Johannes Vermeer’s “The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” now on exhibit at the Timken Museum of Art is one of the artist’s very best paintings, but other images and objects included in the boutique exhibition titled “Vermeer” serve to distract rather than enhance the Dutch Baroque masterpiece. With only thirty-five surviving paintings attributed to this baroque master, the odds of normally seeing one of his jewel-like canvases in San Diego are greater than winning the SuperLotto. This is real jackpot!
“The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” from about 1663-64 (C.E.) is a magnificent gem of a painting. The artist’s works are more coveted than precious jewels and each irreplaceable as Vermeer only painted 40-some canvases before he died at age 45-years old. As there are now only 35-known paintings still in existence that are universally attributed to him, they are more coveted than large flawless diamonds—one was even stolen and still missing from a grand 1990 art heist at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (reward information)!
The Vermeer painting now on view at the Timken Museum is on loan from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and will be on exhibition (with free admission) at the Balboa Park museum through September 11th, 2015. The loan is in gratitude for recent reciprocal loan of the Timken’s well regarded “Saint Bartholomew” by Rembrandt, which has also just returned from Holland.
No written description of “The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” can do it justice nor can any reproduction. To superficially describe the image, a pregnant-looking woman wearing a blue night jacket stands in the center of the painting facing left, while reading a letter. Before her stands a table upon which sits a book, a crumple of paper, a jewelry box, and strand of pearls. From an unseen window above the table, morning sunlight illuminates the scene as the woman reads. The small chamber in which she stands also features two blue chairs and a large map hanging in the background. It seems ho-hum, plain, and simple, but it ain’t!
Most Vermeer paintings look their best only when viewed up-close, but this oil on canvas visiting from the Rijksmuseum is blessed with having many pleasurable views. The painting is a mere 18 1/4 x 15 3/8-inches in size, but to really appreciate the small artwork, one must slowly saunter toward it from many feet back. As one proceeds toward it, every two to three-steps forward offers an entirely different perception of the painting.
When strolling toward the intimate work, stop just outside the doorway of the gallery dedicated to the Vermeer, which is about 20-paces in front of the painting. Hopefully, one will first notice a perfect asymmetrical balance of light versus dark rectilinear masses with a blue luminous glow in the center. (As an art history instructor, I ordinarily would not tell someone to do so, but in this instance I believe it important to do the following: when one first glimpses the Vermeer think of 20th-century Dutch artist Piet Mondrian and his severe asymmetrically balanced compositions of rectilinear shapes and then look again at the Vermeer). Look at the image of one of Mondrian’s most famous paintings [click on the following hyper-link] “Composition No. II” (1929) in the National Museum, Belgrade.
When first seeing “The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter,” think of that Mondrian painting. Notice how the map in the Vermeer is the main upper rectilinear mass that precisely counterbalances the rest of the composition in a similar manner as the large top red square in Mondrian’s famous composition—even the pole holding the bottom of the map acts like the black line at the bottom of the large red square in “Composition No. II.” Note, too, how both Mondrian and Vermeer use white space as shapes that also balance their compositions. Then imagine Vermeer’s woman standing in the center of Mondrian’s composition. Mondrian was himself influenced by old Dutch hatchment shields used in commemorating the dead, and this to me justifies my advisory.
Move inside the actual gallery and look carefully as the woman’s silhouette and face begin to emerge from the shadows and notice how the top of her hair blends into the map featuring both Holland and neighboring West Friesland. Even the woman’s hairband blends into a river on the map behind her. Travel a few footsteps nearer and suddenly the woman’s hair visually separates from the map behind.
Even nearer, items on the dressing table along with gold tacks embellishing the dark blue upholstered chairs become noticeable. Nearer still, the woman’s blue “beddejak” (night jacket) reveals itself to be a sumptuous, silken deep-pile velvet. The luster and shine of both the pearls and the golden tack-heads on the plush upholstered Spanish chairs suddenly appear. The paper of the map is crimped and cracked, and the texture of the plastered walls can be seen—the whole painting is loaded with tiny details.
As the woman is depicted in the context of being “at her toilette,” she is still performing her morning grooming in the cool morning light. Near the woman’s left ear is a brown lump. It is lock of hair bound in a rag curler tied the night before. Hair fashions of the time included ringlets worn individually near each ear, such as in Vermeer’s “The Lacemaker” (ca. 1669–70), or were styled in tresses of curls. Tonsorial hot irons were known and would be used for multiple tresses but would be too cumbersome to use for just two curls. A lock of hair can be easily wrapped around a simple rag and tied. It would have been far easier, just as effective, and even more economic time wise.
There is also a controversy over the apparent enlarged condition of the woman’s abdomen. Some believe she is pregnant. Others insist it is her loose fitting blue night jacket together with the traditional many petticoats worn during the period that create the appearance of her enlarged stomach (both the under garments and even the outer most skirt were all called “petticoats” at the time).
