Lady writing a letter with her maid



A Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (1670-1671) is one of Vermmer’s essential theme of revealing the universal within the domain of the commonplace.I have chosen this wonderful painting because the essence of it led us the impression of being inside of it.

One of the reasons why I have decided to work in this canvas is Vermeer use of  “the points of light” technique by eliminating aditional objects. I liked it because it seems to be a simply painting. The use of colours not so vivid envolves us into a placid atmosphere full of calm. One of the concepts I like most, is the strong contrast between the maid and the mistress. The maid appears in statuesque way, while the lady is trying to write the letter. The use of strong light outlines play with the viewer’s eye, that lead first to the maidand  later on to the mistress as the focal point of the painting.

Moreover, Vermeer avoids direct narrative content, giving us the chance of having a free interpretation of what is happening in the context of the painting, something I like as a ‘scape’ of playing with our imagination. I think that this painting can give me the opportunity to ‘travel’ through my imagination and write a good short tale about it.


                      ‘LADY WRITING A LETTER WITH HER MAID’

This painting exemplifies Vermeer’s essential theme of revealing the universal within the domain of the commonplace. By avoiding anecdote, he achieved a sense of timelessness in his work. nThe representation of universal truths was achieved by eliminating aditional objects and through the delicated manipulation of light, color and perspective. nThe painting presents an apparently simple composition. The placid scene with its muted colors suggests no activity or hint of interruption.

Powerful verticals and horizontals in the composition (particularly the heavy black frame of the background painting), establish a reduced backdrop that contributes to the simple atmosphere. nThere is a strong contrast between the two figures: The firm stance of the statuesque maid and the happy mistress trying to write her letter. nThe maid’s gravity is emphasized by her central position in the composition. nThe left upright of the picture frame anchors her in place while the regular folds of her clothing sustain the effect down to the floor.

In contrast, the mistress inclines dynamically on her left forearm. Her compositional placement thrusts her against the compressed space on the right side of the painting. nThe mistress is painted in precise, meticulous strokes as opposed to the handling of the brush used to represent the maid. nThe figures are joined by perspective: Lines from the upper and lower window frames proceed across the folded arms and lighted forehead of the maid, extending to a vanishing point in the left eye of the mistress.

Vermeer avoids direct narrative content: The crumpled letter on the floor in the right foreground is a clue to the missive the mistress is composing. nThe red wax seal (rediscovered only recently during a 1974 cleaning) indicates the crumpled letter was received. nSince letters were prized in the 17th century, it must have been thrown aside in anger. nAnother clue is provided in the large background painting, “The Finding of Moses“ (God’s ability to conciliate opposing factions).

These allusions have great critics to construe Vermeer’s theme as the need to achieve reconciliation, through individual effort and with faith in God’s divine plan. This spiritual reconciliation will lead to the serenity personified in the figure of the maid.


Mark Harden (1995)from:

6 responses to “Lady writing a letter with her maid

  1. The Lady writing is the same model as the Sleeping Maid in vermeer’s earlier painting. In fact, reversing the head to a mirror image and placing beside the sleeping maid proves that it is almost the same head except for the pronounced lighting variance.

  2. Another painting by Vermeer, with a similar name, not chosen by this site’s writers, is “Lady Writing a Letter” which is the most portrait-like work that he produced and now located in the National gallery, Washington, D.C.. To my mind, it can only be a rendering of his admiration of his own wife. To me, it is Catharina from the stylish ribbons and direct gaze to her nail-bitten fingertips! The usual iconographical allusions are here:
    The dark background has a painting which may contain a viola da gamba -symbol of a male presence close by. The yellow satin jacket indicates a sexual interest and her ribboned quaff is elaborate “tress management” for the act of solitary letter-writing. We can assume a love letter from these sparse, but telling elements.
    But the true love letter, I think, can be seen in the symbol usually associated with vanity – the pearls. For,as a grain of sand in a clamshell, after time and irritation, can produce a pearl – so, by analogy, the marriage bed may bring forth children. I am sure that when Antony van Lieuenhoek was discovering the seed of men in semen, he, and frinds like Vermeer, would not have overlooked the resemblance of semenal fluid to pearls. Thus, pearls may be the symbol of a married woman.
    I propose that at the time that this painting was produced (1665?) the visible string of TEN pearls, the end of which is hidden, may represent the incomplete Vermeer family of TEN children.

