Woman in Blue Reading a Letter
Johannes Vermeer's painting Woman in Blue Reading a Letter is on view for six weeks as a special loan from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum.
Luminous and exquisitely rendered, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (about 1663–64) is one of Vermeer's most captivating portrayals of a young woman's private world. This generous loan from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam marks the first appearance of this remarkable painting in the western United States, and the last stop in a world tour heralding the opening of the Rijksmuseum on April 13, 2013, following an extensive renovation. This special installation situates Woman in Blue Reading a Letter among works by Vermeer's leading Dutch contemporaries and highlights the inimitable approach of one of the most celebrated painters of the Golden Age.
Vermeer's quiet scene is at once familiar and enigmatic. The composition is so meticulously ordered, that every element contributes to the reflective mood of the female subject at its center. Standing motionless at a table before an unseen window, a young woman intently reads the crisp page of a letter—possibly a precious message from a lover. On the table, a second page of the missive partially covers a string of large pearls on a blue ribbon, perhaps just removed from the open jewelry box nearby. The woman is comfortably dressed in a blue padded bed jacket (beddejak), decorated with yellow bows on the front and sleeve, and a long heavy skirt. Soft morning light highlights her forehead and glances across the delicate fabric of the jacket, but leaves the bow around a side curl of her hair and the back of her form in deep shadow. It glints off the large brass nails decorating the Spanish chairs, which have lions head finials, as well as the small tacks along the edge of the seat.
In a masterful demonstration of Vermeer's command (and manipulation) of optical effects, the chairs and map rail casts bluish shadows on the wall, but not the woman herself. In keeping with the delicate atmosphere of the interior, he softened the topography represented on the large map of Holland and West Friesland to muted blue, taupe and ocher tonalities that suggest her complex internal state. This is Vermeer's most refined and enigmatic treatment of the popular theme of letter reading. Although the content of the correspondence is a mystery, the woman's bent head and parted lips impart a sense of suspense. The significance of the woman's rounded silhouette, which was reduced along the back by Vermeer during the painting process, has prompted much debate since the late 19th century. For some viewers, her shape suggests pregnancy, which would have been an untypical subject for the period. As seen in other paintings by Vermeer and his contemporaries, the conical shape in style in the mid-1660s was achieved by wearing a flared jacket over a thick skirt turned over at the waist.