A shining star in a Dutch constellation

A shining star in a Dutch constellation Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid, c.1670- 71, oil on canvas, 72.2 x 59.7 cm, photos © National Gallery of Ireland.

Ireland is home to few pictures more iconic than Vermeer’s Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid. A masterpiece of composition, colour, and light, this jewel of the National Gallery is easily passed over as a simple scene of a woman focusing calmly on the letter she’s writing, while her maid gazes out the window, her attentions clearly elsewhere.

The painting draws our eyes to both women: the neutrally-dressed maid stands in the very centre of the painting, while the painting is designed so parallel lines appear to converge in her mistress’s shaded eye. Beyond these figures, though, there are hints of what preceded the scene, and what the future may hold.

Three objects lie on the tiled floor, as though knocked from the writer’s table: a bright red wax seal, a stick of sealing wax and a crumpled piece of paper that may have been the letter the lady’s answering, a rejected first draft, or even a letter-writing manual.

One thing is clear: the paper’s crumpled state suggests that the lady began writing her letter in a state of agitation otherwise concealed by her expression of introverted concentration.

Behind her, however, is a large painting easily ignored as a decorative backdrop, but offering valuable clues as to Vermeer’s theme. It depicts the finding of Moses, a Biblical tale the 17th-Century Dutch were inclined to see as a story of divine providence and of God’s ability to join together opposing factions or those who had been separated.

The painting, then, appears to show a woman responding in suppressed distress to a letter which may have indicated the end of a love relationship, but suggests that all will be well, that God is in everything, guiding things to the best ending.

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Born to Calvinist parents in Delft in 1632, Johannes Vermeer is thought to have converted to Catholicism when he married Catherina Bolnes in 1653, moving within a few years to live with Catherina’s wealthy mother in Delft’s so-called ‘Papists’ Corner’; Catholicism was not illegal in the 17th-Century Netherlands, but it was looked down upon and its public practice curtailed.

The couple lived together with their children – Catherina gave birth to 15, four of whom died before being baptised – in the house on Ouden Langendijk, next to a Jesuit ‘hidden church’, until Vermeer’s sudden death in 1675, following the family’s descent into poverty in the aftermath of 1672’s French invasion.

The Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid, painted just before the invasion, was still in the family’s possession when Vermeer died. It was given to a baker in part-payment for bread.

It may be difficult to believe now, given the awe with which he is regarded and how his paintings form the heart of the National Gallery’s current exhibition on genre painting in the third quarter of 17th Century, but Vermeer was not especially well-known in his day. Far from being seen as the shining light in the world of Dutch art, he was just one star in a constellation of gifted artists, of whom Frans van Mieris was the best paid while Gerard ter Borch was the period’s great innovator.

Paintings of women writing letters first appeared in the 1630s, but it was Ter Borch who developed and popularised the theme in the 1650s, with his Woman Writing A Letter [pictured], modelled as so often in his paintings by his half-sister Gesina, being a classic example.

This was the seed, via Gabriël Metsu’s similarly titled painting, for Vermeer’s Lady Writing featuring such recognisable attributes of Vermeer paintings as the fur-lined yellow mantel that is probably the one mentioned in the household’s 1676 inventory of its moveable goods. Predictably, there are some who wonder whether this might be a portrait of Catherina.

Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid likewise did not come from thin air, two of its more immediate progenitors being a pair of Metsu paintings that are normally in the keeping of the National Gallery. Man Writing a Letter and Woman Reading a Letter point to Vermeer not merely in their general composition and subject matter but even in their details. Is the fur-lined yellow mantel worn by the reading woman a nod to Vermeer, the rendering of it inspired by Vermeer’s work? Is Metsu’s distracted maid an early version of Vermeer’s similarly-dressed maid?

If she is, her own roots lie in Ter Borch’s Woman Sealing a Letter, part of a pair or ‘pendant’ of paintings intended to be displayed together – and done so to remarkable effect in Dublin. The maid in that likewise wears a grey jacket, collared in white, and carries a metal bucket like Metsu’s maid; her skirt, though, is red, echoing the tablecloth in the accompanying Officer Writing a Letter, while her mistress’s blue tablecloth recalls the blue jacket of that piece’s waiting manservant.

In the foreground of the Officer Writing a Letter is a playing card and a broken pipe, both lying on the floor; pointers to the author’s urgency and even agitation, they are early incarnations of the dropped thimble in Metsu’s Woman Reading a Letter and of Vermeer’s scattered objects.

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Testimony to over six years of work, the exhibition of 64 Dutch genre works, including 10 by Vermeer, is something unlikely ever to be matched in Ireland, and a superb achievement by the project’s originator Adriaan Waiboer, the National Gallery’s head of collections and research.

All told, the paintings on show – happily coinciding with the re-opening of the gallery’s restored historic wings – combine into 19 groups, each an aesthetic conversation showing artists building on each other’s achievements and bouncing off each other’s ideas.

Vermeer is to our eyes the star of the show – and anybody who cares anything about art should make a point of seeing such paintings as his Woman with a Pearl Necklace, the luminescence of which no reproduction comes close to doing justice, and his Astronomer and Geographer, long displayed as a pair but nowadays split between Paris and Frankfurt.

Despite this, he should not be seen simply as the culmination of the era’s trend towards genre painting, as a comparison between his Woman with a Balance and Pieter de Hooch’s Woman Weighing Coins shows: we simply do not know which painting came first, or which influenced the other.

At the same time, it is hard, when looking at these, not to be drawn to Vermeer’s painting as the work of a more gifted – and more thoughtful – artist. Offering a commentary on his subject through another painting-within-a-painting, Vermeer’s woman stands below Christ against a backdrop of the Last Judgment, occupying the space normally reserved for St Michael, weighing souls and judging them.

To judge is to weigh, the painting reminds us, and we will surely never again have such a chance to weigh up and judge so many astonishing painters, or to immerse ourselves in such a fertile artistic conversation. One trip to the National Gallery may not be nearly enough.

‘Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry’ runs at the National Gallery until September 17.