Above all, Johannes Vermeer was a painter of light. In this exquisite painting, diffused light softly illuminates the tabletop, the woman’s face, and her rich lemon-yellow morning jacket. Accents on the pearls decorating her jewelry box, her earrings, and her satin hair ribbons further enliven the image. The woman’s open gaze engages the viewer, which suggests that the painting may be a portrait instead of a generalized portrayal of a young woman at her writing table.
Johannes Vermeer became a master in the Saint Luke’s Guild of Delft on December 29, 1653. At that time he specialized in history painting, and his first works were large-scale mythological and religious paintings. Shortly thereafter he began to paint the genre scenes, landscapes, and allegories for which he has become so renowned. Even though Vermeer's subject matter changed in the mid-1650s, he continued to imbue his later works with the quiet, intimate moods he had preferred in his early history paintings. His oeuvre is small: only thirty-five paintings are currently attributed to the master.
Vermeer, to a greater extent than any other Dutch artist, was able to capture the delicate equilibrium between the physical stillness of a setting and a transient moment of an individual arrested within it. As in
A Lady Writing is signed with a monogram on the lower frame of the picture on the back wall, but like most Vermeer paintings, it is not dated. The painting style and technique, as well as the woman’s costume and hairdo, however, relate to other works that appear to belong to the artist’s mature phase, in the mid-to-late 1660s. The woman’s elegant yellow jacket is almost certainly the one mentioned in the inventory of household effects made after Vermeer’s death.
John Michael Montias, Recent Archival Research on Vermeer, Studies in the History of Art (Washington, D.C., 1998), 339, doc. 364: “a yellow satin mantle with white fur trimming.”
See inventory no. 912B from the Staatliche Museen, Berlin; inventory no. 25.110.24 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and inventory no. 19.1.126 from the Frick Collection, New York. For the dating of the Frick painting, see The Frick Collection: An Illustrated Catalogue: Paintings, American, British, Dutch, Flemish and German (New York, 1968), 296–297.
This information was kindly supplied by A. M. Louise E. Mulder-Erkelens, keeper of textiles, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (see her letter of May 7, 1974, to A. B. de Vries, copy in NGA curatorial files).
Conceptually, this painting relates to
Vermeer has here significantly reduced the number of compositional elements and focused intently on the woman’s figure and a few objects in her environment. Not only is she proportionally larger and fuller than the woman holding the balance, she and the table on which she writes are quite close to the picture plane, a proximity emphasized by the directness of her gaze. Although in both paintings light enters from the left, no light source is shown in A Lady Writing. The light is illuminating the tabletop, the woman’s face, and her rich lemon-yellow morning jacket, is softer and more diffused than that of Woman Holding a Balance.
Vermeer limited his composition here to a few select elements that reinforce the central motif of a woman writing. He has clustered all the small objects in the painting on the table. This concentration of small shapes contrasts with the broad forms of the rest of the composition, which create a geometric framework for the figure. The picture on the back wall, for example, covers two-thirds of the width of the composition. The width of the wall to the right of the picture is equal to the height of the table, or one-half the distance from the bottom of the picture to the bottom edge of the painting itself. The width of the table, moreover, is approximately one-half the width of the painting. Such proportional relationships help balance and harmonize the essentially asymmetrical composition.
In much the same manner that Vermeer has refined his composition by eliminating extraneous elements, so has he eliminated anecdotal elements that give clues to the meaning of the painting. While he has depicted a woman, pen in hand, looking directly at the viewer, he has not indicated whether she is contemplating her message or directing her attention outward. Unlike other of Vermeer’s depictions of letter writers such as the Mistress and Maid (Frick Collection, New York), no maid delivers a letter or awaits a reply. One possible indication of the general theme of the painting may be given by the picture hanging on the back wall. This dark and barely distinguishable image appears to be a still life with musical instruments.
Keil Boström, “Jan Vermeer van Delft en Cornelis van der Meulen,” Oud-Holland 66 (1951): 117–122, suggests that the painting depicted may be one by
This thematic association was first suggested by Albert P. de Mirimonde, “Les Sujets musicaux chez Vermeer de Delft,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 57 (January 1961): 40. For emblematic literature relating musical instruments to love see Eddy de Jongh, Zinne- en Minnebeelden in de schilderkunst van de zeventiende eeuw (Amsterdam, 1967), 50–51.
