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 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.
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 cloth table, inkwell, a decorated casket and other household items. Researchers have theoreticized that the objects seen in the painting are mostly owned by 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 on woman’s physical appearance, especially clothing and hairstyle, showing them in refined elegance of that era (National Gallery of Art, 2017). The painting’s style, strokes and technique along with 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 painting, like the look on woman’s face in this painting which is slightly quizzical. The lady has and 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 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 poetic suggestiveness of his images (Chrysler Museum of Art, 2016).
Interpreting the style elements of the painting
The style elements of the painting have hidden meaning that needs to be studied one by one (Schneider and Vermeer, 2000):-
- Firstly, Pearls were linked to vanity, in 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 wonder among viewers, to imagine what or who interrupted the lady, and what her half smile means.
- Chrysler Museum of Art (2016) Johannes Vermeer: ‘A Lady Writing’, Chrysler Museum of Art. Available at: http://www.chrysler.org/exhibitions/johannes-vermeer/.
- National Gallery of Art (2017) A Lady Writing, National Gallery of Art. Available at: https://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.46437.html#bibliography.
- Schmidt, M. (2016) Vermeer’s ‘A Lady Writing’ at the Chrysler Museum, Richmond Times-Dispatch. Available at: http://www.richmond.com/entertainment/art/vermeer-s-a-lady-writing-at-the-chrysler-museum/article_77740556-88e2-551c-9eee-2feb44f41708.html.
- Schneider, N. and Vermeer, J. (2000) Vermeer, 1632-1675 : Veiled Emotions. Taschen. Available at: https://books.google.co.in/books?id=zkYOjy1farkC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.