Johannes Vermeer Paints Mistress and Maid

The servant's interrogative gaze (detail left) is vivid, while the expression, the crucial expression, of the mistress is more obscure, partly because of the turn of her head, partly because of the elusiveness with which her features are represented. All that is revealed is the gesture of the hand raised to the chin. Is she surprised to receive the letter? The ambiguity of the gesture of her left hand is balanced by the obscurity of the action of her right hand. There appears to be writing on the paper before her, but the position in which she holds the pen does not suggest she has been writing. Was she writing herself when her maid interrupted with this letter? Is she preparing to reply even before she has read the letter? Or is it the mistress who has written the letter, has asked the maid to deliver it, and the maid is putting an awkward question to her employer? The relation of mistress and maid resembles that of the Rijksmuseum (detail above right) Love Letter, but in this reduced setting, without the conventional attributes of that work, there is only the ambiguity of a dumb show, and the focus is on the essential but ambivalent psychology of that relationship of quizzical servant and uncertain employer.

In this painting the mistress, dressed in a yellow jacket with an ermine border, sits at a table. Her hand rests on a letter she had been writing before being interrupted by the maid. Her left hand has risen involuntarily to her chin, an unmistakable gesture of surprise and concern (detail right). The maid's forward gesture as she offers the letter reinforces the contrast in their attitudes.