Johannes Vermeer Paints Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window
The picture was acquired in 1724 by August III, elector of Saxony, together with a number of other paintings bought in Paris.
The seller threw in the picture as a present, to sweeten the deal. It was then attributed to Rembrandt, and the ascription was subsequently weakened to "manner" or "school of". In 1783, it was engraved as a work by Govaert Flinck. The name "Van der Meer from Delft" occurred for the first time in a catalog dating from 1806, to be changed back to Flinck in 1817. From 1826 to 1860, the appellation was altered to Pieter de Hooch. It is only since 1862 that the correct identification obtains. The only Dutch provenance that could possibly apply is the sale Pieter van der Lip, Amsterdam, 1712, no. 22, "A Woman Reading in a Room, by van der Meer of Delft fl 110". Unfortunately, the text is not specific enough to distinguish it from the one at the Rijksmuseum, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.
The above underlines the difficulties inherent to the establishment of Vermeer's catalog. Not a single work can be traced back to the painter's studio, nor are there any letters or contracts extant. The task of attribution rests squarely upon the shoulders of the individual critic, which explains the multiplicity of divergent opinions. In this painting, a young woman stands in the center of the composition, facing in profile an open window to the left. In the foreground is a table covered with the same Oriental rug encountered in the Woman Asleep. On it is the identical Delft plate with fruit. The window reflects the girl's features, while to the right the large green curtain forms a deceptive frame. She is precisely silhouetted against a bare wall that reflects the light and envelops her in its luminosity.
We are here confronted with one of the salient aspects of Vermeer's sensibility and originality. It is the stillness that stands out, the inner absorption, the remoteness from the outer world. She concentrates entirely upon the letter, holding it firmly and tautly, while she absorbs its content with utmost attention.
This painting is part of a group of works painted by Vermeer in the late 1650s which mark the start of his mature period. Other works of this period include Officer and Laughing Girl (New York, The Frick Collection), The Milkmaid (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), and The Glass of Wine (Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemaldegalerie). In these paintings the artist depicts the corner of a relatively large room which is lit through a window on the left side. This compositional formula is inspired by the work of Pieter de Hooch (upper right), who nonetheless differs from Vermeer in locating his figures closer to the foreground. Vermeer's figures at this period are smaller than those in his earlier works, while his technique is more precise.