c. 1669-70; Oil on canvas, 44 x 38.5 cm; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Pulling a curtain to one side, a scene of domestic intimacy is revealed. A well-to-do woman, clothed in yellow, is being handed a letter. She glances up questioningly at her maid and pauses in her lute playing. The room with the two women is brilliantly lit; the space in front of it is darker. Sheet music can be seen on a chair. Perhaps the lady is waiting for a person with whom to play music. On the dark wall at the left of the door opening is a map. Vermeer signed the painting with his characteristic signature, compressed on the left, next to the maid, is the name 'JVMeer'.
Although the lady has not yet opened the letter it is apparent from the picture that it is from a lover. The two pictures in the background indicate this. A painting within a painting often indicates the artist's intention in the picture. Here the lower painting is a seascape. In the seventeenth-century language of imagery the sea stood for love, and a ship for a lover. The emblem written by Jan Krul 'Far from home, never far from my heart' expresses this well. The upper picture shows a man walking along a sandy path: as in the painting of the ship, there is the suggestion of a person on a journey.
Emblem by Jan Harmensz Krul,
Far from home, never far from my heart, 1640
An emblem is a picture accompanied by a motto or a verse. Jan Krul's emblem has the motto "Though you are far away, you are always in my heart". The picture shows a ship with Cupid at the sails. The man at the forecastle is addressing his beloved on the quay. His gesture illustrates how precarious love can be. A verse accompanies the picture:
On the unbounded sea of trackless waves,
My amorous heart sails between hope and fear:
Love is like the sea, a lover like a ship,
Your favor a safe harbor, your rejection a rock;
If the ship were to run aground,
All hope of a safe return would be dashed;
Show the harbor of your favor, by a beacon of love,
So that I may escape the Sea of love's fear.
Source: Jan Harmensz Krul, Images of Love: Dedicated to Amorous Youth, Amsterdam 1640.
Vermeer has incorporated even more references to love into his picture. A lute symbolises the harmony produced by love: when one lute is played, other nearby lutes resonate in sympathy. The Dutch writer Jacob Cats illustrated this effect with a so-called emblem. The lute and sheet music in Vermeer's painting The Love Letter suggest that the lady is waiting for another player. In the foreground a pair of slippers and a broom probably refer to a less exalted kind of love.
Jacob Cats, Lute tuner, 1618
Lonely lute on the lap
Pair of forlom slippers
Less exhalted ?
The broom and the slippers in the foregound of Vermeer's Love Letter suggest a less than proper love affair. Marrying "over the broom" was a 17th-century Dutch euphemism for living together our of wedlock. Moreover, loose women were often compared to old slippers casually thrown around.
Vermeer has painted a typical seventeenth-century Dutch interior. It is a prosperous home, judging from the gilt-leather wall hangings, the elaborate mantelpiece and the woman's fur-trimmed satin jacket. Vermeer borrowed the subject - women in a domestic setting - from his fellow Delft artist, Pieter de Hooch. De Hooch was fond of through-views from one room into another. Possibly Vermeer took the idea for the composition of the Love Letter from a painting by De Hooch presently in Cologne. However, this painting is a true Vermeer. The freshness of the yellow and blue, the beautiful treatment of light and the subtle nuances of colour in the garments are unmistakably the work of the master.
Color nuances and gilt-leather
Pieter de Hooch,
Linen Chest, 1663: women in a well-to-do interior
Credits: The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.