by Anne Mrosowksi
A young woman stands at the open window and reads - with great attention and inner tension - a love letter. Jan Vermeer painted the letter reader at the open window around 1657. Her face is reflected with slight refraction in the window. The open window serves to let light into the dark room and can be seen as the woman's desire to open up the domestic sphere. The background for this interpretation is the prevailing norm at the time to isolate wives largely from the outside world.
A bowl leans against a ruffled carpet in the foreground, from which fruit falls out. The peaches and apples, reminiscent of Eve's Fall, suggest adultery could be in the offing with the reception of the letter. X-rays of the painting revealed that Vermeer had originally included an image of Cupid, the Roman equivalent of Armor, the god of love. The image of Cupido, Latin for desire, would have made it much easier for the recipient to understand the picture. Vermeer took this unambiguity by an overpainting finally, however, back again. The curtain in the right edge of the picture forms the compositional counterpart to the window construction, whereby both pictorial objects frame the main action and focus the viewer's gaze on it.
Vermeer constructed his compositions with skillful meticulousness and even made use of a camera obscura , a pinhole camera. In order to represent space three-dimensionally and to create a distance between the painting and its viewer, he often incorporated very plastic pictorial objects, such as the carpet. The vanishing point here, as often in Vermeer's work, lies behind the central pictorial objects and in this case ends behind the curtain in the right edge of the picture.
Vermeer succeeds in creating a gap with the thoughtful depiction of the young woman, which can be filled individually by each viewer: Who wrote the letter? What does it say, and in what words? And - will she respond to the offer?
Jan Vermeer - Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window
Oil on canvas, 1657 - 1659, 83 x 64.5 cm, Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden