Analysis of “A Lady Writing” or “A Lady Writing a Letter”

Vermeer portrays a woman seated at a desk in a slightly dark interior while she is writing a letter. She is wearing a luxurious yellow jacket trimmed with spotted white fur, pearl earrings, and yellow and white ribbons in her hair.

As is can be noticed, a soft light is falling from the upper left side, as if there was a window, and is illuminating her, making her the central figure of the painting. Moreover, she is holding a quill pen in her right hand, while she rests her other arm on the table. The lady turns her attention from the letter, as if she had been interrupted by someone, and looks out momentarily at the viewer. A hint of a smile crossing her lips can be appreciated. She sits in a straight-backed chair with leather upholstery and lion’s-head finials. The table is covered with a slate blue cloth and it has different objects on it: a small silver-studded wood box, a silver inkwell, and a string of pearls with a yellow silk ribbon. There is a barely discernible painting at the back.

The painting is designed very accurately, revealing how important geometry was for Vermeer. The width of the expanse of plaster wall at the right is equal to the height of the table, which in turn is half the distance from the bottom of the painting to the lower edge of the ebony frame of the picture at the back.

As many critics have been speculating for years, it is said that the lady could portray the artist’s wife, Catharina Bolnes, who was born in 1631, and would have been an appropriate age (early to mid- thirties) if this work. However, with no surviving image of Catharina, there is no proof and, therefore, there is no clear evidence of this fact.

Regarding the subject of a woman writing a letter, it is worth pointing out that there are other paintings which portray this same account such as Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maidservant. There are six paintings in the painter’s small oeuvre that deal with letter themes and all of them depict women reading or just about to read. For instance, the seated lady in Mistress and Maid  had evidently been writing a letter before she unexpectedly receives a letter delivered by the maid. The main difference between the above mentioned paintings and Vermeer’s A Lady Writing is that, in the case of the other two paintings, the lady is accompanied by her maid who in one case is most likely waiting the lady’s reply and in the other delivers the letter.

Moreover, it is worth mentioning that the subject of a woman writing a letter is said to have been first popularized by Gerard ter Borch in his famous painting: Woman writing a letter. However, Ter Borch and the other artists never depicted the central figure of the painting looking out directly at the viewer.

"Woman writing a letter"

Finally, it is important to pay attention, among other things, to one of the garments the lady is wearing: the fur-trimmed yellow jacket.

This jacket appears in several other works by the artist, for instance, Woman with a Lute, Woman with a Pearl Necklace, The Guitar Player, The Love Letter and, again, Mistress and Maid. Probably, this element is identical to the “yellow satin mantel with white fur trimming” which was listed in the inventory of Vermeer’s household effects after his death in 1676. In fact, the small ebony box with studded decorations and the inkwell also appear in his other paintings, suggesting that Vermeer, like Ter Borch and so many other artists of the period, confected his genre scenes not only from a standard series of settings but also with a repertoire of costumes and objects that he probably retained in his own possessions.

Finally, the painting in the background may also have been one that he owned, since other paintings appearing in the backgrounds of Vermeer’s paintings seemed to have been part of the family collection. Among the paintings in the 1676 inventory, there was an unattributed painting depicting “a bass viol with a skull”. Many critics claim that this is in fact the painting that appears in the background of A Lady Writing, but in any case, there is no direct evidence of it.