Such an interpretation is supported by relating A Lady Writing to the iconographic tradition found in the works of many of Vermeer’s contemporaries, particularly
See Gabriel Metsu, A Young Woman Composing Music, c. 1662–1663 (Mauritshuis, inventory no. 94). Franklin W. Robinson, Gabriel Metsu (1629–1667): A Study of His Place in Dutch Genre Painting of the Golden Age (New York, 1974), 64–65, dates this painting to around 1667.
Eddy de Jongh, Zinne- en Minnebeelden in de schilderkunst van de zeventiende eeuw (Amsterdam, 1967), 50–51.
One possible explanation for the woman’s striking pose is that A Lady Writing is, indeed, a portrait. The letter-writing theme would have allowed Vermeer to achieve a convincing sense of naturalism that formal portraits often lack. Although no documentary evidence confirms that Vermeer painted portraits, certain compositional characteristics in this work seem to reinforce this hypothesis. He has posed the woman in the foreground of the painting, thereby enhancing her physical and psychological presence. Her distinctive features—a large forehead and a long, narrow nose—are portraitlike characteristics that resemble those of Study of a Young Woman, c. 1666–1667 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and are not as idealized as those of women in his other genre scenes of the same period. Finally, her form is modeled with delicate brushstrokes and subtle nuances of color that articulate her features with unusual clarity.
The identity of the sitter has not been established. One possibility is that she is Vermeer’s wife, Catharina Bolnes. Born in 1631, she would have been in her early-to-mid thirties when Vermeer painted this work. Although it is difficult to judge the age of models in paintings, such an age does seem appropriate for this figure, and she does wear Catharina’s yellow jacket.
John Michael Montias, Recent Archival Research on Vermeer, Studies in the History of Art (Washington, D.C., 1998), 339, doc. 364: “a yellow satin mantle with white fur trimming.”
See Ernst Gunther Grimme, Jan Vermeer van Delft (Cologne, 1974), 54. For my identification of the model in Woman Holding a Balance as Catharina Bolnes, Vermeer’s wife and the mother of his fifteen children, see Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675): Sainte Praxède–Saint Praxedis (Monaco, 1998), 28.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
center left on frame of picture on back wall: IVMEER (IVM in ligature)
Marks and Labels
Possibly Pieter Claesz van Ruijven [1624-1674], Delft; possibly by inheritance to his wife, Maria de Knuijt [d. 1681]; possibly by inheritance to her daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven [1655-1682], Delft; possibly by inheritance to her husband, Jacobus Abrahamsz. Dissius [1653-1695], Delft; (his sale, Amsterdam, 16 May 1696, no. 35). J. van Buren, The Hague; (his sale, Bernardus Scheurleer, The Hague, 7-12 November 1808, 6th day [12 Nov.], no. 22 of the paintings). Dr. Cornelis Jan Luchtmans [1777-1860], Rotterdam; (his sale, by Mierop, Muys van Leen, and Lamme, Rotterdam, 20 and 22 April 1816, 1st day, no. 90); J. Kamermans, Rotterdam; (his sale, by A. Lamme, Rotterdam, 3 October 1825, no. 70); Lelie. Hendrik Reydon; (his sale, by J. de Vries, A. Brondgeest, E.M. Engelberts, and C.F. Roos, Amsterdam, 5-6 April 1827, no. 26). François-Xavier, comte de Robiano [1778-1836], Brussels; (his estate sale, Hotel du Défunt, Brussels, 1 May 1837 and days following, no. 436); purchased by Héris for François-Xavier's son. Ludovic, comte de Robiano [1807-1887], Brussels; by inheritance to Ludovic's heirs, possibly his daughter and only child, Jeanne [1835-1900] and her husband, Gustave, baron de Senzeilles de Soumagne [1824-1906], until 1906; (J. & A. LeRoy, Brussels); purchased 1907 by J. Pierpont Morgan [1837-1913], New York; by inheritance to his son, J. P. Morgan, Jr. [1867-1943], New York; consigned 1935-1939 to, and purchased 1940 by (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); sold 1940 to Sir Harry Oakes [1874-1943], Nassau, Bahamas; by gift or inheritance to his wife, Lady Eunice Myrtle McIntyre Oakes [c. 1894-1981], Nassau, Bahamas; consigned 1946 to (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); sold 1946 to Horace Havemeyer [1886-1956], New York; by inheritance to his sons, Harry Waldron Havemeyer [b. 1929], New York, and Horace Havemeyer, Jr. [1914-1990], New York; gift 1962 to NGA.
