Girl reading a letter at an open window (4)


I would like to begin this article with some notes on Vermeer’s life and style. Then, I would like to focus on the painting I have chosen.


Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was a Dutch Baroque painter whose paintings were focused on domestic interior scenes of middle class life.  He was born in a Protestant and middle-class family, in Delft. His father was a member of the painter’s guild of St. Luke, although his mother was illiterate. In 1653 he got married with a Catholic girl, Chatharina Bolnes, whose mother was richer than him. For this reason, he could probably became Catholic.  The couple had fourteen children although some of them died before being baptized. The whole family lived at the house of Chatharina’s mother, where Vermeer painted most of his works. His marriage raised him socially and this helped him to spread his paintings. However, he left his family in debt at his death in 1675. His wife paid off part of their debt selling some of Vermeer’s paintings.


He is one of the great Dutch masters, although only around thirty-five paintings by him are known. He specialized in domestic interiors, portraits and city views. Many scholars discuss how Vermeer learnt to paint, some of them claims that he taught himself, others mentions that he was a Bramer’s pupil. Other painters are mentioned, such as Fabritius whose paintings remind Vermeer’s. His work was influenced by several seventeenth century artists including by Caravaggio’s followers in Utrecht.

He is a good example of a neoclassic painter, that is objectivity, balance and reason are protagonist of his paintings. He painted everyday issues in Dutch life. His paintings are a reflection of what people used to do everyday, a reflection of reality. He used to paint women and men in rooms, although he painted also some outdoor scenes and religious themes.

Many critics have studied his style so I would like to include some scholars’ opinions:

Thomas Bodkin, an Irish art collector and curator, says:

“His colour sense has an exquisite delicacy of taste that is quite unprecedented, and finds expression most frequently in cool schemes compounded with deep blues, lemon-yellows, olive-greens and clear dove-greys, linked and harmonized by vivid touches of bright red and golden brown. In his management of white pigment, no painter has ever surpassed him. He uses it to produce effects of crystalline purity and precision. … Vermeer had also a genius for composition. Our eyes are never tempted to roam beyond the limits, which he imposes with his frames. Every constituent element of his design flows easily and gracefully into one indivisible whole. His temperament was essentially aristocratic; violent gesture or anecdotal innuendo had no appeal for him. … His pictures are full of closely observed detail…

The National Gallery of London says on its web page:

“His mature domestic genre pieces have a characteristic pearly light. The eye is drawn into the picture by the careful placing of objects and a clearly defined architectural space. Figures pursue tranquil occupations, and the symbolic meaning of the scene is sometimes revealed through a painting within the painting”.

His style and the way he worked were brilliant. Because of the use he made of light and colours some scholars think that he may have used the camera obscura which produces exaggerated perspective. For this reason, some of his paintings seem a photograph, such as that of View of Deft and Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman. However, it is not certain he used this invent.

I would like to mention too the difficulties scholars have found to order his work. There are only three dated paintings, The Procuress (1656), The Astronomer (1668) and The Geographer (1669). It is thought that only two pictures are earlier than The Procuress. Those paintings are Christ in the House of Mary and Martha and Diana and her Companions. After these first pictures, all his works are characterized by their mundane themes (domestic interiors with one or two figures), colours (blues, yellows and greys) and with an extraordinary use of light. Most of his surviving works belong to this period when he also painted his two townscapes View of Deft and A Street in Delft. His latest works probably were The Allegory of Faith and The Letter which show a hardening of manner.

One of his first pictures is A girl reading a letter at an open window that probably was painted by the artist in 1657.  In the painting we can see a girl reading a letter in the centre of the composition. For some critics that young girl could be Vermeer’s wife, although there is not any certainty. There is an open window on the left that lights the feminine figure. This element reflects the girl’s features. There is a plate of fruit on a table covered with an Oriental rug that appears also in other Vermeer’s works. The bowel contains peaches, apples and plums. The use of fruit in painting is very usual among Dutch painters. As in Essential Vermeer reminds us a Dutch poet recommended “to send apples, send pears or other fruit to win over the heart of one’s lover drawing inspiration from Ovid’s Ars Amatoria.

