March 2004


Love Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of vermeer
Through May 2, 2004
Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, Greenwich, Connecticut

Messages from the Heart

by Louis Torres

Note: Readers are urged to view a selection of images of paintings from the exhibition, and of other cited works, before reading the following review.

With the spring season upon us, what better time to reflect upon allusions to love in art? As good fortune would have it, Love Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer, a small but rich exhibition currently on view in Greenwich, Connecticut, provides an opportunity to do just that. Comprising thirty-eight Dutch works from European and American public and private collections, the exhibition was, surprisingly, organized not by one of America's major museums (nor by the Frick Collection in New York City, which owns three paintings byVermeer--two featuring love letters--that do not travel), but by the modest Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, in partnership with Dublin's National Gallery of Ireland. Though off the beaten tourist path, this unprecedented exhibition on a singular theme is one not likely to be repeated, and ought not to be missed.

The theme of Love Letters is set forth in the title essay by the exhibition's co-curator, Peter C. Sutton, a specialist in Dutch art who is the Bruce Museum's Executive Director. In Western culture, he notes, letters have long been held dear for their "intimacy and immediacy," not least those communicating "the impassioned murmurings of lovers." The seventeenth century, he further observes, witnessed "the first true explosion of letter writing in . . . the private world." As an example, he cites Constantijn Huygens--secretary to the Prince of Orange in the Hague (and an early Rembrandt enthusiast)--who is thought to have written some 78,000 letters over his lifetime. Many of them, naturally, were related to his official duties, but like his fellow Netherlanders, Huygens also wrote daily (of love, among other things, very likely) to friends and family.

Dutch artists were the first to make the private letter a central focus in "genre scenes," or paintings of everyday life. To illustrate his essay, Sutton includes numerous black-and-white images of such works (mostly from the seventeenth century) not in the exhibition. One longs to see these intriguing, often touching, works in color and in person--especially those by Gerhard ter Borch, the artist who first popularized the theme and "rang the changes most extensively on its richly varied associations," to quote Sutton. The exhibition's title notwithstanding, not all the paintings in question pertained to love letters, however. Woman in Mourning Clothes Reading a Letter--even in a small black and white reproduction--is poignant in its expression of silent grief. There is "little doubt," Sutton observes, that the letter is either a notification of death or a message of condolence. Ter Borch was a master at rendering the emotional subtleties of facial expression (even in profile), as even this tiny reproduction of his painting of a young woman gazing at the letter clutched in her hands attests. None of the Dutch painters of his era--not even Vermeer--surpassed him in this respect.

Several of the most memorable paintings in the exhibition are by Gabriel Metsu. Especially appealing is A Young Woman Receiving a Letter (identified online as A Girl Receiving a Letter), thought to be a companion piece to Man Writing a Letter, also in the exhibition. (Very likely, in the view of some scholars, the pair depicted are the artist and his wife.) What distinguishes the painting featuring the young woman is that it captures the precise moment of a letter's being delivered into the hand of its recipient--the white letter clasped gently by both the messenger, who leans forward ever so slightly, and the expectant woman, who holds an open book on her lap. The servant boy's sensitive face, muted in soft shadow, makes him an appealingly individualized figure. Another pair of paintings by Metsu is also of interest. Man Writing a Letter [click on image to enlarge] depicts what may be an affluent student (note the globe behind the open window)--writing, it seems, a love letter. Its companion painting is Woman Reading a Letter, with a Maidservant, which depicts the woman reading his words in a more modest domestic setting. Can one imagine a more romantic pairing than these two? Even considered apart, each work is a superb example of Dutch genre painting on the love letter theme.

