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Vermeer's "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter" from the Rijksmuseum

During a brief life spent entirely in the Dutch city of Delft, Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) created a small body of work, of which only about 35 paintings are known to exist today. Although Vermeer originally aspired to become a history painter, in the mid-to-late 1650s he began painting intimate genre scenes of well-ordered, beautifully lit interiors, most of which feature an attractive young woman caught in a reflective moment. One of the most celebrated of these paintings is the mesmerizing Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, c. 1663, from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (on loan to the National Gallery of Art through December 1, 2015). Absorbed in her own world, the woman sets the painting’s tranquil mood, which is further enhanced by the spare composition, restricted color palette, and suffused light. While the composition provides enough elements to hint at a narrative, the exact nature of the woman’s circumstances remains elusive. Woman in Blue, like so many of Vermeer’s paintings, ultimately leaves the viewer to ponder both its subject and its enigmatic beauty.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, c. 1663, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. On loan from the City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest)

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With her parted lips, tightly drawn arms, and downcast eyes, Vermeer’s woman lends this composition a sense of anticipation. This feeling is heightened by her shape, which may suggest that she is pregnant. Scholars have long debated this question, for pregnancy was not a common subject in Dutch art and Vermeer does not make her possible condition explicit. Yet Vermeer placed the woman’s torso at the center of the composition, where the geometric shapes of the map, horizontal bar, and bottom of the letter converge to focus the viewer’s attention on her softly undulating form. The letter, an empty chair, and the map all suggest the absence of a loved one, further heightening the painting’s sense of expectancy.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (detail), c. 1663, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. On loan from the City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest)

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The Dutch in the 17th century were avid makers and consumers of cartographic materials, which they often used to decorate their homes. In a number of Vermeer’s compositions, large-scale maps hang on walls like paintings. The one seen here is a map of Holland and West Friesland that was first published in 1620 and then reissued over the next decade. Vermeer probably owned it, for the same map appears in two other of his paintings, completed nearly 15 years apart. Unlike modern-day maps, it is oriented with west at the top. Reclamation of lands in the mid-17th century, which changed the physical character of the Netherlands, rendered the map out of date by the time Vermeer painted this work. Such maps were long prized for their aesthetic value, even after they were no longer accurate.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (detail), c. 1663, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. On loan from the City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest)

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Vermeer included pearls in many of his compositions. Here a string of them lies on the table next to a box at left and partially covered by a second page of the letter. This small but suggestive detail raises questions about the situation Vermeer presents. Was the young woman interrupted at her morning routine by the arrival of the letter? Do the pearls suggest anything about her character? In Vermeer’s time these treasures were often linked symbolically to human vanity. Yet the white, flawless luster of the pearl was equally associated with faith, fidelity, and purity, qualities that seem more in keeping with the gentle, reflective mood of the painting.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (detail), c. 1663, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. On loan from the City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest)

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Vermeer was a master of manipulating light, color, and perspective for emotional effect. Here his subtle use of blue and ocher pigments helps achieve the painting’s sense of calm. Blending their tonal values throughout the picture, Vermeer created a chromatically harmonious composition in which the yellowish brown in the map both sets off and complements the young woman’s face and hair. Similarly the blue hues of her housecoat resonate with the color of the chairs, tabletop, bottom of the map, and even the white wall, onto which blue shadows are cast. Vermeer used natural ultramarine for his blues because of the beautiful tonalities of this expensive pigment.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (detail), c. 1663, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. On loan from the City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest)

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Vermeer’s sensitivity to compositional structure led him to carefully arrange and at times rework elements within his paintings. Some of the compositional adjustments Vermeer made in the process of executing this work have been revealed through infrared reflectography. He originally gave the woman a different jacket that was fuller around the waist and decorated with a fur trim. Reflectography also reveals that Vermeer initially positioned the map several centimeters to the right of where it currently hangs. By altering the jacket’s shape and by slightly shifting the map’s position, Vermeer achieved a stronger balance of composition and color.

IRR image of Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, Conservation and Scientific Research Department, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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