  3. Straight Lines _ Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid
    The Dutch, in the seventeenth century, were fastidious and meticulous in the cleanliness of their houses, which was noted in journals of travellers of the “Grand Tour” in Europe. This was even more a truism of the women and their households in Delft. The shock would have been far greater to the ladies of this town to see, in the foreground painted by Vermeer; a normally treasured effort of correspondence, not only trashed, but thrown to the floor. Their curiosity, in the very least, would be on high alert! It would have been unfathomable to such a society, to endure a lady’s maid standing idly, with arms folded, staring out the window in such a situation. Obviously, the tossing of the crushed letter was the lady’s prior act of ire. Perhaps, this maid did not witness the moment of our lady’s rage, but has, innocently, entered to await her mistress’ bidding for a delivery of a new letter in the usual way. The tossed letter, after all, is not in a direct line of her view. This may be true, but what is the lady’s quandry and why her visual expletive, cursorily dispatched to the floor?
    Vermeer does not leave painted questions unanswered. He only hints at their unravelling in the maid’s folded arms, subtly, as cradled arms in an allusion to the large Moses picture behind. Is there a baby in-the-making in the real-life room before us? The painting’s silent commentary has gained prophetic significance in these few moments of time in the lives of two women; the one, a passive maid; the other, a lady fixed in concentration of will and intent on the missive before her! How, then is the nature of the mystery pierced, as a veil? In part, by the point of Vermeer’s compasses, to be sure. As with the Astronomer, though, Vermeer has aimed the Cupid’s arrows by means of straight lines to reveal his intent to narrow the search for meaning in this piece! Like the Astronomer, the orthogonals are somewhat awry and do not, all, find the natural vanishing point in the Lady’s left eye. Two are steered through the maid’s eye to find other end-points on the lady’s face, such as chin-line and mouth. These, unlike the Astronomer, are not revealing a constantia point for circles. Vermeer has, here, instituted a use for converging lines in the web of his SPIDERMAN logic to point to his unlikely protagonist. The lines referred to are not the orthoganals aforementioned, but are generated, firstly, from the Moses painting, and secondly, from the “reality” of the room. The first will draw lines to converge on the nipple of the maid’s left breast. The second darts find the nipple of her right breast. When drawn, these lines are likened to radiating lines from two suns. Thematically, they call into relationship the painting-within-a-painting, with the room in it’s modern context. Thus, the Moses painting is shown to be, by intent, the prophetic semblance of the secret activity in the modern room. The clothed woman, who bares her breast to feed Moses as a babe, is Jochobed, his true mother, who is hired by Pharoah’s daughter as a wet nurse, which saves Moses from the edict of Pharoah, that all male infants born to Israelites must die. In the “room” the maid stands, arms cradled, and awaiting the birth of a child, which is hers, by transference of characters in the “painting plot”. She is “Jochobed” and the Lady has taken up her case, as she writes scathingly to or regarding the “man”, whether he be the Gent or his manservant, about responsibility and the welfare of mother and child. The cast off letter may implicate the Gent as the cad and the duplicitous paramour of this lady. She, being cognisant of her shared responsibility with him and her own delicate situation, as the Lady of her household, will likely care for the child by her means and to the welfare of all, just as Pharoah’s daughter did for Moses.
    The lines from the painting come as a result of extending lines which follow, for example, that same slope mentioned in the Astronomer, which, I stated, extended to strengthen, visually, Vermeer’s left arm. Another line from that tallest figure (who is Miriam – Moses’ sister) slants fron her left shoulder along a low neckline to the waist of the seated slave and to the breast of the maid. Another is from the top/front forehead of the naked daughter of Pharoah at the right, between the left breast of Jochobed and Moses’ right shoulder. A fourth line begins at the Pharoah’s daughter’s hair behind, along the slope of her right shoulder to Moses’ left knee and through his penis, and perfectly between his feet, and passing at the break of the wrist of the slave. More than these are generated, but I mention two more. They are the lines on either side of the daughter’s right thigh.
    Again, lines are formed by edging elements and structures in the room to the maid’s other breast.

  4. Overview
    Rembrandt expressed the ineffable or, rather, what an experience of another’s recognition of mystery looks like. We see it in “The Jewish Bride” and “The Prodigal Son”. Both are moments of awakening to love. It is God’s Love and the human reflection of that love in Man. Rembrandt painted and etched the Bible in human terms at a time when a transition, during the seventeenth century, was causing a paradigm shift towards humanism, later touted as “the age of reason”. Twenty-six years his junior, Vermeer enters this age of burgeoning scientific and philisophical thought; Descarte’s – “I think, therefore, I am”, in ignorance of anyone higher, takes the Name (I AM) and applies it to Man, because, to Descarte, seeing has become believing,(Reason is a Faith) rather than the revelation of God to man through the Bible, which defines who Man is in the context of the creation and Creator, which insists that, that which God has revealed is sufficient for every new day and beyond that is Trust; prompting the antithetical “Faith is seeing”! Was Vermeer a purveyor of these ideas of atheistic practicality permeating the bread of his age? Perhaps, he was an unwitting provider of yeast. His beliefs are, for a time, especially in the twenty-first century, hidden behind walls of iconographical symbols and the veils of the same humanism, three and one half centuries later. Rembrandt’s Christian paintings were overt and prompted a direct and open response. Vermeer spoke in palatable riddles to his society in pictures of themselves with hidden warnings cloaked in symbolism. Christ, at first, spoke directly and openly of repentance. Later, He changed his method to speaking in parables, so that those who had “ears to hear” would learn from Him. That Vermeer ascribed importance to the new additions to knowledge being discovered by his contemporaries is clear and laudable! Reason and Faith were not at odds to him. God said,”My thoughts are not your thoughts; nor are your thoughts My thoughts” but elsewhere He said, “Come, let us reason together.” The order found in the creation would be proof of God’s universe. Vermeer would have delighted in the findings of van Leeuwenhoek, who was born in Delft in the same year and month as himself. Decarte’s golden spiral would have intrigued him. Maps and scientific treatise are in his works.
    The constant theme of Vermeer’s paintings is Temperance – a quality of life issue. He took up the ideas and pictoral themes of his friends and filtered them through his own thinking and applied his method. Dutch painters specialized in an area of painting that was particularly interesting to them and attempted to make that area a perfect expression that could compete in a vibrant marketplace. Vermeer was no exception to this national niche-making. What, also, would be more appropriate to a father of so many girls, than this admonition to common sense in purity of living.

  5. Pingback: Art, anyone? | Skip Birong·

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