Masterpieces from the World’s Museums in the
On 14 October 2011, a new exhibition in the Masterpieces from the World’s Museums in the Hermitage series opened with the presentation of the painting The Love Letter by Johannes Vermeer, one of the most mysterious artists in the history of painting. Thirty five of his now-famous works were attributed to various other masters, until the middle of the nineteenth century, and it was not until the 1870’s that the scope of Vermeer’s place in the history of art was “discovered.”
Johannes Vermeer devoted himself to landscapes and religious scenes in his early period, but later became fascinated with domestic interior scenes of daily life, which depicted the plot of a love letter being red several times (Lady Reading a Letter, 1657, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, A Lady Writing a Letter, 1665-1667, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Lady and Her Maid with a Letter, 1666-1667, Frick Collection, New York, The Love Letter, 1669 – 1670, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Lady Writing a Letter, with her Maid, 1670, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin).
The Love Letter, which is now on display in the Hermitage, depicts a lady with a mandolin, whose maidservant has just brought her a letter. The action takes place in a typical Dutch burgher’s home in second half of the seventeenth century, with exquisite details of the building’s de'cor and the people’s daily lives.
One of the distinguishing features of this period in Dutch painting is the way the artist, no mater what subject he happens to be exploring, he draws the viewer into an ambiguous game of images, where a “key” was needed to decode what was happening. This “key” was often a symbol, with an associated motto, which illustrated a moral principle. A viewer will find that Vermeer’s The Love Letter is just such a multilayered painting.
One of the ways that genre painters would reveal the meaning encoded in their works was the so-called painting within a painting. In this case, we can turn our attention to the seascape, showing a ship on the ocean, depicted by Vermeer on the far wall of the room: the lady’s heart, her spiritual turmoil, are illustrated in a nutshell by the ocean, and the chaotic movement of the sea represents her love. The second picture, a cavalier strolling along a footpath or an alley in a park, must remind us of their first meeting and the blossoming of their relationship.
The lute in the lady’s hand is an important element of Dutch painting on the theme of love; musicianship. In the literature and painting of the 17th century there is always a connection between music and love, and is often even the main theme. “Amor docet musicam” “Love teaches music” or “love inspires music” is a famous motto that was almost a proverb in that period. It is precisely these elements of music, as a symbol of harmony and medicine for the lovesick soul, are reflected in this Vermeer painting, where the subject, having just interrupted her music, is holding a long-awaited love letter in her hands, which her maidservant has just delivered.
The meaning of the painting is also revealed in the referential themes of the lady’s attire, and in all the details of the interior. Behind the lady, we see a rug ornamented with fruits and vegetables. Throughout the world, this has been used by artists as a symbol of fertility. Beneath, near the threshold, we see a woman’s slippers and a broom. E. de Jong, one the leading Dutch specialists in symbolism, regards these so-called pantoffel, shoes without backs, as one of the top ten erotic symbols in Dutch painting of the seventeenth century. A broom (brush, mop) in love scenes is a symbol of cohabitation, a “marriage” without a wedding, or over de bezem trouwen in Dutch “to unite without marriage” literally “to marry a broom”. (Tot Lering en Vermaak. Amsterdam, 1984. Âlz. 38.)).
In The Love Letter the action is perceived as a “freeze frame” taken from the life of two conversing and gesturing people, without the participation of the viewer, to whom the characters do not appear to be directing their attention. The viewer is more likely taking on the role of an unwilling witness to a private scene, watching what’s going on through the keyhole. This sensation becomes even stronger due to the fact that side parts of the pictures seem to be on the periphery of our vision. Vermeer adopted this “keyhole principle” from Gerard ter Borch,
Fine taste and creative intuition helped the artist to select a dynamic moment in a sedate, almost motionless plot like this one with the letter, and made it possible for him to easily orient himself in the rich heritage of the past and the achievements of the present.
Vermeer’s supreme virtuosity and the intimacy of his work were appreciated by sentimentalists and romantics; in the nineteenth century, they were generally well-regarded, and in the twentieth century they began to be seen in a new light thanks to psychological interpretations. And now, at the down of the twenty first century, the value of Vermeer’s painting astonishes us when we examine this remarkable artist’s masterpiece.
This exhibit is a gift from the mayor of Amsterdam to the residents and visitors of Saint Petersburg. In this way, Amsterdam is expressing its gratitude to the State Hermitage Museum for our mutual work, which increased in 2009 with the opening of the “Hermitage Amsterdam” exhibition center on the banks of the Amstel River. The initiator of this exhibit was Ernst Veen, the director of the Amsterdam Center, who will conclude his work there with this exhibition, as well as his “sendoff” in which he expresses his love for the State Hermitage Museum.
This exhibit was prepared jointly by the State Hermitage Museum and the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam,) with the support of the Mayor of Amsterdam and the national “New Church” fund (Amsterdam) and is a part of the “Window on the Netherlands” program.
This exhibition was made possible by the financial support of the KLM aviation company, the AON insurance company and the John Nurminen Prima transportation company.
The curator of this exhibit is the senior employee of the department
of West European Art at the State Hermitage Museum, Sergei Anatolyovich