Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window
- Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Dresden State Art Collections, Old Masters Picture Gallery), Dresden, Germany.
- 83.0cm×64.5cm, finished in 1657.
- This painting was at first attributed to Rembrandt, who portrayed solitary figures reading letters very often. Only after 1862 was Vermeer identified as its authentic artist.
Vermeer as an artist
- We don’t know much about Vermeer’s life. He painted very few works (37 have been found, of an estimated total of 60). His painting process was slow, and often included going through many major and minor corrections on the pictures before their final version.
- Women are the protagonists of Vermeer’s paintings: men only appear about a quarter-percent of the time, and rarely as the main focus.
- Warm, gentle and harmonious depictions of daily life scenes in the domestic sphere; they do not aim to be provocative or critical of any social norm.
- No evidence has been found to ascertain the identities of the women posing for Vermeer’s paintings, but it is widely derived from his style of living that he used his wife, daughters, and maids as sitters.
- According to some critics, the young girl reading a letter bears resemblance to Catharina Bolnes, Vermeer’s wife. Born in 1653, she would have been 26 years old at the time this specific picture was finished.
- The similarities between the girl and the woman inWoman in Blue Reading a Letter (1662-65) are also worth noting (same position, matching profiles).
- Fairly symmetrical structure and simple perspective: few diagonal lines; horizontals and verticals prevail. Consequently, the space seems close to being two-dimensional.
- However, the distribution of illumination defines volumes and emphasizes the spatial relation between the elements: we perceive the chair, which doesn’t catch the light coming from the window and is instead obscured behind it, to be placed further into the corner of the room than the girl.
We can distinguish the different planes that mark the angular distances: the bowl of fruits is closer to the viewer than the girl, and is thus shown proportionally enlarged.
The green curtain is superimposed to every other element, serving as a deceptive frame that appears to be covering the entire room or the painting in itself. This optical illusion known as trompe l’oeil (French: fool the eye) was popularly employed by Dutch genre painters of the Delft School. It also helps fill the otherwise empty right side of the picture, so that the visual balance is maintained.
The contrast of pattern and shapes contributes to keeping this equilibrium: although the background wall is plain and empty, the oriental textile below fills the lower side with rich details.
Other examples of works that conform to this structure (inside a room, window/source of light to the left, smaller figure to the right):
- The main light source is on the left: The light coming from the window (1) is natural, pure and intense.
- The walls (2) and the lady’s upper body and letter (4) are highlighted. The bowl of fruits (5), located on a more external plane, receives a smaller quantity of lightness.
- Because the curtain (3) is situated overly outwards to be realistically included inside the window’s scope, one must assume another powerful source of light (Vermeer does often manipulate illumination).
- The vanishing point would be the background wall right behind the girl. X-rays have revealed that a painting of Cupid was to be located there (no curtain existed before it was erased):
- This symbol would have made it clear that the girl is reading a love-letter. Without it, we are offered the opportunity to create our personal interpretation.
- The position of the letter itself does not allow us to notice it right away; its role seems subordinate.
- They possessed fewer pigments than the artists today.
- Color range: mainly warm (reds, browns, yellows), although due to their low saturation, they are not so loud.
- Colors are used to strengthen focus: in the middle, the young girl is surrounded by more muted and calm tones (no reds), which brings out her figure.
- Most of the shadows in this picture are of a brownish tone (other paintings use more blue).
- Suggestion of colors: we get the impression of a specific color basing ourselves only on the highlighted folds of each fabric.
- In truth, there’s more quantity of brown paint than of the color we believe to be seeing.
- All the different fabrics allow for experimenting with textures.
- The characteristics of each material (heaviness, thickness) combined with each pleat and fold, determine which direction the light will follow and where the shadow will be projected.
- The impasto technique (laying thicker strokes of paint) adds actual tangible protrusions and accentuates textures. It’s used, for example, on the girl’s forehead.
- 17th century: Because men were often at sea, they kept in touch with their family through letters.
- The portrayal of such private, intimate form of communication became a popular theme in Dutch genre painting, so we may infer the participants of the correspondence taking place within this painting to be lovers/a couple.
- Still, we cannot decipher the definite message of the paper, which appears empty before our eyes.
- The solitary figure appears defenseless in the middle of the room.
The blackening edges of the picture (upper side of the wall, table rug, curtain) seem to corner the girl menacingly.
- The apples and peaches are a symbol of Eve’s sin: the bowl of fruits may be pointing to an extramarital love affair (something not permitted). In addition, it has been knocked over; the fruits lose their balance as they fall sideways, dispersed.
- These elements create a disquiet and tense atmosphere. They might presage bad news about the contents of the letter.
- The reflection and the (physical) young woman do not closely resemble each other, and the direction of their glances do not match.
- Many have perceived a sense of Otherness in this ghostly, uncanny image. It suggests the existence of another self inside the girl: a more somber and irrational side.
- X-ray has proven that she was originally facing inwards, a position which would account for the reflection that, instead, remains unaltered.
- Thoughts on Vermeer (2010). Stolen the Film, by Celeste Brusati, History of Art professor. Retrieved February 14, 2010.
- Essential Vermeer (2010, February). By Jonathan Janson. Retrieved February 07, 2010.
- Vermeer and the Camera Obscura (2009, November 5). In BBC – British History in-depth, by Philip Steadman. Retrieved March 28, 2010.
- Why is Vermeer’s painting so popular? (2009, April 15). In Flying Fox – Words from Essential Vermeer.com, by Jonathan Janson. Retrieved March 28, 2010.
- Messages from the Heart (2004, March). In Aristos, by Louis Torres. Retrieved February 11, 2010.
- Letters from Delft (2003, November 4). In ReadingWoman.org, by Friederun Hardt-Friederichs. Retrieved February 11, 2010.
- SAPHIRO, Gary (2003). Archaeologies of vision: Foucault and Nietzsche on seeing and saying, Phoenix Poets series. University of Chicago Press. ISBN0226750477, 9780226750477.
- SCHNEIDER, Norbert (2000). Vermeer, 1632-1675: veiled emotions, Basic Art Album Series. Taschen. ISBN 3822863238, 9783822863237.
- SNOW, Edward (1994). A study of Vermeer. University of California Press. ISBN0520071328, 9780520071322.