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