Also exceptional are the nuanced depictions of letter writing by ter Borch. Woman Writing a Letter is far richer than its nondescript title suggests, as are many of the exhibition's paintings. For good reason, it was selected as the catalogue's cover image, since it is not only unsurpassed in every respect but also happens to be the first known painting to depict a woman writing a letter (the writer may have been--as Ann Jensen Adams informs the reader in her catalogue essay--ter Borch's sister). In her right hand she gently puts a quilled pen to paper, bending toward it in rapt concentration. Though ter Borch shows the young woman in profile, he manages to convey sweet contentment through her downcast eye and subtly rendered mouth. To quote Sutton:

In a still and quiet interior, a young woman sits at a table concentrating on writing a letter. . . . As the woman bends to her task, the hint of a smile crosses her lips, evoking in her compact and concentrated form the writer's inner life. A curious detail . . . is the fact that the piece of paper is already creased, as if it had been folded; normally one would only fold the letter after it had been written and was about to be sent. Close examination . . . confirms that the writing on the letter continues beneath the point where the quill touches the paper, suggesting that she may have returned to the letter to edit or savor it after it had been composed--a small detail but one that speaks to the care with which letters were written, read, and reread.

Other paintings by ter Borch are of particular interest as well. In Woman Sealing a Letter, with a Maidservant, for example, the seated woman holding a stick of red sealing wax to a candle is no doubt considered the principal figure, but the far more interesting portrayal in my view is the young maidservant standing in profile to the right, a marketing pail hanging from her arm. In the catalogue entry for the painting, Sutton describes the maidservant--a girl of fifteen or sixteen, perhaps --simply as a "columnar figure" who witnesses the simple, yet solemn, act of sealing a letter in hushed stillness. Yet she projects such sweetness and patience, not to mention mature awareness, that the painting is as much about her as about the woman. Ter Borch also made paintings of women seated at a table drinking or pouring wine, while their soldier companions (drunk, no doubt) sleep. Two not in the exhibition are illustrated in the catalogue in black and white. The one work exhibited depicts a woman holding a letter (which she appears to have read), while wistfully sipping wine from a glass.

Among works by other painters, several stand out. A Woman Reading a Letter at a Table, with a Negro Page, by Michiel van Musscher, is notable for its portrayal of a pensive young servant awaiting the reply that the woman is about to pen on a blank sheet of paper. Like the maidservant in the ter Borch painting discussed above, the boy--wearing "elaborate red and brown livery and pearl earrings" in Sutton's description--merits interest in his own right. On a very different theme, two paintings by Adriaen van Ostade of dignified lawyers reading letters or documents in their study (a third was exhibited in Dublin), reflect the mind immersed in sober thought.

The Catalogue Essays

The catalogue for Love Letters has much to offer general readers as well as scholars. Sutton's comprehensive introductory essay, cited earlier, includes a discussion of selected artists in the exhibition (including ter Borch and Metsu), as well as an account of the social and political developments that were reflected in the rising popularity of letter writing as a theme in Dutch genre painting. The Dutch, he notes, excelled in commerce, thrived in number, and were fortunate to boast the most literate population in all of Europe. As Sutton observes:

Literacy was an especially valuable skill for the citizens of a maritime nation like the Netherlands, since as much as 10 percent of the male population was at sea or abroad at any given moment in the seventeenth century. The ability to read and write kept the seafaring traveler far from home in touch with those who remained behind.

In Dutch genre scenes, seascape and maritime paintings often allude to an absent husband or lover--as for example, in Metsu's Woman Reading a Letter with a Maidservant, cited above. Even where such explicit clues are absent, the likely context for the letter can still be safely inferred.

The dramatic rise in private letter writing throughout Europe even before the seventeenth century had given rise to a system of messengers (the more enterprising of whom, in the Netherlands, would eventually attain the supervisory title of postmeester). Large cities such as Vienna, Paris, and London had established postal services for the delivery of mail to their citizens. Not so in the less densely populated cities of the Netherlands, however--not even in Amsterdam. There the delivery of letters was entrusted (as many of the paintings suggest) to family members, maidservants, or even young boys, not to mention private courier services.

Sutton's account of private letter writing in the seventeenth century highlights the social and personal importance that came to be attached to this activity.

