Woman In Blue Reading A Letter

                                                   WOMAN IN BLUE READING A LETTER

                                                            (Briefzende vrouw in het blauw)


                                                                                                                   Oil on canvas
                 18 1/4 x 15 3/8 in  

 Rijksmuseum, Ámsterdam


     ‘ 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.


5 responses to “Woman In Blue Reading A Letter

  1. The “Woman in Blue” is elegantly simple, like the lapis lazuli stone that was crushed to give her light and life. Her body is hedged about in a comforting way by the geometry of the room. Elongated horizontal romboids and rectangles of blue, flatly and cooly, and aligned with the painting’s sides, respect her space and accentuate her form. The cool whites and warm whites of the wall alternate, but the general consistency of rectangular shapes persists, though in a series of three verticals; two before her and one behind. Her form is central, as though painted by a naive photographer, in close concert with, and imitation of her sister, the painter’s wife, who reads by an open window in Girl Reading by an Open Window. They are sisters-in-law, I believe, though the evidence is circumstantial; yet, worthy of comment.
    Previously, evidence has been presented as to the identification of Catharina as the “Girl Reading”. Comment has been made to refute the common error that she and the “Woman in Blue” are the same woman. Additionally, the cutting and pasting of the full figures in comparison (excluding surrounding furniture in either picture) with the heads of the same size, the body lengths would suggest that the Woman in Blue was taller by a degree in excess of two inches (6 + cm.).
    Brothers and sisters in families may look very little alike, but in others a family trait may predominate. Evidence has been given to identify the “Astronomer” and the “Geographer” as Vermeer. To me, The Woman in Blue, by general comparison of their features, may indeed be his sister, Geertruijt. The care taken with her features would suggest a portrait. Features in common, like the long and straight nose; the proportions of nose to mouth and chin and the shallow eye-depth; the curly dark brown hair and narrow skull formation compared to length of face, all, could indicate a familial tie. Another interesting circumstantial piece of evidence that would suggest that this lady is Gertruit, is the prominent map, which is the final large rectangle of this composition. With its browns and ochres and beige highlights, the map threatens to swallow the woman’s head, were it not for its form and warmer flesh. This map was published for the first time, by Balthazar Florisz Van Berckenrode in 1620, which is the year of Gertruit’s birth. This fact would not elude Vermeer’s full attention to every detail.

  2. Maps, as symbolic elements in genre paintings, can introduce the aspect of distance (between lovers?), as do letters, but can also elicit a dark and ominous foreboding of the transitory and the impermanent. Physical distance may be a challenge to relationship for lovers. Husbands who travel abroad and their wives on the homefront may entertain temptations to roam in other ways. A pregnancy, while the Master is away, would present obvious difficulties. This appears to be the case in the fiction of the “Woman in Blue”.
    One suggestion has been made that the woman was not pregnant, but that she was wearing a fotheringale-type jacket, that was a preferred look for women. Another one states that pregnant women were not the subject of painters as it was not an aesthetic theme! Vermeer has here foiled both views (see the Concert and the Lady with a Balance for “ladies-in-waiting”). In this painting he includes a nipple crowning her breast to bolster his mother-and-child theme, which otherwise would be grossly redundant or gratuitous. The “Milkmaid”‘s coarse vest shows her areole, which gave double entendre to its name, similarly.
    A string of pearls gains symbolic importance evidenced by the following excerpt from the URL below in the book “DIAMONDS and PRECIOUS STONES” by Louis Dieulafait in the english translation by Fanchon Sanford:
    The book, in chapter VI on pearls states:
    “The pearl was dedicated to Venus. It is sacred to love and beauty. In the marriage of CUPID and Psyche…the lovers are united by a string of pearls – Emblem of CONJUGAL BONDS – by aid of which the god Hymenaeus…leads them to the nuptial couch.”
    Interestingly, the “Woman with a Balance” painting included an emblem known to Vermeer from Cesar Ripa’s “Iconologia” declaring a “Gold Chain” as the bond in similar fashion. A string of pearls was also present in that painting.
    The single strand of pearls under the first page or envelope to the letter has symbolic significance and indicates the timeline of recent events in our lady’s day. In the present
    work the narrative is indicated by the open jewelry box from which the pearl necklace was taken prior to the reception of a surprise letter, part of which rests on the pearls. Logically, if she had just removed the pearls from herself, she would have placed them in the open box. It is also unlikely that removal of pearls would be a priority to reading a newly arrived missive. If, on the other hand, she were re-reading a former communication, why would she interrupt her adorning process? Therefore, an untimely letter has taken her unawares, to which she lends her full concentration. The pearls, which are not worn, but waiting, can speak to the state of the lady’s marriage, with the added element of vanity – the pearl’s other symbolic aspect.
    Another writer sensitively alluded to the way the map, here, displays a psychological and visual explication of the woman’s mood. The map is only a partial representation of the specific Berkenrode publication, which is seen in its entirety in “The Soldier and the Laughing Girl”. It can be shown that the map was planned by Vermeer to offer a means of further structuring the work with concentric circles. This can be proved by comparing its “sister” painting “The Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window”. Vermeer and Terborch always indicated where the intended “constantia” or pivot points for compasses were located in their works by a highlight on the object, which usually had significance within the painting’s interpretive context or an item of personal importance.
    In “Woman in Blue” the town of Delft is chosen with a single pink highlight at a small mass of dark paint near the top edge of the painting on the map, positionally, directly above her left shoulder. Whether it represents Gertruit’s house or the Nieuwekerk square is delightful conjecture.
    In “Girl Reading”, a similarly high-edge highlight on the first ring of the “painter’s curtain” proximal to the girl was chosen as constantia. This can be tested with three concentric “labore” lines. The first can be drawn from the top of the girl’s hair, at the bun, up through the red curtain hanging over the open casement window. The second line starts at the left-most edge of the curtain, by the picture’s left edge. Draw down to the girl’s eye and on to the point of the prominence on her collar behind. These arcs follow the swath of crimson drapery beautifully. The third line will underscore her left arm and perfectly edge the top angle of the window’s lower hinge, convincingly.
    The line that edges the Girl’s eye and collar can also be seen in the Woman in Blue. Gertruit’s hometown of Delft has linked her forever to her sister-in-law, Catharina, as the centre of the series of circles! Vermeer has used an EYE/COLLAR circle for both!

  3. With apologies to Erinay, whose fine work above was properly called an “excellent review” by her professor, Joseba Abaitua:
    Terborch did not make the comment about Vermeer and maps. The proximity of a ter Borch reproduction beside Jonathan Janson’s commentary (Essential Vermeer) http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/woman_in_blue_reading_a_letter.html#.UWzvbUqDVNs
    about the maps that Vermeer took great care to reproduce, was inadvertently misquoted as by Terborch in the “hotspot” on the page in the link above. The only written link between ter Borch and Vermeer occurs in a document of surety signed by both painters. Their conversations in paint, to me, reveal they were friends.
    Terborch was considered one of the finest portrait painters of the Dutch golden Age even then and his clientele among the rich was, in part, due to his marriage to his step-mother’s younger sister, Gertruyt Matthijs, who was five years his senior and a respected member of that new rich middle class society.

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