Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid (c.1670) by Johannes VermeerOriginal Source: National Gallery of Ireland
A Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid is one of the finest paintings of Vermeer’s late career.
The celebrated canvas depicts a young elegant lady, seated at a carpeted table, engrossed in writing a letter.
Waiting for her mistress’s orders, a maid servant stares out of the window.
This is one of six paintings in Vermeer’s oeuvre depicting women involved in writing or reading correspondence, which makes it one of the Delft artist’s favourite themes. Vermeer did not sell A Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid during his lifetime. After his death, his widow, gave this and another painting to a local baker in Delft. She did so to cover a substantial debt for bread she and her family had bought on account.
Dressed in a green bodice and a shirt with puffed white sleeves, a lady holds a quill in her right hand to write a letter, while using her left to keep the paper in place. The content of her message remains a mystery, however.
Vermeer fully lit the woman’s left arm and shoulder and the left side of her face, but placed them against a piece of the wall that is in the shade.
Her right side, on the other hand, is not as well illuminated, but is set against a brightly lit part of the wall. These strong light-and-dark contrasts make the lady visually ‘come forward’.
Waiting for her mistress to tell her to post the letter, the maid stands near the back wall of the room, holding her arms clasped together.
She looks to the left through a decorative stained glass window, but what exactly she sees is unclear.
Although she is subordinate to her mistress and placed behind, the maid is represented full length and is positioned right in the centre of the composition. Vermeer clearly plays here with established social hierarchies.
Although we cannot read the content of the lady’s message, we can safely assume that seventeenth-century viewers would have regarded it as a love letter, as virtually every letter in Dutch art of this time is amorous in nature.
Vermeer’s first three paintings of letters represent a single woman reading or writing an epistle. His last three depict a maid servant who has just handed over a letter, is about to do so, or, as the case in this painting, awaits her mistress’s orders to dispatch it.
Objects in the foreground
In the foreground on the floor lie a red seal, a stick of sealing wax and an object that is either a letter with a crumpled wrapper or a letter-writing manual, a standard aid for personal correspondence at the time.
In either case, the objects seem to have been thrown away by the lady in a heightened state of emotion, which took place right before the moment depicted.
The large painting on the back wall represents the biblical story of the finding of Moses in the bulrushes (Exodus 1–2).
We can see similarities between the lady writing a letter seated in the foreground...
... and the Pharaoh’s daughter holding Moses in the painting on the back wall...
... and between the maid servant standing behind her mistress...
... and Miriam waiting behind the Pharaoh’s daughter.
Vermeer probably wanted to tell us that the lady’s amorous fate is ‘predestined’ in the same way as Moses’s life was.
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.