“Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid”

This is a painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, it is supposed to be completed between the years 1670–1671, its dimensions are 72.2 cm × 59.5 cm (28.4 in × 23.4 in), its composition is oil on canvas and now it is in the National Gallery of Ireland.

The work shows a middle-class woman attended by a maid who is acting as Messenger for the lady and the lover. The maid is shown standing in the mid ground, behind her lady, with the hands crusted and waiting for the letter to be finished. The positions of her bodies indicate that the two women are disconnected, moreover, the lady is separated from her lady both emotionally and psychologically. The maid’s gaze towards the window indicates an inner restlessness and boredom, as she waits impatiently for the messenger to carry her lady’s letter away. Nevertheless, there are some art historians who say that the fact that the maid is present during such an intimate act as the composition of a love letter indicates at least a degree of intimacy between the two.

More than once Vermeer thought about the possibility of subverting the hierarchy of the figures’ social position within his compositions. In this case, the maid, who belongs to an inferior social class, stands at the center of the painting placed above her mistress. Vermeer’s figure may have been derived from a work of similar letter theme by painter Gabriel Metsu as she wears a surprisingly similar outfit and fulfills essentially the same role.

The pose of the seated mistress seems to draw inspiration from the Lacemaker as their facial expression is similar. The patch of bright white wall behind her is contrasting her right hand silhouette; however, this bright is illogical considering the fall of light in the rest of the room.

In this painting, there are some usual motifs such as the window frame and the back wall painting, and there are also particular motifs. Let’s begin with the floor, the marble flooring in this painting suggests a quality of bourgeois life rather than any reality, it is an ideal as the Dutch generally preferred floor made of wood like in this image in which appears one of the most influential men of culture in the Netherlands.

This detail is a letter, a stick of sealing wax, a bright red seal, and an object that could be a book or a letter, if it is a letter it may be one that the lady has received or a draft that she rejected, or maybe is a letter not her own and its content was disturbing.

Of the many carpets represented in Vermeer’s paintings, this one is the most abstractly painted. The decorative designs are reduced to a sort of calligraphic shorthand and the knotty texture has been completely erased by an exceptionally smooth, simplified application of paint.

Chairs also appear in a great number of Dutch paintings and many critics think that some of the empty chairs in Vermeer’s paintings may allude to an absent person. In this work the presence of the free-standing chair and the objects tossed on the floor might indicate that some action would have just taken place. Otherwise, they would be in order.

This is a tribute to his beloved Delft including a row of locally-made floor tiles. These tiles served to protect the lower walls from mops and brooms, to cover fireplaces and to isolate walls from humidity.

This green curtain functions as a familiar pictorial device called repoussoir meaning to push back. This means a contrast by placing a large figure or object in the foreground of a painting. In a number of Vermeer’s paintings there are repoussoir curtains in the foreground too placed between the first and the second window of the artist studio. They are pushed more on less to the left and gathered up a little at the bottom giving the impression of a stage with the curtain drawn back. The repoussoir curtain has noble origins and an example of this is this mural representing Parrhasius and Zeuxis.

The white curtain establishes one of three strong diagonal lines which gives energy to the composition and softens the composition’s rectilinear design.

The leadings of the window seem to be identical in design with the ones in the earlier Music Lesson but in this picture the central design has been colored. No one has been able to make out a figural meaning of the motif and maybe it was simply colored in order to bond the empty left-hand side of the painting with the right.

This painting is a Finding of Moses. It follows the same technique applied to other examples of the so-called pictures within-a-picture in other works by the artist. Curiously, the same Moses appears in the Astronomer, dramatically reduced scale.

As a curiosity, this painting has been stolen two times in the last twenty-five years. The first one was in 1974. The painting was stolen by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) from his owner, who was a member of Britain’s Parliament. Some members of IRA entered his home and stole a total of nineteen painting by using screwdrivers to cut the paintings from their frames. They were recovered a week later. The work was again taken in 1986 by a gang led by the Dublin organized crime gang leader Martin Cahill. Only after more than seven years of secret negotiations and international detective work was the painting recovered.


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