Woman in Blue Reading a Letter

“Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” was painted by Vermeer in the years between 1662 and 1665.  Like the rest of the Vermeers, it is not very big and it is oil on canvas.  Nowadays, it is part of the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  Actually, it was the first of the Vermeer paintings that the museum acquired back in 1885.

“Woman in Blue Reading a Letter”, besides, is the only one of this artist’s paintings that is framed entirely against the rear wall of the room.  Unlike others that are framed against the left and back walls of the room, this one only presents a single wall highlighting the sensation of a moment suspended in time.  However, it also enhances the capacity of the painting to accomplish itself as a world- establishing depth, gravity and a sense of time and space regardless to the room’s physical coordinates.  In it, we can observe a woman standing next to a table, dressed in a blue garment, and reading something that looks like a letter.

The interior that Vermeer shows us, moreover, is full of very important element.  The following ones would be the most relevant ones:

First of all, we find the woman.  This young lady has been identified to be the artist’s wife Catharina Bolnes, although there is no objective and official support for that.  Nonetheless, at Vermeer’s time it was usual to employ family members to model for artists as a means of saving money.  Besides, they thought that it was easier to work with relatives since it reduced tensions and the artist could exactly tell them which pose to keep for very long hours.

Probably the most important element of this particular painting is the blue garment that the lady is wearing.  According to the clothes expert Marieke Van Winkel, this garment is called a beddejak and it is a garment with straight sleeves, usually blue or white satin, which was closed in the front with a row of bows.  It was used as bed cloth and due to the expensive material that was made of, only rich people could afford it.  It was not usual for Dutch painters to depict this garment is their paintings. 

So, we can conclude that the lady in the painting has just woken up from bed and she’s reading the letter in the morning light.  In addition, the color blue (more exactly ultramarine blue) of the garment that predominates in the painting, has been associated with sadness and melancholy.  So, probably, the woman is reading a sad letter. 

Regarding to the possible pregnancy of the woman, most experts agree that it was probably not the case.  First of all, because it was not common to portray pregnant women in Dutch art and besides, because the fashion of the time led to that kind of error since it encouraged the bulky silhouette. 

Chairs appear in many Vermeers too.  The chairs in this painting are Spanish chairs.  Its basic model developed in Spain by the 15th century and it soon spread to all over Europe.  They were considered very valuable and not everybody could afford them.  In this case, they only show high social rank. 

Maps are also very recurrent in Vermeer’s work.  The one that we find in this particular one is the map of Holland and Friesland that was designed by Balthasar Florisz van Berkenrode in 1620.  We can find the same exact map in “Officer and Laughing Girl”.  Nowadays, it we want to see the only surviving sample of this map we must go to the Westfries Museum in Hoorn. 

Moreover, there is a piece of dark clothe that we find in the left low side of the painting.  This gives darkness to the whole painting.  It is composed by a blue tablecloth and a scarf like piece.


Finally, we have the letter the woman is reading.  In Dutch art, depictions of women reading letters were usually connected to love.  In this case, the artist may wanted to show that the letter has arrived unexpectedly since the woman ahs been interrupted from her morning toilet to stop and read it.  If we take the already mentioned elements we can also think that probably her husband is a man that travels a lot (the map) so she writes to her often to tell her about her life outside home. 

On the table there is also another page that could either be the first part or the second part of the letter.  At that time, letters were usually not put in envelopes but folded in three and sealed with wax. 

Other paintings of Vermeer that include letters are:

–          Girl reading a letter at an open window

–          Lady writing a letter with her maid

–          A lady writing

–          Lady with her maidservant holding a letter