The controversy of her pregnancy comes from two opposing ideas. Few artworks from the era display an expectant woman and many paintings of women were absolute fictions as per their “maternal conditions” as well as their actual degrees of beauty. Female fashions of the time included garments called bodices with bone or wood bracing at the waist to support and push the breasts upward. Several layers of petticoats were traditionally worn, which enlarged the appearance of the waist below the bodice—like a bell immediately below the lower torso.
In Vermeer’s painting, the woman’s silhouette is disguised by the blue night jacket she wears. This type of jacket would be worn either in casual circumstances or during pregnancy. Though if one views female silhouettes painted by Vermeer’s friend and fellow artist Pieter de Hooch, his depictions of women also appear similar. A good example is de Hooch’s “Leisure Time in an Elegant Setting” (ca. 1663–65) in the Metropolitan Museum collection, the central female also appears to have a swollen stomach. The arc of the petticoat of Vermeer’s woman in blue conforms to standard female silhouettes found in the de Hooch painting mentioned above.
The opposing viewpoint that she is indeed anticipating a child is based on iconography. One distinct symbol within the overall context of the painting leads to this conclusion. The symbol is the strand of pearls sitting on the dressing table. Historically pearls have been considered the “Queen of Jewels” because wild perfectly round and oval specimens were a rarity and more costly than any other gem. Pearls, as such, alluded to wealth and also signified procreation due to their shape. The Queen of Jewels also represented two different concepts of Venus—both the celestial goddess and a goddess of the earth known as “Venus Vulgaris” (or earthly Venus).
The celestial Venus was the goddess of love, who would be normally depicted in the nude. The other earthly Venus is a representation of female vanity usually clad in sumptuous clothing and jewels of the physical world. The woman in blue wears a sumptuous expensive velvet coat as well as possesses valuable pearls. Thus, she is a Venus Vulgaris.
As a Venus of the earth, the woman on display at the Timken, still wearing her night jacket with curlers in her hair is becoming ideal perfection. With the pearls before her and depicted in the act of reading, she is becoming a woman at her most fecund in both body and mind. She is both procreative and intellectual. Her lips are also slightly open in a sensuous manner as she reads the letter, but as she wears Virgin Mary-blue, she is evolving into an earthly goddess considered philosophically virtuous—similar to the earthly version of the Virgin Mary herself.
When marrying his Catholic wife, Vermeer converted from being Protestant to his wife’s religion, and this potentially explains these references as painted in a mostly iconoclastic Protestant society. This concept of the ideal, virtuous, and earthly woman goddess evolved from a union of ideas: the Christian belief of Mary, mother of Christ, being Queen of Heaven in combination with the revival of the classical Platonist ideal of Venus during the Italian Renaissance, which continued on through Catholic tradition after the Council of Trent.
Two unfortunate things negate in my mind that the woman depicted in the Timken exhibition is expecting a child. As the woman’s outer petticoat is a formal yellow brocade fabric, she had already dressed and about to finish the last details of grooming as she reads the letter. Just above her hands the silhouette profile of her bosom is also too high-up to be natural, so she is indeed wearing an impractical bodice for a woman who is expecting a child.
The other detail is a shadow, two-thirds up from her waist (half-way up between the crook of her bent left arm and her white collar). This shadow is created by her arm pressing against the jacket that floats away from her actual torso. There would be no vacant space between the jacket and her torso if she was physically so late in term—the physical mass of her apparent late stage of being near motherhood does not reconcile to the amount of shadow cast on her jacket. These two subtle details raise doubt as to her being pregnant.
The Vermeer painting is stunning and demands close study, but the overall effect of the entire exhibition is cheapened by what the museum has chosen to exhibit with it. While the Vermeer painting is itself undeniably one of the artist’s best works, the overall gallery installation is hackneyed like the inaccurate balcony scene [in Act 2: Scene2] from a melodramatic high school performance of “Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare’s script, which has come down to us through history, the play’s scene is described as merely a “window scene”—as balcony’s did not yet architecturally exist in the colder climate of Tudor England when the play was written.*
The overall installation effort appears just as inaccurately theatrical, and the extraneous visuals and objects included in the exhibition along with the Vermeer painting seem to be ill conceived props. Several clichés abound, and there is a lack of scholarly contextualization of the objects in relation to Vermeer’s actual artwork. The other objects and images included in the exhibition flank the painting on both sides of the gallery or are placed on the wall behind facing the artwork.
During my preliminary research prior to viewing the exhibit, I did much research about the objects featured in “The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.” One important aspect is the large map included in the painting as maps were both important to the sailing based import economy of Holland and were also appreciated for their artisanship.
