Both San Francisco and Los Angeles are graced this winter by loans from two great Dutch museums as they undergo renovation.
Vermeer’s 1665 “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” one of the world’s most recognizable paintings — on loan from the Mauritshuis — has debuted at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.
Another of Vermeer’s finest works, “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” (circa 1663–64), from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, will travel to the West Coast of the U.S. for the first time. It will be on view at Los Angeles’s Getty Center from Feb. 16 through March 31.
While the Rijksmuseum is being renovated, the painting has been on a worldwide tour.
“This truly represents an extraordinary opportunity for Southern California,” explains Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Vermeer’s Woman in Blue is one of his greatest and most famous masterpieces. It has very rarely traveled outside of Amsterdam and this is the painting’s first visit to the West Coast. Vermeer’s paintings of women reading letters and engaged in other private, domestic activities have a unique intimacy and reality to them that can only be fully appreciated in the flesh. His finest works, like the Woman in Blue, have a magical immediacy that has never been rivaled.”
Vermeer’s quiet scene is at once familiar and enigmatic. Standing motionless at a table before an unseen window, a young woman intently reads a letter. Vermeer gives us no clues as to whether it is a love letter or some other missive.
On the table, a second page of the letter partially covers a string of large pearls on a blue ribbon, perhaps just removed from the open jewelry box nearby. It’s arrival seems to have interrupted her morning toilette.
The woman is comfortably dressed in a blue padded bed jacket, decorated with yellow bows on the front and sleeve, and a long heavy skirt. As always, Vermeer’s treatment of light is masterful, avoiding a single harsh light source and diffusing shadows across the geometric grid of the painting. the The morning light highlights her forehead and glances across the fabric of the jacket, but leaves the bow around a side curl of her hair and the back of her form in deep shadow. It glints off the large brass nails decorating the Spanish chairs, which have lions head finials, as well as the small tacks along the edge of the seat.
Although the content of the correspondence is a mystery, the woman’s bent head and parted lips impart a sense of suspense. The significance of the woman’s rounded silhouette, which was reduced along the back by Vermeer during the painting process, has prompted much debate since the late 19th century. She appears to be pregnant but many have pointed out that this was the fashion of the day.
The woman is bathed in a diffuse light which separates her from the domestic Dutch interior of her room. To intensify this effect, Vermeer went so far as to contour the figure with a line of light blue. His skill in capturing a sense of her inner life while leaving so much ambiguous is one of the reasons his work is still so compelling. The viewer looks and looks again, caught by the whisper of a meaning across the 500 year divide.
For an in-depth look at this and other works by Vermeer: http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/woman_in_blue_reading_a_letter.html