Critique of “A Lady Writing” by Johannes Vermeer

By Priya Chetty on July 12, 2017

A Lady Writing a Letter, or A Lady Writing, is an oil painting by 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, completed in 1665.  The National Gallery of Art (Washington DC) currently displays this painting, donated by Harry and Horace Havemeyer in 1962.

Description of the painting

The lady in the painting is sitting at a table, writing a letter and appears to have been interrupted. She has gently turned her head around in response to the commotion around. Vermeer is famous for capturing the delicate equilibrium of the moment between the physical stillness of a setting and a transient moment of the individual (Schmidt, 2016). The lighting is typical of Vermeer, with soft light falling from the left.

paint of a lady writing
A Lady Writing, c. 1665, oil on canvas,

In addition, the painting depicts intricate detailing, which is very similar to other works of Vermeer. It reveals a psychological scene where a woman is elegantly dressed in a stylish lemon-yellow morning jacket, neatly bordered with ermine trim. Twelve pearls adorn the lady, ten on her neck and two on her ears. Also, there are other objects visible in the painting, like a cloth table, inkwell, a decorated casket and other household items. Researchers have theoretician that the objects seen in the painting are mostly owned by the painter’s relatives (National Gallery of Art, 2017).

Critique of “A Lady Writing” painting

This painting is similar to ‘Woman Holding a Balance’ with respect to the theme of interruption. Subsequently, both of them show a lady pausing her chore to look up (Schneider and Vermeer, 2000). She is sitting before a table, holding a quill pen. She is firmly holding the pen in her right hand while her left hand assertively secures the paper. The woman’s act of pausing can be seen with her body being trapped in the delicate equilibrium between stillness and the next movement. Vermeer has shown a strong inclination of stressing woman’s physical appearance, especially clothing and hairstyle, showing them in the refined elegance of that era (National Gallery of Art, 2017). The painting’s style, strokes and technique along with the woman’s costume and hairdo relate to the artist’s mature phase, in the mid-to-late 1660s.

As seen in the painting the woman, looks up from her writing to perhaps acknowledge the presence of a viewer. Vermeer depicts intricate detailing in all his paintings, like the look on the woman’s face in this painting which is slightly quizzical. The lady has an intense and absorbing gaze, with a hint of a smile, perhaps for the visitor or the interrupter. As it is with many of Vermeer’s masterpieces, he gives no explanation for the woman’s gaze. This particular element has often invited critiques to speak about the lack of psychological penetration in his work. Perhaps, this is the single most important ingredient that hints at the poetic suggestiveness of his images (Chrysler Museum of Art, 2016).

Interpreting the style elements of the painting

The style elements of the painting have a hidden meaning that needs to be studied one by one (Schneider and Vermeer, 2000):-

  • Firstly, Pearls were linked to vanity, in the 17th century, making them an important status symbol. Furthermore, pearls symbolized virginity that is a wide enough iconographic spectrum.
  • Secondly, the natural ultramarine blue is considered one of the kings of Vermeer’s palette. On the other hand, the lead-tin yellow is called its queen.
  • Lastly, Vermeer used a texture of the underpaint of granular pigments and strongly marked brush handling. These textured passages of under paint, used in the final image instantly draw viewer’s attention. The lightest passages are literally the most light-catching parts of the painting (National Gallery of Art, 2017).

Perfect balance with unique style

In conclusion, A Lady Writing by Vermeer is similar to the other works of the painter. It depicts a lady in the middle of a chore, in a domestic setting.  Furthermore, the theme of the painting is a momentary pause of an activity, where the subject showcases stillness. A unique aspect of this painting is the perfect balance of stillness and movement that Vermeer shows in the lady’s body language. It invokes a sense of curiosity and wonders among viewers, to imagine what or who interrupted the lady, and what her half-smile means.


Priya is the co-founder and Managing Partner of Project Guru, a research and analytics firm based in Gurgaon. She is responsible for the human resource planning and operations functions. Her expertise in analytics has been used in a number of service-based industries like education and financial services.

Her foundational educational is from St. Xaviers High School (Mumbai). She also holds MBA degree in Marketing and Finance from the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, Delhi (2008).

Some of the notable projects she has worked on include:

  • Using systems thinking to improve sustainability in operations: A study carried out in Malaysia in partnership with Universiti Kuala Lumpur.
  • Assessing customer satisfaction with in-house doctors of Jiva Ayurveda (a project executed for the company)
  • Predicting the potential impact of green hydrogen microgirds (A project executed for the Government of South Africa)

She is a key contributor to the in-house research platform Knowledge Tank.

She currently holds over 300 citations from her contributions to the platform.

She has also been a guest speaker at various institutes such as JIMS (Delhi), BPIT (Delhi), and SVU (Tirupati).