We see an elegantly-dressed young woman playing a musical instrument. She is interrupted by her maid, who has just handed her a letter. The young woman looks nervous, as if she is uncertain about what she will read in the letter.
The room is lavishly decorated, with a marble floor, paintings on the wall and gold leather wall hangings.
Vermeer often painted intimate scenes such as this, in which the viewer feels like they are accidentally witnessing something that was not meant for their eyes. Here, the feeling is intensified by positioning the women in a separate, well-lit room, while we view them out of the shadows through a doorway.
The Love Letter was acquired by the Rijksmuseum in 1893. The work was stolen in 1971, while on display in an exhibition in Brussels. The painting, which was cut from its stretcher, was thankfully quickly recovered and successfully restored.
Glimpses such as this were not uncommon in 17th-century painting. Vermeer intensifies the sense of depth in the painting by placing multiple rooms behind each other. Glimpses were one of the specialities of Pieter de Hooch, a painter who worked in Delft – the city where Vermeer also lived and worked – until shortly after 1660. It is likely that the two painters were acquainted with each other’s work, and Vermeer might have drawn inspiration from De Hooch’s.
In this work, Vermeer plays with the contrast between the well-lit room and the shadowy space in the foreground. It is difficult to make out the subjects that surround the doorpost.
A map is hanging on the left-hand wall...
... and to the right, there’s a chair with sheet music on it.
The curtain that usually hangs in front of the doorway has been pulled to one side.
Placing objects in the foreground was a common artistic device, used to create the illusion of depth. An object like this is called a repoussoir. Positioning a repoussoir clearly in the foreground ‘pushes’ the rest of the scene into the background.
‘The love letter’ was a popular theme in Golden Age painting. This work shows the letter being delivered, but writing or reading the letter is also often depicted. Vermeer also painted these various moments. The letter is veiled in shadow, which makes it stand out against the woman’s yellow jacket.
The light falling on her face focuses our attention on her reaction. You simply can’t help but wondering what the letter says.
An expectant expression
The seated woman has just taken the letter and looks expectantly up at her maid. What news will the letter contain from her lover? She appears to be worried that she will not like what she is about to read.
However, the maid’s calm demeanour, friendly smile and hand on her side suggest that she is confident that the letter contains welcome news.
The paintings above the two women appear to confirm the glad tidings.
In the 17th century, love was often compared to the sea, and the lover to a ship. A turbulent sea indicated a tempestuous relationship, while a calm sea was a portent of love. The painting behind the woman shows a blue sky and a calm sea...
... while the idyllic landscape hanging above appears to offer the same message.
The lute was a popular instrument in the 17th century, and was often used to accompany singing. Music and musical instruments were often associated with love. The woman playing music therefore fits perfectly within the context of the love letter. The lute could represent different types of love, ranging from conjugal fidelity to lechery and adultery. What could it represent here?
A bit of a mess
Various objects are scattered on the floor...
... such as a laundry basket...
... a broom and slippers.
Perhaps the young lady was so wrapped up in her affairs of the heart that she neglected her household chores. Alternatively, Vermeer may have meant for these objects to be interpreted symbolically. Shoes could represent domestic harmony, but were also subject to lewder interpretations. The broom could indicate a couple living together out of matrimony. However, none of the objects offer indisputable indications that we are dealing with improper love, so how the scene should be interpreted remains uncertain.
From the room where we appear to be observing the scene, the row of white marble floor tiles guides our eye to the two women. Marble tiles feature in numerous 17th-century paintings of interiors, but in reality, floors like this were quite uncommon. They were mostly found in the houses of the extremely wealthy, and often in smaller rooms.
Vermeer did not paint the marble pattern meticulously, instead using quick, loose brushstrokes to create the illusion of marble.
Vermeer included some of the objects in other paintings, such as the woman’s expensive, fur-trimmed yellow jacket. The jacket is also worn by the elegant young women in five other paintings, including A Lady Writing (National Gallery of Art, Washington) and the Woman with a Pearl Necklace (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). An inventory of Vermeer’s house taken on 29 February 1676 includes a yellow satin jacket with white fur trim. Perhaps this is the jacket that makes a few return appearances in his paintings.
Vermeer has signed this painting with IVMeer. The I, V and M are written as one, and the I stands for his first name, Johannes. The signature can be found on the piece of wall above the laundry basket, to the left of the maid’s blue skirts.
The Love Letter by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.