Jan Vermeer: The Letter

Dutch landscape paintings often exude a feeling of peace and tranquility. That same feeling also emerges in Dutch interior scenes, which Dutch artists are famous for painting, in addition to their landscapes. One of the famous Dutch interior painters is Jan Vermeer (1632-1675). Vermeer made most of his money from his work as an innkeeper and as an art dealer. As a painter, he painted relatively few works (to this date, there are around 35 paintings that can be attributed to him). At the beginning of his artistic career, he painted mostly biblical and historical scenes, but he later switched to interior and domestic scenes. In the 15th century, interior scenes painted by Flemish artists generally focused on sacred happenings. However, Vermeer and his contemporaries chose to focus their domestic scenes on families, and especially women, doing household tasks or playing.

Jan Vermeer, The Letter, 1666

In Vermeer’s The Letter, the viewer peeks into the room of a wealthy Dutch family. The viewer can only catch a glimpse. The glimpse and the secrecy and mystery of it reinforce the viewer’s status as an outsider of a very private moment. Two women are in the room. One is a maid and the woman dressed in yellow is presumably from a wealthy family, based on her elegant and fancy attire. In the scene, it seems that the maid has interrupted her lute playing to deliver a letter.

The 17th century contemporary viewer would have immediately recognized the letter as a love letter due to the symbolism in the room, which offers discrete clues. The elegantly dressed woman was in the midst of playing her lute, a traditional symbol of the music of love. Behind her, a painting of a ship on a still sea (it is calm, as opposed to being rough) is a symbol for love requited (this symbolism comes from Jan Harmensz Krul’s book Love Emblems, in which he compares love to the sea because of its “changeableness”).

Vermeer is also highly praised for his effective and precise use of light. Using light, he convincingly renders the space inside the room. Historians believe that Vermeer used several techniques to see how light reflects in a room, allowing him to perfect the light in his paintings. Techniques he used include mirrors and camera obscura.

Vermeer also seems to be ahead of his time in his use of color. He employed colors effectively to create the mood he sought to create. In this case, he filled the quiet, calm, and personal scene with neutral and dark colors such as grays, browns, dark blues, etc. What really set Vermeer apart from contemporary artists was his understanding of shade. Unlike most others, Vermeer understood that shadows were not just dark gray. Instead, they were a blend of neighboring colors. He also understood that neighboring colors affect one another and he applied his knowledge of light and color in his paintings.

In this painting, I think Vermeer effectively and accurately depicted light and it certainly enhanced the quality and feelings conveyed through his painting. As a viewer, I really do feel like an outsider, witnessing a private moment. I can only catch a glimpse of the two women and the mystery of their look, their conversation, and the letter peeks my curiosity.

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