Artworks
A Lady Writing
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Remarkable for his time, Vermeer seemed to grasp that women had private thoughts and interior lives.

A Lady Writing, like The Love Letter, is one of six paintings by Vermeer that is devoted to the subject of women and letter-writing. That means roughly a sixth of his entire oeuvre centers around female literacy. So what’s the big deal about ladies and letters, anyway? Well, the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century saw an unprecedented boom in literacy among the middle- and upper-class female members of society, who began receiving educations in language, geography, history, music, and others skills at so-called “French schools.” Knowing how to write became essential to being a good housewife. And yet, despite the fact that women’s education was important for the running of the household, the feminine art of writing letters was often disparaged. Because surely whatever idle thoughts women were putting into letters were about one of two temporal things: mundane household matters or love. Obviously.

Thus, because the painting on the wall behind the woman’s head depicts a viol, a symbol of love, some have concluded that this painting depicts a woman writing a love letter. Others have considered that the painting on the wall actually depicts a viol and a human skull, making this a Vanitas painting or memento mori. The association between vanity, women, and letter writing was already well-established in Dutch genre painting, and furthermore, Maria Thins, Vermeer’s live-in Mother-in-Law (who seems to have been a forceful personality in her own right), owned such a painting, and it is therefore conceivable he included it in his work.

And yet, there is something about this painting that seems to belie that reading, or at the very least, complicate it. Despite the credible vanitas theme, Vermeer lends a sense of gravitas to this work. He does so by evoking a visible silence, like he does in Woman Holding a Balance, which he achieves here with a harmonious composition of simple shapes, a figure who is tranquil and content, and the depiction of the sudden quiet produced by her quill stopping its scratching on the paper as she looks up from her work to face the viewer. The fact that we don’t know what she is writing is also another form of silence. The action is halted so we can focus on her own interiority as she gazes fondly at the viewer with glittering black eyes. The penetration of her gaze and individualized features perhaps indicate that this is no mere genre painting, but is instead a portrait, possibly of his wife. The veracity of this is unknown, but what makes this painting even more exciting is the fact that the pose of the figure, seated in 3/4 view, quill in hand, is one that had been used almost exclusively in scholar portraits of men. Thus, a wealthy woman is here taking on the pose of a male authority figure. Does this mean that Vermeer believed that women were capable of *gasp* intellectual thought? It would seem that way, but let’s be real. Can women ever really win? Perhaps the silence Vermeer evokes is that which women were demanded to keep in order to live up to the Petrarchan ideal of femininity (soft, aloof, and quiet). Perhaps he adorns this woman with pearly baubles to signify that her ability to write is merely an adornment, too. Nevertheless, her thoughtful, self-aware gaze, weighty stillness, and scholarly pose endow the figure with the sense of a unique interior life.

J. Pierpont Morgan, Banker Extraordinaire, thought she was special at least. In 1907, an antique dealer in New York named G. S. Hellman showed the painting to Morgan, who had never even heard of Vermeer before. The dumbfounded Hellman explained Vermeer’s place in art history, and, when told the price was $100,000, Morgan was like, “Done.” He then lent it to the Met before it eventually found its way to the National Gallery.

 

Sources

Sources

  1. “A Lady Writing.” Essential Vermeer. Accessed October 28, 2017. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/lady_writing.html#.WgEIu2hSxPZ.
  2. Vergara, Lisa. “Women, Letters, Artistic Beauty: Vermeer’s Themes and Variations.” In Love Letters: Dutch Genre Painting in the Age of Vermeer, edited by Fronia W. Simpson, 50-62. Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland, 2003.
  3. Villa, Renzo. Vermeer: The Complete Works. Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2012.
  4. Wheelock Jr., Arthur K, and Ben Broos. Johannes Vermeer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
  5. Wheelock Jr., Arthur K. “A Lady Writing.” National Gallery of Art. April 24, 2014. https://www.nga.gov/Collection/art-object-page.46437.html#entry.
  6. Wieseman, Marjorie. Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.