Art Review: “The Love Letter” by Vermeer
I was reading Design and Composition, a textbook on graphic art and design, when I first learned about a work of painting by Johannes Vermeer known as The Love Letter:
The book discusses how paintings, representing three-dimensional space, double as the composition of rectangles, triangles, ellipses and other shapes in two-dimensional space. The great painters, the book argues, achieve the beautiful composition not only in the three-dimensional sense but also in the two-dimensional way. The book cites one such example of work: The Love Letter.
Quest to see the painting for real
That was back in 2014. At that time, I wanted to learn about composition to improve my skills in design and photography. I read several books that showcased the techniques of composition with examples from art, in particular European paintings. Since then, I have always tried to see those paintings mentioned in these books for real.
The Love Letter is one of such paintings, but it has been elusive. In 2017, I had a chance to visit Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the museum that owns the painting. Unfortunately, it was on loan to somewhere else.
Last month I finally managed to see the painting for real, together with five other paintings by Vermeer, at a temporary exhibition held in Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts, one-hour train ride from my place in Kyoto.
Back in 2014, I didn’t know who Vermeer was. Since then, the name of the 17th-century Dutch painter came up in my life from time to time, like when I was watching National Gallery, a documentary film on the museum of the same name in London.
Since 2014, I have also learned that the proper appreciation of European paintings requires the awareness of their historical context. So I have collected some background pieces of knowledge on Vermeer and the 17th-century Dutch art.
The webpage on Vermeer by the National Gallery in London describes Vermeer’s paintings as follows:
“The eye is drawn into the picture by the careful placing of objects and a clearly defined architectural space.”
“…and the symbolic meaning of the scene is sometimes revealed through a painting within the painting.”
A bestseller book in Japanese on Western art history (Seiyo-bijutsu-shi by Taiji Kimura) explains the social context of the 17th-century Dutch art scene. Protestantism rejected Christian arts of Catholicism. Consequently, wealthy merchants in a Protestant nation of the Netherlands were unwilling to buy paintings with the motifs of Christianity. Instead they preferred the paintings that depicted the life of ordinary people with moral messages implicit. Vermeer was one of the Dutch painters to meet such market demands in his country.
In the museum
With all these pieces of information in mind — or more accurately on my iPhone in hand — I saw The Love Letter for real for the first time.
Vermeer’s masterpiece didn’t look to me particularly beautiful, however. Some of his other works were more enticing to see.
But I didn’t give up. I repeatedly came back to The Love Letter while I was watching Vermeer’s other works.
For the fourth time I saw it, the painting finally started talking to me.
[The following paragraphs are best read with the zoomable image of The Love Letter on Rijksmuseum’s website open in a separate window of your browser.]
I first noticed that, once seen as a two-dimensional composition, the painting weighs a lot heavier on the right.
While just a plain wood-panel wall stands on the left, lots of stuff sit on the shaded shelves on the right.
The fireplace on the back wall is largely hidden behind the shelves. Since only the left-side column can be seen, the mantel shelf looks about to fall off to the right.
The curtain is tucked above diagonally from top-left to bottom-right, which reinforces the movement of falling off to the right. So does the diagonal alignment of the heads of the two figures, the standing maid on the left and the sitting lady on the right.
Sailing towards the storm
Once I became aware of the right-heaviness of the picture, the broom in front started telling me a significant message.
The black broom slants to the right, as if it were pulled by the heavy right-hand side. The broom on a slant echoes the sailing ship inside the black-framed picture on the back wall — a painting within the painting is a clue for symbolism in Vermeer’s works. Seen together with the ocean blue floor tiles, the slanting broom starts resembling the mast of a ship sailing towards the storm.
The texture of white marble floor tiles reinforces this interpretation: it suggests violent sea waves blown up by the incoming storm.
The pair of sandals, abruptly placed next to the broom, now look like the one that had been worn by someone who was thrown out into the sea by the storm.
The stains on the left-side wall look like raindrops draining. The shade cast on the wall and on the right-side shelves echoes the darkness brought by the storm.
Beginning of a love
At this point, I stepped back and put these discoveries about the painting’s composition and symbolism into perspective, by recollecting the title of the painting.
It is a love letter that the lady has received from her maid, hence the title of the painting, because in the 17th-century Dutch paintings the lute, a guitar-like musical instrument that the lady is holding, is a symbol of love. Music is transient, so is – unfortunately in many cases – a feeling of love.
She wears the dress in yellow, the color complementary with the ocean blue of the floor tiles, as if she were ready to be on board for the sailing trip of love.
But the interior space in front of her suggests a ship sailing under the storm, as if a turbulent path lay ahead in the lady’s life.
Perhaps the lady in this panting has no idea of what lies ahead in her life. But we the viewer live in her future – the painting will survive long after the depicted scene takes place. Vermeer probably intended to double the depth of the interior space as the passage of time: the nearer the viewer, the later in time.
Life of Vermeer’s wife
An exhibition panel taught me about the life of Vermeer and his wife. It reinforced my interpretation of the painting described above.
His wife had to deal with the debt Vermeer inherited from his father, even after Vermeer’s death in 1675, while she kept feeding her 11 children. If she hadn’t embarked on a sailing with Vermeer, she wouldn’t have gone through such a stormy life.
The beginning of a love makes us expectant, but it can also be the beginning of our life turning into storm. Vermeer expresses this fact of human life, probably a lesson from his own life, with the right-heavy composition of a broom, floor tiles and all the other interior items that are so mundane.
Vermeer is one of the greatest masters of painting, indeed.