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- Loan to display with the permanent collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1908 and 1909-1913.
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- Netta, Irene. Das Phänomen Zeit bei Jan Vermeer van Delft: eine Analyse der innerbildlichen Zeitstrukturen seiner ein- und mehrfigurigen Interieurbilder. Studien zur Kunstgeschichte 105. Hildesheim, 1996: 270, repro.
- Gowing, Lawrence. Vermeer. 3rd ed. London, 1997: no. 42, repro.
- Scholz, Georg. Lyrische Bilder: Gedichte nach Gemälden von Jan Vermeer. Munich, 1997: 36, repro.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Vermeer: The Complete Works. New York, 1997: 44-45, no. 20, repro.
- Gifford, Melanie E. "Painting Light: Recent Observations on Vermeer's Technique." In Vermeer Studies. Edited by Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker. Studies in the History of Art 55 (1998): 184 unnumbered fig. (detail), 185-199, fig. 2.
- Montias, John Michael. "Recent archival research on Vermeer." In Vermeer Studies. Edited by Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker. Studies in the History of Art 55. Washington, 1998: 185-199.
- Kahng, Eik. "Félix Vallotton's Photographic Realism." In The artist and the camera : Degas to Picasso. Edited by Dorothy M. Kosinski. Exh. cat. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Dallas Museum of Art; Fundación del Museo Guggenheim, Bilbao. New Haven, 1999: 228-229, repro.
- Shimada, Norio, and Haruko Ota. Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Exh. cat. Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art; Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. Tokyo, 1999: no. 83, 157, repro.
- Sweet, Christopher. The Essential Johannes Vermeer. New York, 1999: 78-80, repro.
- Strouse, Jean. "J. Pierpont Morgan: Financier and Collector." Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 57 (Winter 2000): 31.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer. Exh. cat. Osaka Municipal Museum of Art. London, 2000: 202, no. 20, repro.
- Franits, Wayne E., ed. The Cambridge companion to Vermeer. Cambridge, England, and New York, 2001: pl. 21, 168, 169-170, 172.
- Liedtke, Walter A., Michiel Plomp, and Axel Rüger. Vermeer and the Delft school. Exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; National Gallery, London. New Haven, 2001: 162-163, repro.
- Netta, Irene. Vermeer's world: an artist and his town. Pegasus Library. Munich and New York, 2001: 86, repro.
- Westermann, Mariët, et al. Art & Home: Dutch interiors in the age of Rembrandt. Exh. cat. Denver Art Museum; Newark Museum. Zwolle, 2001: no. 88, 15, 72-73, 151, repro.
- Wolf, Bryan Jay. Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing. Chicago, 2001: 143-144. repro.
- Bailey, Anthony. Vermeer. Translated by Bettina Blumenberg. Berlin, 2002: color repro. between 160 and 161.
- Lisboa, Maria Manuel. Paula Rego's map of memory: national and sexual politics. Burlington, Vermont, 2003: 100-101, repro.
- Sutton, Peter C., Lisa Vergara, and Ann Jensen Adams. Love letters: Dutch genre paintings in the age of Vermeer. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin; Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, Greenwich, Connecticut. London, 2003: no. 38, 54-55, 181-184, repro.
- Vergara, Alejandro. Vermeer y el interior holandés. Exh. cat. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2003: 37-39, 209, color repro.
- Cabanne, Pierre. Vermeer. Translated by John Tittensor. Paris, 2004: 179-180, repro.
