JOHANNES VERMEER’S A GIRL READING A LETTER AT AN OPEN WINDOW
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.
- See the technical card of the work