[T]he notion that letters could . . . convey private feelings and emotions gradually captured the popular imagination. The writing of private letters had previously been a pastime and token of the upper classes, especially in France, where the practice of writing personal letters was first refined and codified. The ability to compose a good letter was likened to the mastery of the art of conversation and became one of a series of prerequisites for admission to refined, upper-class society. Letter writing was a sign of civility and sociability.

Tutor-secretaries were employed to instruct boys in "the benefits, techniques, and proper forms of epistolary expression." Letter manuals were among the best-selling books of the day. In one, sample love letters were provided, along with diverse possible responses--suggesting, as Sutton reports, "varying degrees of ardor for the respondent to adjust the letter to be as reticent or encouraging, as restrained or insistent, as the individual situation required." For example, should the lady receiving an "impassioned missive" choose to be encouraging, she could pen these words: "though they be ordinary effects of your Civility, rather than Proofes of your love, yet I cannot chuse but be extremely obliged to you, which I beseech you believe."

Sutton concludes by briefly examining the influence of seventeenth-century Dutch letter writing on the eighteenth century, which would bring epistolary literature to its height in both France and England. Love letters proliferated, furniture was designed to accommodate letter writing, and paintings continued to treat the theme. Letters figure in important paintings of the nineteenth century as well, as in Mary Cassatt's The Letter (1890-1891) and the lesser-known Reading a Letter (1852), by the French academic painter Ernest Meissonier (both artists, but not these paintings, are cited by Sutton). In the twentieth century, as Sutton notes, Thomas Hart Benton depicted a woman reading a letter from her far-away soldier in Letter from Overseas (1943), much as the great Dutch genre painters had in their time (the caption for the illustration of Benton's work notes only the surface, masonite, whereas the two online versions linked to here--which reverse the image--are lithographs).

Regrettably, Sutton ends his otherwise sound and illuminating essay with this fallacious claim:

[I]n perhaps the most characteristically modern twist on the love letter theme, Picasso inscribed "J'aime Eva" on one of his Cubist paintings of a female nude [Femme nue ("J'aime Eva")], because, as he explained in a letter . . . he was overwhelmed by his love for his girlfriend, Eva Gouel . . . ; thus in the painter's ultimate transformation of the letter theme, Picasso turned the painting itself into a love letter.

Benton's Letter from Overseas may be one example of a "characteristically modern twist on the love letter theme," as Sutton suggests, but can Picasso's painting be understood (even metaphorically) as an "ultimate transformation" of that theme? I think not. His break with reality is so complete that one can barely discern , if at all, a human being in the work, much less a female nude (in the admittedly small online reproduction, I keep seeing, instead, what seems to be a dancing cat). More importantly, the mere writing of "I love Eva" on something--whether a tree trunk or a Cubist painting, say--does not make that thing analogous to a love letter. Finally, Picasso's virtually unintelligible canvas scarcely merits consideration as art at all. Sutton's inclusion of it in this context belies the grand tradition he has so ably documented.

In the essay "Disciplining the Hand, Disciplining the Heart: Letter-Writing Paintings and Practices in Seventeenth-Century Holland," Ann Jensen Adams somewhat poetically defines a private letter as a "written record of the spontaneous production of the innermost reaches of the soul." Yet the writing of such letters in seventeenth-century Holland was, she points out, often anything but private. Personal expression was customarily restrained--in part, because letters might be dictated to a scribe, read by others in transit (whether through the mail or by private messenger), read aloud upon arrival, shown to others, or even published. Moreover, the practice was highly codified and disciplined in all respects, from the form the letter would take to the style of the script. Adams devotes much of her essay to a detailed history of seventeenth-century handwriting styles and manuals. She weaves this esoteric topic into a narrative of some interest to the lay reader.

