In 1926, the Postal Museum in The Hague received a most unusual gift: a 17th-century chest stuffed with 2,600 letters, 600 of them unopened. Written at the close of the Dutch Golden Age, these records of human exchanges are only now being brought to light by an international team of scholars.
For this project and the letters that have been scanned and analyzed to date, see Museum den Haag voor Comunicatie, “Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered,” brienne.org.
For this project, see Universiteit Leiden, “Letters as Loot,” https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/research/research-projects/humanities/letters-as-loot.-towards-a-non-standard-view-on-the-history-of-dutch#tab-1; and Gijsberts Rutten and Marijke J. van der Wal, Letters as Loot: A Sociolinguistic Approach to Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Dutch (Amsterdam, 2014).
As these and other troves of 17th-century letters show, the Dutch Republic had a sophisticated epistolary culture. This is also attested by the numerous printed manuals about letter writing.
On the popularity of such manuals, see Marcel Bax, “Epistolary Presentation Rituals, Face-Work, Politeness and Ritual Display in Early Modern Dutch Letter-Writing,” in Historical (Im)politeness, edited by Jonathan Culpeper and Dániel Kádár (Bern, 2011), 37–87.
For a color reproduction of this letter, see Maev Kennedy, “Undelivered letters shed light on 17th century society,” The Guardian, November 8, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/08/undelivered-letters-17th-century-dutch-society.
Wordless, yet more eloquent than words, these intimate exchanges convey their meanings through complex and multivalent visual devices. In
In another version on this theme, Woman Writing a Letter, with Her Maid, Vermeer’s lady writes her letter while the maid gazes thoughtfully through a window
Yet if one were to choose a Vermeer painting that epitomizes the power of a love letter, one would certainly be tempted by
Like the love letters from 17th-century chests, A Lady Writing is a time capsule of lived emotions. As a message to the beholder, it also calls to mind the Roman poet Ovid’s advice to aspiring lovers—to pave the way to the heart of their beloved with finely crafted words.
Oct 19, 2017