Mistress and Maid

Mistress and Maid was painted around 1666 and 1667  in oli canvas. Nowadays it is located in The Frick Collection Museum, in New York. The general overview of the picture shows the figures of two women which is emphasized by the dark background.One of the most prevalent themes in Vermeer’s paintings from the late 1660s is the letter writer. Unlike his earlier representations of women with letters, where he isolated one individual with the letter, these later versions all include a maid with her mistress. The introduction of the maid adds a new element to the theme: the expectations and anxieties that surround the arrival of a letter.

The objects in Mistress and Maid are all in the lower left quadrant of the canvas. There is a table covered with a blue cloth and holding a letter box and bottles of ink, a sheet of paper with about ten lines written on it, and a pen held by the mistress sitting at the table. There is also a small white sheet of paper held in the right hand of the maid, who offers it to her mistress. The table occupies exactly half the space of the picture plane and the mistress the other half.

On the left is the maid, standing behind the table, a head higher than the seated woman. The background, like the clothes of the maid, is dark. There is nothing, no wall, on which to hang the paintings or maps that we can find in more than half of Vermeer’s paintings. The maid does what Cupid does in Woman Standing at a Virginal, she holds in her hand a blank white letter which entails the main mystery of the painting.

Detail of the letter in “Mistress and Maid”

Cupid with a letter, detail of “Young Woman Standing at a Virginal”.

It is as though the messenger, here the maid, has come down from the wall and stepped out of the frame to share the mistress’s space and, therefore, to communicate with her. In Mistress and Maid, no one looks out of the main action that is taking place,  there is no empty chair, no element which might distract our attention. The two women are related to each other by the letters each of them are handing and also by their speech.

The letter the woman is writing is clearly unfinished, and the one the maid offers is unread. The writing of the one letter has been interrupted by the need to read the other, rather as a speaker is interrupted by the need to listen to another speaker. In the exchange of letters, writing approaches speech, which involves the mouth as writing does the hand.

Sources:

Mistress and Maid, Essential Vermeer. Retrieved 17:26, May 22, 2011, from  http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/mistress_and_maid.html

Understanding the Mistress and Maid, Essential Vermeer. Retrieved 17: 18, May 22, 2011, from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/cat_about/mistress.html

Johannes Vermeer, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:24, May 22, 2011, from  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Vermeer