VERMEER, Johannes
(b. 1632, Delft, d. 1675, Delft)

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window

Oil on canvas, 83 x 64,5 cm
Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

Signature: Traces of signature (?).

Provenance: Acquired in 1724 by August III, elector of Saxony, together with a number of other paintings bought in Paris. The seller threw in the picture as a present, to sweeten the deal. It was then attributed to Rembrandt, and the ascription was subsequently weakened to "manner" or "school of." In 1783, it was engraved as a work by Govaert Flinck. The name "Van der Meer from Delft" occurred for the first time in a catalog dating from 1806, to be changed back to Flinck in 1817. From 1826 to 1860, the appellation was altered to Pieter de Hooch. It is only since 1862 that the correct identification obtains. The only Dutch provenance that could possibly apply is the sale Pieter van der Lip, Amsterdam, 1712, no. 22, "A Woman Reading in a Room, by van der Meer of Delft fl 110." Unfortunately, the text is not specific enough to distinguish it from the one at the Rijksmuseum, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.

The above underlines the difficulties inherent to the establishment of Vermeer's catalog. Not a single work can be traced back to the painter's studio, nor are there any letters or contracts extant. The task of attribution rests squarely upon the shoulders of the individual critic, which explains the multiplicity of divergent opinions. In this painting, a young woman stands in the center of the composition, facing in profile an open window to the left. In the foreground is a table covered with the same Oriental rug encountered in the Woman Asleep. On it is the identical Delft plate with fruit. The window reflects the girl's features, while to the right the large green curtain forms a deceptive frame. She is precisely silhouetted against a bare wall that reflects the light and envelops her in its luminosity.

We are here confronted with one of the salient aspects of Vermeer's sensibility and originality. It is the stillness that stands out, the inner absorption, the remoteness from the outer world. She concentrates entirely upon the letter, holding it firmly and tautly, while she absorbs its content with utmost attention.

In the technique, the artist avows again Rembrandtesque derivation. He paints in small fatty dabs to model the forms, and obtains the desired effects by means of impasto highlights opposed to the deeper tonalities - just as the master from Leyden was wont to do. The painting is relatively large, and the smallness of the figure as opposed to its surroundings stresses immateriality and depersonalization. Vermeer considerably changed the composition in the course of execution.

Much has been written about the trompe-l'oeil effect of the curtain. It is a pictorial artifice used by many other Dutch masters and in keeping with an old European tradition. Rembrandt, Gerard Dou, Nicolaes Maes, and many still-life and even landscape painters made use of such curtains as a means of simulating effects that now seem theatrical. The light background can be found in many paintings by Carel Fabritius, the Goldfinch from 1654 at the Mauritshuis in The Hague being the most famous example.