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  • Johannes VermeerOct 31, 1632 - Dec 15, 1675
  • Woman in Blue Reading a Letter - Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch Baroque painter who specialized in exquisite, domestic interior scenes of middle class life. Vermeer worked slowly and with great care, using bright colours and sometimes expensive pigments, with a preference for cornflower blue and yellow. He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.
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Woman in Blue Reading a Letter
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  • Woman in Blue Reading a Letter

  • Johannes Vermeer
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  • c. 1663-1664
    Oil on canvas
    Rijksmuseum, Netherlands.

    A young woman is reading a letter, around her are a table and chairs. She is illuminated by the light from what is presumably a window. On the wall behind her is a map. The artist has achieved a muted tone with his use of blues and browns. Vermeer has played here with the light and shadow. While the map and the chair cast a distinct shadow on the wall, the woman does not. It makes her stands out from the background. The subtle gradations of color and the contrasts in this painting were already greatly admired two hundred years ago. A 1791 auction catalogue remarks on 'the pleasing effects of light and shadow'.

    Love letter ?

    In Dutch genre painting a woman reading a letter was usually a reference to love. The map on the wall may refer to a distant lover, but the painting offers no further clues to a hidden meaning. The map, showing Holland and West Friesland appears in an earlier painting by Vermeer of the Soldier and the Laughing Girl. This picture, painted in 1658, is now in the Frick Collection in New York. Although the young woman appears to be pregnant, this is not necessarily the case. The fashionable wide jacket she is wearing may make her figure appear fuller than it is.

    Lines and areas

    The woman is surrounded by furniture. The table and chairs define the space around her. Vermeer adjusted the balance in his painting by playing with the areas of light and shadow. X-ray photos show that the map on the wall was originally narrower. To improve the composition Vermeer made it wider. He also altered the woman's jacket. Originally it was a wider, fur-trimmed cloak. Vermeer made the jacket simpler and less wide. The woman's back, dark in shadow, stands out sharply against the light wall behind her. The contour of her back is clear and deliberately depicted, while other lines are more fuzzy, such as the illuminated profile of her face.

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Johannes VermeerThe life and art of Johannes Vermeer are closely associated with the city of Delft. Vermeer was born in Delft in 1632 and lived there until his death in 1675. His father, Reynier Jansz., was a weaver who produced "caffa," a fine satin fabric. In 1631 he also registered in the Saint Luke's Guild in Delft as a master art dealer. By 1641 he was sufficiently prosperous to purchase a large house with an inn, the "Mechelen," on the market square in Delft, where he probably also sold paintings. When Reynier died in 1652 Johannes apparently inherited his father's business. By that time he must have already decided on a career as a painter. It is assumed that he trained in Delft, perhaps with Leonaert Bramer (1596-1674), who seems to have had close associations with Vermeer's family, or with Carel Fabritius (1622-1654). No documents, however, exist about his artistic training or apprenticeship, and he may have studied elsewhere, perhaps in Utrecht or Amsterdam.

Vermeer, who was baptized on 31 October 1632 in the Reformed Church in Delft, was raised a Protestant. In April 1653 Vermeer married into a Catholic family and seems to have converted to Catholicism shortly before that date to placate his future mother-in-law, Maria Thins. Maria Thins lived in the so-called Papists' Corner ("Papenhoek") of Delft, adjacent to one of the two churches where Catholics could worship, the Jesuit church on the Oude Langendijck. Vermeer and his wife, Catharina Bolnes, eventually moved from the "Mechelen" into her house. They named their first daughter Maria, in honor of Maria Thins, and their first son Ignatius, after the patron saint of the Jesuit Order.

Vermeer became a master in the Saint Luke's Guild on 29 December 1653. His aspiration at that time seems to have been to become a history painter, for 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 renowned. While Vermeer's subject matter changed in the mid-1650s, he nevertheless continued to imbue his later works with the quiet, intimate moods of his early history paintings.

Although very little is known about relationships with other painters who might have influenced the thematic and stylistic direction of his art, Vermeer apparently knew Gerard ter Borch II, with whom he co-signed a document in 1653. Another artist who may well have had an impact on his work during the 1650s was Pieter de Hooch, who painted comparable scenes in Delft during that period. Vermeer remained a respected artist in Delft throughout the rest of his life. He was named hoofdman of the Delft St. Luke's Guild in 1662, 1663, 1670, and 1671.

Vermeer's few works--they number only about thirty-five--were not well known outside of Delft, perhaps because many of them were concentrated in the collection of a patron in Delft who seems to have had a special relationship with the artist. When Vermeer died, however, he was heavily in debt, in part because his art dealing business had suffered during the difficult economic times following the French invasion of the Netherlands in the early 1670s. Vermeer was survived by his wife Catharina and eleven children, eight of whom were underage. His wife petitioned for bankruptcy the following year. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the famed Delft microscopist who was apparently a friend of Vermeer, was named trustee for the estate.