- Giltaij, Jeroen. Senses and sins: Dutch painters of daily life in the seventeenth century. Exh. cat. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städelsche Galerie, Frankfurt am Main. Ostfildern-Ruit, 2004: cover, no. 69, 249-250, repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 210, no. 165, color repro.
- Wright, Christopher. Vermeer. Rev. ed. London, 2005: 44-45, color repro.
- Liedtke, Walter A. Vermeer: the complete paintings. Ghent, 2008: 47-48, fig. 37 (detail), no. 20, 122-126, color repro.
- Binstock, Benjamin. Vermeer's Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery, and the Unknown Apprentice. New York, 2009: 209-210, 212, 221, 241, 259, 261, 267, 272, 277-279, 282, 286, pl. 12c, repro. 210 (detail).
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr., and Daniëlle H.A.C. Lokin. Communication: Visualizing the Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer. Japanese ed. Exh. cat. Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art; Miyagi Museum of Art, Sendai; Bunkamura Museum of Art, Tokyo. Tokyo, 2011: repro. 6 (detail), 24 fig. 11, repro. 154 (detail), 172-173, no. 41, repro. 174-175 (detail), 196-197.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr., and Daniëlle H.A.C. Lokin. Human Connections in the Age of Vermeer. Exh. cat. Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art; Miyagi Museum of Art, Sendai; Bunkamura Museum of Art, Tokyo. London, 2011: cover (detail), repro. 10 (detail), 21, no. 42, 130-132, repro. 131.
- Wieseman, Marjorie E. Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence. Exh. cat. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. New Haven, 2011: 51-52, repro.
The fabric support has a moderately fine weave. It has been lined, and fragments remain of the original tacking margins. The support was prepared with a warm gray ground, which extends onto the tacking margin on the right and lower edges. Examination has revealed evidence of an underdrawing or painted sketch.
Vermeer worked with a colored underpaint characterized by stronger contrasts of light and dark than the final paint and a rougher texture. The contrast of smoothly blended final paint over the vigorous underpaint creates a variety of effects. In the yellow jacket, for example, vigorous folds described in the underpaint were smoothed by fluid strokes, followed by rounded highlights touched into wet paint to form specular reflections on the fabric. Contours are softened by blending adjacent paint areas wet-into-wet, or by leaving a small area of ground or underpaint exposed along the edges. X-radiography and infrared reflectography at 1.2 to 5 microns show the pen inclined more to the right, with the proper right index finger adjusted accordingly.
A few flake losses exist, mostly on the edges. Small, regularly spaced holes along the left and right edges penetrate the paint and ground layer but do not align with the cusping pattern or appear to be tack holes from a dimensional change. There is some abrasion in the still life hanging on the wall, but overall the painting is in excellent condition. It was treated in 1935 by Louis de Wild. In 1994 and 1995 the painting was treated again to remove De Wild’s varnish and inpainting, both of which had discolored considerably.
 Average densities of 14.5 threads/cm horizontally and 12.1 threads/cm vertically were measured by the Thread Count Automation Project of Cornell University and Rice University (see report dated May 2010 in NGA Conservation department files).
 Robert L. Feller, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, has identified chalk, lead white, black, and red and yellow iron oxide pigments in the gray ground (see report dated June 26, 1974, in NGA Conservation department files).
 Melanie Gifford, "Painting Light: Recent Observations on Vermeer's Technique," in Vermeer Studies, ed. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker (Washington, D.C., 1998), 185–199.
 Infrared reflectography was performed with a Kodak 310-21X PtSi focal plane array camera.
 See memo dated February 2, 1968, in NGA Conservation department files.
Related IconClass Terms
- looking over the shoulder
- expressive conotations
- the rich
- allegories and emblems
- picture within picture
- musical instruments +used symbolically
- writing and letters
- desire +symbolical representation of concept
Work of Art
Work of Art
- Event Name
- March 1–June 1
- Mon, Tues, and Wed at 1:00
- March 5, 2012 at 2:00
March 7, 2012 at 4:00
- East Building, Auditorium
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- 60 minutes
- Registration for this event begins on April 1, 2012 at noon.
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- Italian Collection