A Lady writing (c.1665)

Vermeer, Jan (1632-1675)

A Lady writing (Schrijvende vrouw in het geel)
Oil on canvas, 45 x 39.9 cm
National Gallery of ArtWashington

Above all, Johannes Vermeer was a painter of light. In this exquisite painting, diffused light softly illuminates the tabletop, the woman’s face, and her rich lemon-yellow morning jacket. Accents on the pearls decorating her jewelry box, her earrings, and her satin hair ribbons further enliven the image. The woman’s open gaze engages the viewer, which suggests that the painting may be a portrait instead of a generalized portrayal of a young woman at her writing table. Johannes Vermeer became a master in the Saint Luke’s Guild of Delft on December 29, 1653. At that time he specialized in history painting, and his first works were large-scale mythological and religious paintings. Shortly thereafter he began to paint the genre scenes, landscapes, and allegories for which he has become so renowned. Even though Vermeer‘s subject matter changed in the mid-1650s, he continued to imbue his later works with the quiet, intimate moods he had preferred in his early history paintings. His oeuvre is small: only 35 paintings are currently attributed to the master. Shown from about the knees up, a pale, smooth-skinned woman in a fur-lined yellow jacket looks out at us as she sits writing at a table in this vertical painting. The woman’s body faces the table to our left. She turns her head to gaze at us from the corners of her dark gray eyes under faint brows. She has a wide nose, and her pale lips are closed. Her light brown hair is pulled back and held in place with white bows, and gleaming teardrop-shaped pearl earrings dangle from her ears. Her lemon-yellow jacket is trimmed with ermine fur, which is white with black speckles, at the cuffs and down the front opening. A full, elephant-gray skirt falls to the floor beneath the jacket. Both hands rest on the table, and she holds a quill in her right hand, farther from us, on a piece of paper. She leans forward in her wooden chair. The back panel of the chair is covered in black fabric and lined with brass studs. Two gilded finials, carved into lions’ heads, face the woman’s back with mouths open. The table is covered with a celestial-blue cloth crumpled near the left edge of the canvas. On the table are a strand of pearls, a pale yellow ribbon, and a black box with three brown panels studded with pearls around silver keyholes. Two pewter gray vessels are visible just beyond it, in front of a second chair, which faces us. On the putty-gray wall behind the woman, a framed painting hangs in the upper left quadrant of the composition. The painting-within-the painting is done in muted tones of brown and shows a cello and other unidentifiable objects. (NGA)