A Lady Writing (c. 1665) by Johannes VermeerNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC
This painting of a young woman writing shows Vermeer at one of his finest moments as the ‘master of light’. A shaft of daylight penetrates the shadowy room through a window not shown in the painting.
The light illuminates the table...
... and the yellow jacket...
... and face of the young woman, who is looking directly out at us.
We are witnesses to a snapshot in time: the young woman looks up, but doesn’t lift her pen from the paper, as if she could continue with her sentence at any moment. Vermeer painted this intimate painting in a later stage of his career, during which he produced more of this type of refined, calm interior scenes.
Who’s that girl?
There has been a lot of speculation about the young woman’s identity. Although there is no documentary evidence to suggest that Vermeer ever painted portraits, her distinctive facial features and gaze could indicate that this is indeed a portrait. However, Vermeer usually included figures in his interior scenes to depict an everyday domestic scene rather than a particular individual. He likely asked people in his immediate surroundings to pose for him, which could also explain why the women in his paintings sometimes look similar.
The young woman wears her hair pinned up in a braid with ribbons tied in bows. This hairstyle was particularly fashionable in the second half of the seventeenth century. A number of women with similar hairstyles appear in Vermeer’s paintings from the 1660s, including Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace and The Concert.
An elegant jacket
A yellow jacket trimmed with ermine, like the one seen here, is mentioned in the inventory drawn up after Vermeer’s death. It was likely owned by his wife, Catharina Bolnes. For this reason, it has been suggested that the woman depicted here is Catharina, though several other figures in Vermeer’s work wear the same garment. The jacket also appears in Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace, Young Woman with a Lute and Mistress and Maid.
Like the yellow jacket, the jewellery box and ink set on a tray on the table also appear in Mistress and Maid, as does the blue tablecloth, which features in several works.
Lying next to the jewellery box is a string of pearls with a yellow ribbon at the end that matches the fabric of the young woman’s dress. Two unusually large pearls gleam in her ears. Pearls were very expensive in the seventeenth century. Vermeer included them in a large number of his paintings. The size of these earrings probably stemmed from his imagination as pearls this large would have been enormously expensive.
In the painting hanging on the back wall, a cello can be made out. In seventeenth-century paintings music is often a reference to love. Is the painting in the background here subtly referring to the content of the young woman’s letter?
A frame with a signature
Vermeer signed this work with his monogram on the frame of the painting in the background. With some difficulty, the letters IVMEER are visible. The ‘I’ of ‘Ionnes’ is interwoven with the letters V and M, a manner in which Vermeer often signed his paintings.
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.