Vermeer’s The Love Letter (c.1669-70)

Vemeer's The Love Letter is a scene of an affluent woman reading a letter in the presence of her maid as light filters in from a window. It's easy to imagine a story by linking details together but that's not what art's about. Look instead for what's disjunctive, for the details that raise issues. The foreground objects, for instance, are unusually large in relation to the room beyond and take up a lot of space; the women, the apparent subject, are thus quite small just as the light on them seems excessively bright. Why? He could have moderated the extremes and enlarged the women to create a more harmonious composition. To see why he did not do that, we need to look in the dark so I have lightened the image in the next frame.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Vermeer, The Love Letter (c.1669-70) Oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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The door on the left resembles the back of a canvas stained with paint1just as the broom traditionally symbolizes a paintbrush.2 It sweeps the floor like a brush sweeps the canvas. This suggests, as often elsewhere, that the scene is a mental image of its own creation inside Vermeer's head.3 The dark foreground is his mind at work (its studio) with his imagined "painting", the room beyond, framed in a corner by the brush. He even signed the room as if it was his "painting", on the rear wall near the left edge above the basket. That's why the shaded objects are so large: the sun-lit room as a "painting" has its own scale irrespective of the foreground. The laundry basket below his monogram also suggests a "palette", similarly roundish, from which an artist chooses colors to clothe figures.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Vermeer, The Love Letter (c.1669-70). Artificially lightened for improved visibility.

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With her broom-as-brush and basket-as-palette, it is the maid who is the "artist" which explains the straightness of her arm above the laundry. It is a figural version of the letter I for Jan as in the monogram next to it.4 The maid's "painting" is the letter-reader thus linking her to all those maids in art who "paint" their own mistresses, including Rembrandt's Bathsheba and Manet's Olympiaboth explained on EPPH. Even maids, though, paint themselves which is why her lady plays the lute: music-making conveys picture-making.5 Thus the lutist looks over her shoulder like a self-portraitist looking in the mirror but raises her eyes to meet the maid's, her true self-reflection. The active and laborious life of a maid thus represents painting's craft; the easy life of a wealthy lady, that of contemplation and poetry.6 In art, a self-representation in a higher social rank - here, the maid becomes the lady - commonly signifies spiritual improvement.7

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Vermeer's The Love Letter

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An interesting detail is the maid's hand connected by a straight line to the basket below: a hand linked to a handle. Remembering that the basket represents a "palette", notice how Vermeer placed a spot of dark paint within the handle to suggest the dark line continues. However, in doing so, he made the handle eye-like. The maid's hand is thereby joined to an eye: craft and vision united. [See Hand and Eye.]

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Vermeer's The Love Letter

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There are further references to art as well. Paintings were often covered by curtains which were then pulled back for viewing as here. Empty chairs in the foreground tend to suggest the artist's presence too while the chair's studs recall the holes for pegs lined up the leg of an easel. Most cleverly, Vermeer lets us know by deduction that his door (or rather the back of the canvas he's theoretically painting) is also the finished "painting". How do we know that? He made them exactly the same size: the door must fit the doorway.8 That leads to other important metaphors: the doorway as the threshold to another reality or the eye as a door to the mind.9 Either way, by opening his mind, he opens ours.

For other paintings by Vermeer, see Vermeer's Musical Metaphors.

Captions for image(s) above:

Vermeer, The Love Letter (c.1669-70). Artificially lightened for improved visibility.

Click image to enlarge.

Notes:

1. The top half of the door also resembles one of those maps so often seen in Vermeer's rooms. In some way or other the hanging maps are clearly related to his canvasses and may represent, given the link here, a mental image of his painting.

2. This then links The Love Letter to a Spanish masterpiece of the prior decade, Velazquez's Las Meninas, which also features a large canvas facing away from us on the left. It is most unlikely Vermeer would have known that picture yet, like all true artists, they worked in the same tradition. See also note 6 below.

3. There are several hundred examples on EPPH of how an artist's composition is the imaginative depiction of the inside of his or her own head and, thus, their mind. See, as an introduction, entries under the theme The Artist's Mind.

4. In the 17th century the letters I and J were used interchangeably.

5. See Carpaccio's Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (1510), Annibale Carracci's Portrait of a Musician (1587) and, of course, Vermeer's Musical Metaphors. You will also find many other examples on the site.

6. The active and contemplative paths to life have long been major subjects in art, literature, philosophy and religion. They are often thought of as a choice. In truth, though, as Christians such as Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure argued, an appropriate active life is necessary for a contemplative one. The active life means right living, showing kindness to others, moderation in all actions, treasuring life in all forms etc etc. Only if one's active life is in proper order can one achieve the mental peace necessary for contemplation and its goal of unity with God. For more on the two ways of life, see Charles S. Singleton, Journey to Beatrice (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) 1958, pp. 105-11.  

7. Moses was a prince of Egypt; David and Solomon were kings; Jesus was "king of the Jews". Even Buddha was a prince.

8. It is sometimes argued that the canvas seen from the back in Velazquez's Las Meninas (see note 2, above) must be the painting itself because it is the only canvas of that size that Velazquez ever painted. On the other hand, others argue that it cannot be the same painting because Velazquez is facing us not the scene. As I explain in its entry, Velazquez's Las Meninas (1656), the latter problem can be resolved perceptually so that the former view is correct. The canvas in the canvas is the canvas.

9. Albrecht Dürer's family name is derived from the word for door, a symbol he made much use of in his art as a door to another reality. For the origin of his name, see Joseph Leo Koerner, "Albrecht Dürer: A Sixteenth-Century Influenza" in Albrecht Dürer and His Legacy (London: British Museum) 2002, p.20.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 13 Jan 2014. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.