A young woman dressed in a blue jacket is completely absorbed in reading a letter. The tranquil subject is emphasised by the relatively large, right-angled sections that divide the painting and the calming shades of blue and ochre. While the viewer is drawn into the painting by the intimacy of the scene, they also remain at a distance: the woman is not aware that she is being watched, and she is physically separated from us by the furniture in the foreground. She is completely absorbed by her thoughts. In this work, Vermeer once again shows that he was a masterful painter of light and shadow effects. The painting was the first work by Vermeer in the Rijksmuseum: it has been on display at the museum since 1885.
The abundance of blue in this painting immediately catches the eye: the exquisite blue of the woman’s jacket...
... but also of the map hanger knob and the chairs.
Vermeer used ultramarine to achieve this brilliant blue colour, an expensive pigment that was produced by grinding lapis lazuli into a powder. This stone was mined in a region of what is now Afghanistan, and transported by boat to Italy before being distributed throughout Europe (azzurro ultramarino = blue from beyond the sea).
The painting revolves around the letter. The woman holds the letter tightly – almost tensely – with both hands...
... and reads it in deep concentration.
Vermeer does not provide any indications of what the letter says, which only serves to increase the intimacy of the scene: only the woman and the letter writer know the message it contains. In 17th-century Dutch genre painting, scenes like this usually involve love letters. Is that also the case in this work?
The woman’s jacket is a so-called beddejak: a jacket that was worn by distinguished women in bed.
These jackets had straight sleeves...
... and were closed at the front by a row of tied ribbons, as shown here.
We are witnessing a private moment – nobody would normally see this lady in these clothes.
Some have suggested that the woman is pregnant. This is difficult to say with any certainty, as jackets like these always had a slightly rounded design.
The letter must have arrived unexpectedly. In addition to the woman still wearing her nightclothes, she appears to have interrupted her ablutions. We see an open box on the table, with a pearl necklace next to it, as if she was selecting her jewellery for the day. Another page of the letter is also on the table, laid there in the haste to read on.
The map on the wall shows Holland and West Friesland. Vermeer has depicted an existing map, which was published in the 1620s by the renowned cartographer Willem Jansz Blaeu. Vermeer painted the same map in Officer and Laughing Girl (Frick Collection, New York), yet there are some differences. The map in Woman Reading a Letter is larger, less colourful, and appears to be less detailed. Vermeer freely altered the shape, size or colour of objects if this better suited the composition of his painting.
The white wall
In this painting, the white sections of the wall are just as important as the objects. They have a clear shape, which balances the composition. They contribute to the calm, hushed atmosphere of the scene.
Vermeer deliberately gave the wall a prominent role in his painting.
X-ray examination has revealed that, once the work was already well underway, he made the left side of the map slightly larger. This made the adjacent section of wall slightly narrower, bringing it more into balance with the section of wall to the right.
Although we cannot see the light source, it is clear that the (day)light is entering the painting from the left, presumably through a window. A second light source is suggested by the double shadows on the wall created by the knob of the map hanger...
... and the back of the left-hand chair.
These shadows create distance between the wall and the objects, giving us a better sense of space.
Here is another example of Vermeer adjusting reality when it suited him. The knob of the map hanger and the left-hand chair clearly cast shadows on the wall.
However, the woman does not have any shadow at all, while she should.
This is Vermeer’s way of subtly drawing attention to the woman, using light and shadow as a compositional element. While it may appear as if we are viewing a snapshot of daily life, this scene has actually been meticulously created by the artist.
Woman Reading a Letter (c. 1663) by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.