Johannes Vermeer, Brieflesendes Mädchen am offenen Fenster/ Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, um 1657–1659
© SKD, Foto: Wolfgang Kreische

The process of creating the painting

Johannes Vermeer created the compositionally balanced and masterfully painted work “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” in about 1657–1659 (Fig. 1). It was the first in a series of paintings depicting interiors which focus on just a few figures engaged in intimate domestic activities.

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Vermeer reveals the rear section of a high-ceilinged room, about a third of which is hidden behind a curtain hanging on the right-hand side. In front of the open window stands a girl, depicted in full profile, who is absorbed in reading a letter. The scene is full of poetry and an almost magical sense of peace and quiet. A few items of furniture – a chair pushed into a corner, a rug-covered table with a bowl of fruit on it separating the viewer from the figure – combine to give definition to the pictorial space. The table with the crumpled rug and the curtain pushed aside on the right in the foreground function as a compositional barrier, a repoussoir, making it difficult for the viewer to gain visual access to the closed-off space in the background.

A girl standing at an open window reading a letter
© SKD, Foto: Klut / Estel
1 Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, c. 1657–1659, Oil on canvas

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Over the course of his artistic career, Vermeer paid increasing attention to the issues relating to the depiction of interiors, whereas these matters did not play any role in his known early works. The contours of the room in the “Girl Reading a Letter” are difficult to define, with the left-hand corner dissolving into the shadows. Nevertheless, the chair positioned in front of this corner, and also its shadow, delimit the extent of the room. The visible section of the wall on the left is clearly defined by the bipartite open window with a red curtain slung over it. The girl, whose head is located at the exact centre of the painting, is positioned directly in front of the window. She stands at approximately equal distance from the table in the foreground and the chair on the back wall of this comparatively narrow space. The curtain on the right is not a component of the girl’s room but is clearly in a different image plane located closer to the viewer. It hangs from 10 small rings on a metal rod which seems to be attached to a wooden frame. Having apparently just been pulled aside, the curtain now reveals to the viewer a scene that would otherwise have remained hidden. This seems to have been the only work in which Vermeer used this trompe-l’œil motif (trompe-l’œil: French for ‘deceive the eye’, i.e. painting in such a way as to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions). In addition, his compact arrangement of objects with widely varying surface effects creates an almost perfect illusion of space (Fig. 2).

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Carpet and fruit bowl
© SKD, Foto: Wolfgang Kreische
2 Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Detail

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The early painting “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” is an outstanding work on account of both its overall impact and its details.

During the preparations for the current restoration project, the painting was investigated a number of times using radiographic imaging (x-ray, infrared reflectography, and macro X-ray fluorescence scanning (MA-XRF) (Fig. 3)) as well as stereomicroscopy. The findings indicate that this painting came into being as a result of a multi-phase, complex production process – an important indication of the key role played by this painting in Vermeer’s œuvre as a whole.

Painting on the easel behind a mobile XRF-scanner
© SKD, Foto: Wolfgang Kreische
3 Macro X-ray fluorescence scanning (MA-XRF) using a mobile scanner for mapping the distribution of elements

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The reflection of the “Girl Reading a Letter” in the window pane is one of the particularly charming details in this painting, since it provides an indirect view of the girl’s enigmatic face (Fig. 4). However, the angle of the head and the girl’s hairstyle do not entirely correspond to the reflection, and the form of the neckline is completely different. Furthermore, the reflection is impossible in relation to the girl’s position in the room. Radiographic imaging has revealed that in an initial version of this work the figure of the “Girl Reading a Letter” was somewhat smaller and was painted in three-quarter profile viewed from behind, so that her face would have been more inclined towards the window (Fig. 5). Her posture would thus have been similar to that of the figural type in the painting by Frans van Mieris (1635–1681) entitled “Duet” or “Woman at a Harpsichord” (Fig. 6). It is characteristic of Vermeer’s early works that he did not seek to remedy the discrepancy that had arisen in the process of establishing the ideal position for the girl.

Reflection of the girl in the window
© SKD, Foto: Wolfgang Kreische
4 Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Detail

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Comparative figures: The girl in the x-ray fluorescence analysis/Woman at a Harpsichord
© Rijksmuseum Amsterdam 2017, Foto: Dr. Annelies van Loon und Anna Krekeler / Schwerin, Staatliches Museum, Foto: Elke Walford
5 Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Lead distribution map created by macro X-ray fluorescence scanning, Detail / 6 Frans van Mieris, Woman at a Harpsichord, 1658, Oil on wood, Staatliches Museum, Schwerin

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Where the foreground and the right half of the picture are concerned, the painting only acquired its current appearance over the course of a multi-phase production process. Radiographic imaging has revealed that during the creative process Vermeer experimented with at least three completely different versions of the foreground composition. Initially, he intended to create an additional pictorial space by positioning a chair in the narrow space between the front edge of the table and the bottom edge of the painting. The so-called Spanish chair was positioned in front of the long side of the table in such a way that it was more or less parallel with the chair in the corner of the room and was viewed from behind. The contours of a lion’s head are clearly visible in the infrared image, in the lead distribution map obtained by macro X-ray fluorescence scanning (Fig. 8, bright points on the image indicate a high concentration of the chemical element lead at those points) and in the pattern of the carpet (to compare the image of the lion’s head see Fig. 7 and Fig. 8).