Of the three essays in Love Letters, only the one by Lisa Vergara substantially disappoints, even as it is often informative and insightful. As it happens, it is on Vermeer--who figures prominently in the exhibition's subtitle, though only one painting by him, Lady Writing a Letter, with her Maid [more ], is included in the exhibition at the Bruce Museum (two more were exhibited in Dublin). Additional paintings by this beloved Dutch master are cited by Vergara in "Women, Letters, Artistic Beauty: Vermeer's Theme and Variations." She opens with this problematic assertion: "If today Johannes Vermeer ranks as the most celebrated of Dutch genre painters, this reputation must rest on the seemingly natural consensus that his works are beautiful." Vergara offers no support that beauty is the quality primarily associated with Vermeer's paintings. His reputation, I would argue, surely rests upon matters of greater import--such as his particular sensibilities, his values, his view of life.

What does Vergara mean by "beautiful" to begin with? "Beauty," she asserts, "is impossible to define in the abatract." In truth, nothing is impossible to define in the abstract--sometimes difficult, but never impossible. The clearest explication of beautiful I know of, from Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, explains, in part:

In general, . . . both in learned and in ordinary use, beautiful is applied to that which excites the keenest pleasure, not only of the senses but also, through the medium of the senses, of mind and soul. It commonly also suggests an approach to, or a realization of, perfection, often specifically the imagined perfection associated with one's conception of an ideal.

Thus the adage "beauty is in the eye of the beholder"--or, as Shakespeare put it Love's Labor's Lost, "beauty is bought by judgment of the eye."

Since beauty in her view is indefinable,Vergara bases her discussion on philosopher-critic Arthur Danto's theory of "artistic beauty," summarizing it as follows:

[F]or a painting to pass the test of "artistic beauty," there must be an internal connection between its form and meaning or, to put it another way, between its aesthetic qualities and its "truth." Very practically, Danto defines truth as "whatever it was that the artist intended." He nevertheless emphasizes that to deduce intentions requires informed, rational arguments about specific cases, viewed contextually. Here, "contextually" will mean viewing the substance of Vermeer's paintings through certain external frameworks--namely, conditions, values, and beliefs operating within his immediate milieu.

I tend to be wary of speculating about an artist's intentions--which, absent documentation, cannot be known with certainty. Why not just deduce apparent meaning--first through close study of the painting itself, then (as Danto suggests) viewing it in the context of biographical, historical, and cultural information?

In any case, in The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art (no doubt published too late for Vergara to have known of it), Danto has himself recently disavowed his notion of artistic beauty:

It is aesthetic beauty that is discerned through the senses. Artistic beauty requires discernment and critical intelligence. But why use the word beauty at all in this latter case? Some people [and works of art] are beautiful, some are not, some are downright ugly. These are differences we register through the senses. . . . But human beings [and works of art] have qualities of intellect and character that attract us to them despite their lack of beauty. . . . [I]t seems to me that it muddles the concept of beauty irreparably if we say that these qualities are another species or order of beauty.

Vergara's "specific cases" are six epistolary scenes by Vermeer--which provide "a particularly direct route" to understanding Danto's notion of "artistic beauty." Three of them are of a single woman, while the others depict a mistress and maid. Though Vergara's discussion is often informative, sharp-eyed, and astute, it is too often marred by over-intellectualization and mere speculation. For example, she claims that in the earliest of the paintings, Young Woman Reading a Letter [A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window] [more ], Vermeer "represented what he and his audience surely agreed was naturally beautiful," and that he intended "to raise this natural beauty 'to a certain power' [quoting Danto] through his special skills and imagination." How can she possibly know that Vermeer intended something so specific?

At times, Vergara's remarks belabor the obvious and border on condescension. She tells the reader, for example, that Vermeer expressed how "seriously" he took the paintings by displaying a high degree of "artistry," and that "painters who aspired to the highest rank took a similarly serious approach to imagery and expression." In another instance, her analysis of Woman in Blue Reading a Letter [more ] emphasizes that "light reveals Vermeer's meanings with simple directness," as when it falls "actively only on the front of the woman's jacket, thereby drawing attention to her pregnancy, so potent a part of the characterization." But does not light always fall on the front of a thing facing it--in this painting, on the bent fingers of the woman's hands, and her forehead, nose, and cheek, as well as on her jacket? Could the light in this scene do otherwise?

