|This is only a thumbnail image. Use the Image Viewer to study the much larger full-sized image. The Image Viewer allows you to resize the image to fit your screen, display as a thumbnail, zoom in up to 200%, or even change the background color.|
For information regarding possible commercial licensing of this image from Scala Group, Art Resource or Bridgeman Art Library, click here.
"This masterpiece has been stolen not once, but twice in the last twenty-five years. The owner, a member of Britain's Parliament, was targeted by the IRA, who broke into his estate in 1974 and took a total of nineteen paintings. It was recovered a week later, having sustained only minor damage. In 1986, the Dublin underworld stole the painting. Only after more than seven years of secret negotiations and international detective work was the painting recovered. Hopefully Vermeer's "The Concert", recently stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston, will be recovered in a similar manner.
"Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid" exemplifies Vermeer's essential theme
of revealing the universal within the domain of the commonplace. By
avoiding anecdote, by not relating actions to specific situations, he
attained a sense of timelessness in his work. The representation of
universal truths was achieved by eliminating incidental objects and through
subtle manipulation of light, color and perspective.
"The canvas presents a deceptively simple composition. The placid scene with
its muted colors suggests no activity or hint of interruption. Powerful
verticals and horizontals in the composition, particularly the heavy black
frame of the background painting, establish a confining backdrop that
contributes to the restrained mood.
"The composition is activated by the strong contrast between the two
figures. The firm stance of the statuesque maid acts as a counterweight to
the lively mistress intent on writing her letter. The maid's gravity is
emphasized by her central position in the composition. The left upright of
the picture frame anchors her in place while the regular folds of her
clothing sustain the effect down to the floor. In contrast, the mistress
inclines dynamically on her left forearm. Her compositional placement
thrusts her against the compressed space on the right side of the canvas.
Strong light outlines the writing arm against the shaded wall, reflecting
in angular planes from the blouse that contrast abruptly with the
regimented folds of the maid's costume. The mistress is painted in precise,
meticulous strokes as opposed to the broad handling of the brush used to
depict the maid.
"The figures, although distinct individuals, are joined by perspective.
Lines from the upper and lower window frames proceed across the folded arms
and lighted forehead of the maid, extending to a vanishing point in the
left eye of the mistress. The viewer's eye is lead first to the maid, then
on to the mistress as the focal point of the painting.
"Vermeer shuns direct narrative content, instead furnishing hints and
allusions in order to avoid an anecdotal presentation. The crumpled letter
on the floor in the right foreground is a clue to the missive the mistress
is composing. The red wax seal, rediscovered only recently during a 1974
cleaning, indicates the crumpled letter was received, rather than being a
discarded draft of the letter now being composed. Since letters were prized
in the 17th century, it must have been thrown aside in anger. This explains
the vehement energy being devoted to the composition of the response.
Another hint is provided in the large background painting, "The Finding of
Moses". Contemporary interpretation of this story equated it with God's
ability to conciliate opposing factions. These allusions have led critics
to construe Vermeer's theme as the need to achieve reconciliation, through
individual effort and with faith in God's divine plan. This spiritual
reconciliation will lead to the serenity personified in the figure of the