Saturday, May 19, 2007

Women reading letters--two paintings

Dutch Baroque painters were drawn to the theme of letter-writing and letter-reading. Their evocation of intimate communication between sender and recipient makes the viewer simultaneously curious and, perhaps, a bit like an intruder as s/he enters the painting's space. Despite the sense of intimacy, though, the theme of letters also paradoxically expands the space depicted: in each of the paintings below, for example, the letters we see have writers, unseen by us but certainly seen in the respective minds' eyes of the recipients. The viewer, then, has not merely entered a room; s/he has entered an entire world as configured, oriented, by the envisioned writer or recipient of a letter.

As with the other pairings, I hope that passers-by will feel welcome to comment and, if the muse speaks especially strongly, even to write a post--just let me know, and I'll set things up for you.

Gerard ter Borch, Peasant Girl Reflecting on a Letter, 1650-1660

Johannes Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, c. 1662-1665


R. Sherman said...

I like the Ter Borch much better. The far off stare of the girl makes me wonder whether she's in shock at some bad news. A death in the family, perhaps? Although the title refers to reflection on the letter, I think she's reflecting on something else entirely. It is as if the letter no longer exists.


John B. said...

Thanks for coming my and commenting, Randall.

Although I personally prefer the Vermeer, you're quite right with your observation about reflecting. It's amazing she's still hanging on to it, she's so far away. I find myself wanting to look at whatever she's looking at, even if it's nothing at all.

The Vermeer still wins out because, for me, it has a sense of forward motion to it: the woman is in the midst of reading; it's as though if we keep watching, she'll eventually finish the letter and then, perhaps, tell us what it says.

You probably know that many of these paintings' titles are pretty catch-as-catch-can; often they have their origins as descriptions in early auction catalogues. But I rather like the blankness of the titles: they allow me some space to enter into the painting that a title that begins the job of interpreting or that orients the viewer's thinking would not permit.

Anonymous said...

I always felt the Vermeer woman was pregnant and the letter held bad news of the child's father.

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