Finally, Vergara's speculations occasionally stretch credulity--as, for example, regarding The Love Letter [more ]. Clearly, the woman appears concerned, as Vergara observes, while the maid's knowing smile indicates that she knows all is well. Since the letter is sealed, Vergara further notes, "we wonder how the maid could have discerned its contents." We? Not me. Maids know things, and talk to messengers; and envelopes often bear signs of the sender. But Vergara conjures up a "plausible" absent suitor who, having arrived early, confides in the maid and is hiding in the anteroom, the better to witness the lady's certain "delight" when she opens and reads the letter. Could this be what Vermeer intended? (At this point, the reader might want to study the painting once more--focusing on the dark anteroom at front right, in particular the two piles of paper on the seat of the chair.) As may have been noticed, the top of the near sheet (which is filled with illegible musical notations) rises--"as if blown by a movement of air." According to Vergara, it is the unseen visitor's movement that "rustles the sheet of music" in this way. But the laws of physics argue against such an explanation, and the upturned sheet of paper must remain a mystery.

(Vergara also discusses four other paintings by Vermeer: A Lady Writing [more]; Mistress and Maid [more] [more]; Lady Writing a Letter, with her Maid [more ], and Young Woman with a Cavalier [more]--or Officer and Laughing Girl, the preferred title in my view, and that of The Frick Collection. This last work does not deal with letter writing or reading; but, as Vergara points out, the same person appears in Young Woman Reading a Letter [A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window] [more] and, greatly transformed, in Woman in Blue Reading a Letter [more].)

Returning "more directly" to Danto's concept of artistic beauty at the end of the essay, Vergara briefly considers some of Vermeer's intentions that, she claims, can be gleaned from the ways these paintings "intersect" with his life: "love might have been a strong motive"; reading and writing appealed to him; he was devoted to women; he possessed "artistic individuality"--because he included personal effects as props; he rendered servants with feeling (and "might have" done so because he "depended on his wife's family for financial support and social standing"); and, finally, he had a "keen knowledge" of contemporary music. Except for the rather odd mention of "artistic individuality," most ordinary people, I would venture to say, are able to infer such interpretations of Vermeer's letter paintings without any direct knowledge of his life, or of Danto's peculiar theory (which, recall, even he has rejected). For Vergara, however:

Vermeer's lived reality enabled him to create, with evident sincerity, internal connections between the aesthetic qualities of his letter paintings and the truths they propose. Therein lies the "artistic beauty" theorized by Danto. Whether this elucidates the beauty that people nowadays attribute to Vermeer's epistolary scenes, readers may themselves decide.

Readers may indeed do that. But most will also conclude, in my judgment, that beauty is not what primarily attracts them to Vermeer's letter paintings (nor to any of his work for that matter). Vergara's claim to the contrary may be due to a mainly scholarly interest in Vermeer's work, which would explain her apparent inability to recognize what makes the Dutch master so "celebrated" among ordinary viewers. Vermeer's considerable reputation rests not upon a "natural consensus that his works are beautiful," as she puts it, but upon the deep personal affinity many people feel with his sensibilities, or sense of life--reflected in his perceptive depiction of women in these scenes related to letters of love.

In any case, as I mentioned earlier, only one of Vermeer's letter paintings discussed by Vergara (Lady Writing a Letter, with her Maid) is exhibited in Love Letters. The stars of the exhibition are, in truth, the other painters I have cited. Readers who can should try to see the marvelous works at the Bruce Museum for themselves before this exhibition closes on May 2. The fine catalogue, with its many high-quality color plates, remains available for all to enjoy after that.

Catalogue & Related Websites