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

A Lady Writing a Letter

Oil on canvas, 45 x 40 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Signature: Signed on the frame of the painting in the background.

Provenance: Probably identical. with no. 35 in the Amsterdam sale of 1696: "A writing young lady; very good, by the same; fl 63." Sale Van Büren, The Hague, 1808. Sale Rotterdam; 1816. Collection "Kammerman", Rotterdam, 1819-23. Sale Rotterdam, 1825. Sale Amsterdam; 1827. Sale Comte F. de Robiario, Brussels; 1837. Art market, Paris, 1907. Collection Pierpont Morgan, New York. Art gallery Knoedler, New York. Collection Lady Oaks, Nassau, Bahamas. Art gallery Knoedler, New York, 1958. Collection Horace Havemeyer; New York. Gift of Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer, Jr., to the museum, in memory of their father, 1962.

We have again a single-figure composition. A lady dressed in a yellow jacket with borders of ermine occupies the center of the composition. She is seated at a table, turned toward the left. Her right hand firmly secures the quill that she is prepared to use. In the meantime, she gazes at the viewer. This is a very elegant, though somewhat dark, interior, the only light coming from an unseen source at the left. It bathes the lady and the table, leaving everything else in a warm penumbra. One used to think that this was a portrait in disguise, an assumption that cannot be maintained in view of the quizzical expression of the sitter, who looks pensively beyond the picture frame into space. The painting on the rear wall, probably representing a skull and other paraphernalia, has plausibly been identified with a work by C. van der Meulen.

Vermeer shows himself here again as an exquisite painter of detail. The style is that of his mature years. Having abandoned the clear back wall "à la Fabritius," he envelops the composition in warm brown tonalities that foster feelings of intimacy, and for once stresses a certain degree of individualization in the model depicted.