In this painting, Vermeer shows a young woman and her maid wondering about the arrival of a mysterious letter.
The mistress is interrupted from her own writing by the letter’s sudden appearance.
Her affluence is indicated by her elegant coiffure (it certainly is quite some hairstyle!)
the pearls adorning her hair, neck, and ears…
and her fur-trimmed yellow mantel. All the height of 17th Century fashion.
The mistress’s yellow satin jacket, known as either a jak or manteltje, was an informal item worn by middle- and upper-class women for warmth inside the home.
And the simple fact that she’s sitting down to write a letter proves the mistress’ was from a privileged position in society. Remember, very few people were educated enough to read and write.
She lays down her pen with the arrival of her maid…
who emerges from the shadows holding a letter.
The maid wears a simple brown wool bodice with an underlying chemisette. Very different from the richness (in more ways than one) of the clothes of her mistress.
She also wears a vibrant blue apron.
While sending and receiving love letters was a popular theme in Dutch art particularly after the middle of the century (who doesn’t love a good romance?), the note’s contents and the mistress’s response are impossible to interpret.
This ambiguity, often found in Vermeer’s works, is part of the painting’s genius. It keeps us all in suspense, engrossed in a drama whose ending will never be revealed. Vermeer is teasing us to draw our conclusions, a wicked scandal or a tender love affair?
The darkened background, with its scarcely legible curtain, seems at first to be a departure from Vermeer’s typical sun-drenched interiors.
His masterful treatment of light is revealed, however, in the incredibly subtle depiction of a window, not visible in the room itself, but reflected in the glassware on the table.
This unseen source of light spotlights the women—especially the softly modeled profile and hand of the mistress—and fixes their gestures.
Mistress and Maid by Johannes VermeerThe Frick Collection
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.