c. 1662-63; Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 39 cm; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
A young woman is reading a letter, around her are a table and chairs. She is illuminated by the light from what is presumably a window. On the wall behind her is a map. The artist has achieved a muted tone with his use of blues and browns. Vermeer has played here with the light and shadow. While the map and the chair cast a distinct shadow on the wall, the woman does not. It makes her stands out from the background. The subtle gradations of color and the contrasts in this painting were already greatly admired two hundred years ago. A 1791 auction catalogue remarks on 'the pleasing effects of light and shadow'.
In Dutch genre painting a woman reading a letter was usually a reference to love. The map on the wall may refer to a distant lover, but the painting offers no further clues to a hidden meaning. The map, showing Holland and West Friesland appears in an earlier painting by Vermeer of the Soldier and the Laughing Girl. This picture, painted in 1658, is now in the Frick Collection in New York. Although the young woman appears to be pregnant, this is not necessarily the case. The fashionable wide jacket she is wearing may make her figure appear fuller than it is.
The woman is surrounded by furniture. The table and chairs define the space around her. Vermeer adjusted the balance in his painting by playing with the areas of light and shadow. X-ray photos show that the map on the wall was originally narrower. To improve the composition Vermeer made it wider. He also altered the woman's jacket. Originally it was a wider, fur-trimmed cloak. Vermeer made the jacket simpler and less wide. The woman's back, dark in shadow, stands out sharply against the light wall behind her. The contour of her back is clear and deliberately depicted, while other lines are more fuzzy, such as the illuminated profile of her face.
Credits: The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
We all know how annoying it can be in a crowded gallery to overhear the comments of other patrons discussing a work. And the Vermeer show was of course so crowded that this was inevitable. Yet my experience in the exhibition was that as viewers approached this painting, they assumed a hushed silence. It was as if no one dared to interrupt the woman's concentration on the contents of her letter. In this painting, Vermeer has rendered an intense contrast by combining the dynamically expectant posture of the woman with a geometric composition that locks her in space.
The woman is placed precisely in the center of the composition. A table and chairs erect a framework around her statuesque profile. The strong horizontal of the bar at the bottom of the map focuses attention on her hands holding the letter. This compositional grid restricts any hint of motion and denies physical release of the woman's emotional excitement. It seems as if the wandering patterns of the map above her head are her only outlet and express her inner turmoil.
The geometric arrangement does not end with the positive elements of map, table and chairs. Vermeer incorporated the negative shapes of the wall into the structure as well. The asymmetrical balance of these shapes provides additional stabilization of the composition. The importance of these spaces to Vermeer is revealed through an x-radiograph, which shows that he extended the original map outline toward the left. This balanced the width of the wall areas to the left and right of the figure.
Vermeer also used color to stabilize the design. The blue of the jacket, chair and table coverings and the light brown of the dress and map exert a calming effect. The tonalities firmly affix the figure within the compositional framework.
There are two light sources. This serves to diffuse the shadows, avoiding the harshness that a dominating light source would have imposed on the work. Yet again, Vermeer shows his willingness to revise reality to enhance his composition. The flow of light is subtly altered. While the chair and map cast shadows, the woman does not. Encompassing the woman in a diffuse light separates her from her temporal framework, which enhances the sense of permanence that she radiates. To intensify this effect, Vermeer went so far as to contour the figure with a line of light blue.
Although no narrative in the painting makes the content of the letter explicit, there are references to it. In Dutch painting of this time, a letter is nearly always associated with love. The map, as well as the empty chair, allude to an absent lover. The sense of expectancy is made literal by the apparent pregnant condition of the woman.
In Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, Vermeer achieved a remarkable synthesis of permanence and expectation. The result is a powerful emotional expression that goes beyond the transient associations of the subject matter.
-- Mark Harden