I would like to mention here a brief technical description about the picture, as I am not an expert, I have taken a description of it from wikipedia:

“In the technique, the artist avows again Rembrandtesque derivation. He paints in small fatty dabs to model the forms, and obtains the desired effects by means of impasto highlights opposed to the deeper tonalities – just as the master from Leyden was wont to do. The painting is relatively large, and the smallness of the figure as opposed to its surroundings stresses immateriality and depersonalization. Vermeer considerably changed the composition in the course of execution”.

On this blog there is a fantastic analysis by an old student called Ainize in which every element of the picture is described. I invite you to read it.

This picture would work as a starting point to the story I have to write. I have chosen it not only because of its perfect composition and realization but also because of the richness of all its elements: the young girl, the letter, the window… It is so easy to go into the painting, into that room and imagine who the young girl was and who the writer of that letter was. This picture is like the reflection of a certain moment, the reflection of a story summarized into that instant. This painting is, like most of Vermeer’s works, the reflection of mundane activity, of a person’s life. It is a reflection of reality.


The painting is housed permanently in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) in Dresden, Germany.

Other resources:

2 responses to “Girl reading a letter at an open window (4)

  1. Just an apparent anachronism in the Ambassadors by Holbein. Vermeer, in the Girl Interupted at Her Music, Lady Standing at the Virginals, A Woman Asleep, and Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window included the Emblem of the CUPID holding a bow at his right hand and a card or letter aloft with his left (though, in the latter, is now over-painted as seen by X-ray analysis, as was also, a roehmer glass, which was adding the element of wine), In the Emblem book (and Everdingen’s Cupid painting reiterates) the number one is on it indicating one true love. You may wish to go to the HOLBEIN painting of the AMBASSADORS to view a similar image which may have been mistaken, initially for a Cupid:

    -to view the MEDALLION hanging by a gold chain on the ambassador on the left. I attempted to locate this medallion on 2 or 3 of the museum websites of France and England to satisfy my curiousity as to whether or not it was a Cupid in the same posture, but did not find one. Eventually, I found that the medallion was picturing the Order of St. Michael: (St.Michael, the Archangel is depicted hovering with wings and an upraised sword, over a fallen and vanquished Satan.)The Order is a French Chivalric Order of Knights established in 1469 and was the highest Order in France at the time the Holbein painting was made.
    This painting completed in 1533 is 76 years prior art to the publication of the Book of Emblems (1609) which Vermeer and Steen, for two, used in their works. Gerard Terborch, Vermeer’s associate and likely mentor, is known to have travelled to England and would have been very aware of this painting of Holbein with the medallion and the anamorphic scull that strangely stretches across the foreground as a Vanitas.
    Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!(Soloman)I see Vermeer’s Girl Reading at a Window as a ‘Vanitas’, or Memento Mori of a very unique sort! Originally including on the, now, bare wall a painting of a Cupid holding the number one overhead, (as in at least two other works)Vermeer over-painted it! It is possible that he did so to change the direction of its main theme. The open window, the spilled fruit the letter itself; all allude to an illicit sensual-love relationship, as would the Cupid have done in an obvious allusion. The broken image of the girls reflection seems to point to more than a lost relationship or devastating news. It could even suggest the “death conquers all” of the Vanitas; but not alone. Vermeer has included a Trompe l’oiel by adding the paint curtain (an artist’s protector), which appears to have a secret of its own!! Han’s Holbein the Younger, approximately one hundred years before, painted an elongated scull stretched out on a diagonal and visually was read only from an oblique angle by the viewer as a Vanitas in the court portraits of two French ambassadors. I suggest that this painting was made a tribute in our painting by the youthful Vermeer. Not that he intended a repeat of the other masters’ tour de force, but as a suggested ghostly reminder in the ODD shapes in the folds of cloth in his curtain, which seem to mimic the form and shapes of the scull in the Vanitas of Holbein’s masterpiece.

  2. Pingback: Dear classmates, « Johannes Vermeer’s influence and inspiration·

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