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Comparative figures: Vermeer's Girl with the red hat/X-ray fluorescence analysis with the contours of a lion’s head
© Foto: National Gallery of Art, Washington / Rijksmuseum Amsterdam 2017, Foto: Dr. Annelies van Loon und Anna Krekeler
7 Johannes Vermeer, Girl with the Red Hat, c. 1665–1666, Oil on wood, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. / 8 Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Lead distribution map obtained by macro X-ray fluorescence scanning, Detail

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This lion’s head corresponds exactly to the form of the carved lions’ heads that are characteristic of the so-called Spanish chairs popular in the Netherlands during Vermeer’s lifetime (Fig. 9).

Rosewood chair, back and seat made of calf leather
© Foto: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
9 “Spanish chair”, Dutch, c. 1640/50, Rosewood, calfskin, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

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In another version, Vermeer planned to reinforce the effect of spatial depth in the painting by positioning a roemer glass in the bottom right-hand corner. This glass, which is clearly visible on x-ray images, was about 18 centimetres high, which is more than half the size of the figure of the girl, and was positioned outside the pictorial space, probably on an illusionistically painted window frame (Fig. 10 and Fig. 11). 

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Comparative figures: X-ray photograph with jar/Jar, Roemer
© Foto: SKD / Foto: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
10 Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, X-ray image, Detail / 11 Roemer glass, Anonymous artist, 1644, Glass, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

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This remarkable spatial organisation of the composition was not without precedent in Delft: a similar arrangement is seen in a drawing held in the Rijksprentenkabinet in Amsterdam. It is the work of Leonaert Bramers (1596–1674), a highly respected Delft painter who was in personal contact with Vermeer’s family (Fig. 12). However, Vermeer subsequently gave up on the idea of placing an eye-catching object in the foreground to emphasise spatial depth.

Drawing of a man smoking a pipe
© Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Rijksprentenkabinet, Foto: Rene den Engelsman
12 Leonaert Bramer, after Adam Pick, Man with Pipe at a Table, c. 1652/53, Drawing, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Rijksprentenkabinet

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By adding a painted curtain that looked deceptively real and thus seems to have an objective presence, Vermeer eventually settled upon the most radical means of separating the interior scene from the viewer. He thus incorporated into his painting a new spatial zone in front of the pictorial space beyond it (Fig. 13).

In order to clarify the spatial situation in the painting, the room depicted in Vermeer‘s “Girl Reading a Letter” was reconstructed (Fig. 14). This experimental setup was created in connection with the exhibition entitled “The Early Vermeer” (3 September– 28 November 2010 at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) as a joint project of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister Dresden in association with the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden, the Technische Universität Dresden (Faculty of  Informatics and Faculty of Mathematics, Institute for Geometry) and the Volkshochschule Dresden.

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Comparative figures: Vermeer's Painting: A girl standing at an open window reading a letter/Reconstruction of the room
© SKD, Foto: Hans-Peter Klut und Elke Estel / Foto: Thomas Scheufler, Kulturmanagement
13 Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, c. 1657–1659, Oil on canvas / 14 Reconstruction of the room in the exhibition “The Early Vermeer”, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister Dresden 2010

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The motif of the curtain and the frame, which likewise seems to hover above the picture surface, is a special illusionist device that is found in a number of works of art from Delft, starting in the early 1650s. Vermeer would certainly have been familiar with paintings featuring a similar trompe-l’œil effect, such as Gerard Houckgeest’s “Interior of the Oude Kerk in Delft” (1654, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum) (Fig. 15). The proportional difference in size between the curtain and the interior behind it is much smaller in Vermeer’s painting than in the church interiors, which makes it very difficult to appreciate the spatial relations in the “Girl Reading a Letter”. The self-contained scene in the room, with the seemingly motionless, introverted figure, gives the impression of a moment frozen in time. The unique nature of this momentary snapshot is further intensified by the trompe-l’œil curtain. The artist used the curtain to create a double optical illusion in which two illusionistic spaces are arranged behind each other – a challenge for the viewer (Fig. 16).

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comparative figures: Interior of the Oude Kerk in Delft/A girl standing at an open window reading a letter
© Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Foto: Frans Pegt / SKD, Foto: Hans-Peter Klut und Elke Estel
15 Gerard Houckgeest, Interior of the Oude Kerk in Delft, 1654, Oil on wood, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam / 16 Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, c. 1657–1659, Oil on canvas

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An abundance of observations and visual experiences, combined with experimental artistic techniques and practical spatial relationships, as well as external inspiration and influences will have contributed to the process of creating the “Girl Reading a Letter”. This early interior already testifies to Vermeer’s confident mastery of artistic means of stylisation and compositional balance, the use of light and illusionistic spatial representation. Investigation of the painting has also shown clearly how during the process of creating the “Girl Reading a Letter” Vermeer moved from relative openness towards increasingly cryptic, detached observation. In this, too, the painting became a standard for all his subsequent genre paintings.

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The actual sequence in which the picture was painted has not yet been established in detail. Further investigations are currently being conducted in parallel with the restoration of the painting, and once completed they will be publicly presented here.

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