Dear readers, you’re about to enter a world of tranquillity, silence and mystery, the world of Jan Vermeer; the master of light and the master of colour blue, the artist loved by Marcel Proust, the artist forgotten for three long centuries and then rediscovered in the mid 19th century, and above all – a painter who gave beauty to everyday activities.
I was seduced by the silent beauty of this everyday scene. Day is slowly coming to an end. The last rays of sunlight are piercing through the window and bathing the room with a soft yellow hue. A girl is standing by the window, solemnly reading a love letter. Everything is so light, warm and tender. We can see her reflection in the window. The sunlight spilt its charms across her chamber and everything appears soft and luminous, as if Vermeer himself was dreaming of the warm Mediterranean colours; from her blonde ringlets, rosy cheeks and yellow dress, to the wall and the greenish-yellow curtain on the right. Looking at that soft transitions of colour, you can imagine the rapture Vermeer felt while painting it.
On the other hand, the girl seems sombre and lost in her own thoughts. Her eyes are fixated on the letter, her lips closed together. She’s dressed in a fine yellow and black silk, her hair nicely arranged, and she’s surrounded by luxurious fabrics and a bowl of fruit. In this cosy bourgeois interior, this young woman is facing an inner turmoil. The letter is most certainly implying the beginning of a secret love affair, which would be a very risky move in the seventeenth century. Some art historians have implied that the painting shows a young married woman who is about to engage in an affair. There are some elements in the painting that prove this; firstly the letter, then the bowl of apples and peaches, and we know that Eve tempted Adam with an apple, and also the colour of her dress, yellow, was considered a colour of adulteresses and whores, along with crimson red of course.
For example, in the 16th century, courtesans in Florence were required to wear a yellow veil, and ‘a letter from 1688‘ notes that ‘whole streets fill’d with Ladies, easily distinguish’d from others by their Habits, being dressed in red and yellow, with naked breasts and painted faces…‘* While I agree that the letter is a hint of a possible love affair, I don’t think this lady is a married one. In my view, she could be a daughter of a wealthy merchant or something similar, who just received a letter from a man her parents might not have had in mind as a possible husband for her. This lady in a yellow dress, reading a mysterious letter in a room brightened up by the gold sunset, feels isolated and trapped by social customs. The open window could symbolise her longing to get acquainted with the outside world. After all, freedom is the sweetest of all the gifts.
I’ve chosen some other genre paintings by Vermeer (1632–1675) and Gerrit ter Borch (1617–1681) with similar subject; ladies writing or reading a love letter. Gerrit ter Borch’s Woman Writing a Letter (1655) is especially interesting because it possesses a certain delicacy. Just think about it, these ladies, with their porcelain white skin, their rustling silk dresses, pearl earrings and aloof smiles, have spent four centuries writing and reading the letters we’ll never be able to read. Their longings and inner turmoil hidden underneath an ice-cold blonde facade will forever stay a mystery, but the beauty of the moment that Vermeer and Borch have so delicately captured is here for everyone to enjoy.
I’ve been thinking lately that I lack variety on the blog, and, well, I decided to write about an artist that I’ve never written about before. Vermeer’s paintings that depict everyday scenes with subtle beauty somehow intrigued me and I hope you enjoyed this post.
*Williams, Gordon, Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature