrait, the differences in the sitters would necessitate a unique approach. This is why I argue that the “Mona Lisa” is not Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, but, rather Isabella D’Este, Duchese of Mantua. Certain repetitions are expected, such as the profile portrait. What would, to me, be unthinkable is that Leonardo would repeat the position of the hands in a formulaic way for two sitters. Rather, his acute observation and creativity would demand a new and individual response. I am referring to the drawing of Isabella, which he completed in 1501, when he was commissioned to paint this renaissance woman of incredible wit and a patron of art and encourager of artists. At the time, Isabella needed a personal likeness that would be copied for coinage. Leonardo did a drawing of her in profile, but no painting, according to history was ever delivered to the Lady. Though there are differences, minor in imporance, such as length of the nose, the overall comparison between the drawing and Mona Lisa are compelling. Minor changes to the drawing in side-by-side comparison will convince. The most important “documentation” that this, indeed, is Isabella is the positioning of her hands suggested at the bottom of the drawing. Would Da Vinci use the characteristic form with two different sitters?http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mona_Lisa

    The following link affords a look into research that corroborates the above hypothesis and gives possible indicators as to the identities of two Ladies and the Lisa called Belle Ferroniere, who resides in the same room as “MONA ISABELLA” in the Louvre.
    The link below is, likely, the Mona Lisa Gherardini

  2. This is Francesco II, Marchese de Mantova (Mantua), in the link, who married Isabella D’Este in 1490. She was sixteen; he twenty-four. The marriage was arranged when Isabella was six years old. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francesco_II_Gonzaga,_Marquess_of_Mantua He is described as being short, snub-nosed and with bulging eyes. Isabella sought to know him in the years preceding their wedding and came to admire his courage, as he was to become a respected commander of armies. His eyes may have bulged like Peter Lorre of the Hollywood films, but not to indicate that a thyroid condition might have been the cause. In fact, it may have been his Lady’s eyes that required medical intervention. Isabella may have, to one degree or another, suffered a strabismus of one of her eyes. The turning of one eye either in or out, whether constantly or intermittently is experienced by a surprisingly large percentage of the population (5-6% ?). Da Vinci, who was the first anatomist and “medical” illustrator of the Renaissance, would have had more than a passing interest in the phenomena. His interest in Isabella’s eyes may have prompted him to attempt her portrait from memory with the aid of the profile side view that was to be a painted portrait originally. The eyes of the Mona Lisa (Isabella) are said to appear follow one across the room. Leonardo’s attention to her eye’s iris placement in relation to one another is the means to that end. A slight raise of her right eyebrow in the picture by the Gonzaga’s artist, who made miniture portraits of family members such as Francesco, above, and Isabella at the time of her marriage, http://www.thepeerage.com/331598_001.jpg is seen in the side view that Da Vinci drew. The patented Mona Lisa smile at the left or opposite corner of her mouth may have given a strange impression or expression to her face. In a painting, said to be a possibly “idealised” portrait of Isabella by Caroto, has the lip curl on the right rather than left, but seems to a slight wall-eye placement of the irises of her eyes. It may be that Leonardo was thinking of the woman’s vision problem when he painted the separate and distinct landscapes with different horizons on two levels.

Comments are closed.