The map depicted in Vermeer’s painting is real and was published in 1629 by Willem Janzoon Blaeu.1 Within the exhibition on the right gallery wall is a large map of Delft that was also published by Blaeu in 1652, but it has been printed on vinyl in black and sepia and mounted in the gallery with no attribution of authorship. The reproduction of the Blaeu’s map of Delft is very same map used in the “Wikipedia” entry about Johannes Vermeer illustrating Delft during his lifetime, but in the exhibit it is unattributed as per where the image was appropriated. It is also very out of focus due to a lack of digital pixel resolution. A dreaded sensation overcame me when seeing the “Wikipedia” article after viewing the exhibition: that it may have been just copy-and-pasted from the same “Wikipedia” entry and resized in a much too large format as per necessary pixels. This indeed was the circumstance. After I was introduced as a media representative to an official of the Timken Museum, this fact was admitted to me.
In not attributing the reproduced map’s publisher, an important contextual fact relative to the content of Vermeer’s painting was omitted. Also, the original Delft map was originally printed in full color, but since it is installed in the gallery in an adulterated cliché sepia color it is similar to other staged sepia images intended to affect old-age. This staged map without proper attribution imparts a lack of scholarly intent and invokes insincerity in displaying such an art historically important Vermeer artwork.
Why is the reproduced map included? One might expect to encounter the typical red-dot or other locator of where Vermeer had lived as this information is known. Vermeer lived for much time at his father’s inn, Mechelen, that once stood on Market Square. The inn is where the artist conducted his other business ventures for several years and also himself ran with his mother for a time after his father’s death.
The location of Mechelan was very near the painter’s guild Hall of St. Luke—an organization that Vermeer was once president. This is another important historical fact that might have been included in the exhibition. Therefore, the map of Delft fails to impart any real scholarly information that might further enlighten a visitor about both Vermeer himself and his painting. As installed, it becomes mere gallery space filler rather than a real potential learning asset to the exhibition.
On the same side of the gallery in a back corner are also two examples of blue and white Delftware pottery that the city of Delft is also renowned. The blue and white decoration of the pottery was inspired from Ming Dynasty porcelain that had been normally imported to Holland by the Dutch East India Company. When a new Chinese emperor halted exportation of porcelain from China, Delft potters began to mimic Chinese patterns using local clay and tin-glaze. The two examples of Delftware on display are a large commemorative tile and a nearly six-foot tall vase for displaying cut flowers technically termed, though slightly inaccurately as, a “tulipiere.”
This particular tulipiere has some superficial characteristics similar to certain types of marijuana smoking devices. When I attended the exhibition many unfortunate repeated utterances of the word “bong” were used by both visitors and the staff to describe the object—this is all the more tragic due to the fact that another stereotype feature in the exhibition on the left-side of the gallery are several colorful botanical illustrations of tulips. If the tulipiere had been placed near the images of the flowers, visitors might be more enlightened as to the contextual use of the large flower vase rather than just giggle about bongs. Delftware is itself important, but as placed inside exhibition with no real explanation of its relevancy to the Vermeer on display, it is another part of the exhibition that again does not reveal anything more about the artist nor his painting.
The actual inclusion of the tulip images themselves are also hackneyed as they reference an early 17th-century event referred to as “Tulip Mania,” which was a brief time-period when huge market speculation and enormous prices were paid for tulip bulbs. Tulip Mania actually occurred thirty-years prior to the creation of “The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.” Why are they here? One guesses that since it’s somehow related to Holland—you gotta have tulips! Right?
Everything save the spare didactic information about the Vermeer painting imbues the overall exhibition with a hokey ambiance. With the other saddening out of context objects and visuals included in the exhibition, the exquisite Vermeer painting definitely becomes the sole reason for visiting this exhibition.
As the Timken Museum of Art is respected for the importance of its renowned collection as well as its past scholarly achievements, the “Vermeer” exhibition as a whole diminishes its own reputation as a serious institution devoted to academic study. As the Timken is highly regarded as “The Frick Museum of the west,” this superficial exhibition is out of character for the institution—one that could potentially jeopardize the respect it has deservedly earned from its past accomplishments.
The quiet aura and drama of “The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter”—one of the Vermeer’s very best paintings—needs to be experienced intimately one-on-one in front of the painting itself. The delicate details of this rare artwork can only be viewed firsthand. It is the east, and this painting is the sun! Arise, and be sure not to miss such rare opportunity to gaze upon this heavenly painted star! *
- Wheelock, Jr., Arthur K.; ed. “Johannes Vermeer.” Washington and The Hague: the Trustees of the N.G.A. and the Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, 1995 [p. 136].
*(The paraphrased Shakespeare quotes and references above are from “Romeo and Juliet,” (Act 2: Scene 2); in Chatham River Press’s edition of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.” New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975 [reprinted from: New York: Avenel Books, 1975], pp. 1019-1020).
[“Vermeer,” curated by David Bull: 14 May through 11 September 2015; Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, Calif.].
© 2015 by Kraig Cavanaugh