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* What do you know of the artist and similar art of the time?


* Does the title help you to understand the painting better?


Is there a clear narrative?


The artist has avoided any narrative or story. The picture is unrelated to any specific situation. This creates its timeless, serene image.


What is happening in the picture?


A woman sits at a table writing a letter and a maid calmly looks out the window. She crosses her arms and waits.


How are the lines used?


Lines of perspective join the two figures. They extend from the upper and lower window frames across the maid’s folded arms and forehead to the vanishing point of the mistress’s left eye. This effectively means that the viewer’s eye is drawn first to the maid, but it quickly passes to the woman at the table. She is the real focal point of the painting.


* Is this a realistic depiction of the scene? * Is there a theme or a message? * Does the work create an atmosphere?


How has the artist used colour?


Vermeer has used the hugely expensive pigment of lapis lazuli (natural ultramarine) in the most lavish way throughout his paintings. This was unusual among his contemporaries. He used it not just where blue is the obvious colour. It is part of the mix in the green of the chair fabric and the rich blue-grey shadows in the white linen sleeves.


Which of the figures is the focal point?


How has the scene been composed?


Strong verticals and horizontals, particularly the heavy black frame on the wall behind, establish the space. The elegant interior features a black and white marble floor with a skirt of tiles and a large painting. The scene is set in the corner of a room, with light coming from a tall window on the left wall. A long, dark green curtain on the left is drawn back. A translucent lace curtain hangs down from the leaded glass window. The light and the pattern are carefully distributed by the closed shutter on the right pane.


What viewpoint is the composition from?


The artist has chosen a low viewpoint, scarcely higher than the top of the table. This adds to the figures’ monumentality and enhances the height of the space.


Is the scene calm or lively?


The muted colours and strong composition contribute to the quiet mood of stillness. It suggests that no activity will interrupt the scene.


The figures are a key aspect of the composition. The maid is the central figure. She is anchored by the picture frame behind her. She stands calm, still and straight, like a column. The fold in her skirts leads the eye to the floor. In marked contrast, her mistress is deeply engrossed in the intense activity of writing. She leans forward on her left forearm and the bright light falls on her writing arm. The angular folds on the pure white sleeve are sharply defined against background shadows.


What does the painting mean?


The painting offers small clues to its meaning with some objects on the floor before. A crumpled letter, a stick of sealing wax and a bright red seal could either be a letter that the lady has received or a discarded draft of a letter. The red wax seal indicates that the crumpled letter was received. As letters were prized in the 17th century, it must have been thrown aside in anger. The empty chair at the table suggests someone has recently been sitting there, since chairs of this type were placed against the wall when not in use.


Fig. 10 A Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, c. 1670, by Johannes Vermeer, oil on canvas, 71.cm x 60.5cm, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, presented, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, 1987 (Beit Collection)


INTRODUCTION xv


INTRODUCTION

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