Johannes Vermeer's painting Woman in Blue Reading a Letter is on view for six weeks as a special loan from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum.

Luminous and exquisitely rendered, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (about 1663–64) is one of Vermeer's most captivating portrayals of a young woman's private world. This generous loan from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam marks the first appearance of this remarkable painting in the western United States, and the last stop in a world tour heralding the opening of the Rijksmuseum on April 13, 2013, following an extensive renovation. This special installation situates Woman in Blue Reading a Letter among works by Vermeer's leading Dutch contemporaries and highlights the inimitable approach of one of the most celebrated painters of the Golden Age.

Vermeer's quiet scene is at once familiar and enigmatic. The composition is so meticulously ordered, that every element contributes to the reflective mood of the female subject at its center. Standing motionless at a table before an unseen window, a young woman intently reads the crisp page of a letter—possibly a precious message from a lover. On the table, a second page of the missive partially covers a string of large pearls on a blue ribbon, perhaps just removed from the open jewelry box nearby. The woman is comfortably dressed in a blue padded bed jacket (beddejak), decorated with yellow bows on the front and sleeve, and a long heavy skirt. Soft morning light highlights her forehead and glances across the delicate 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.

In a masterful demonstration of Vermeer's command (and manipulation) of optical effects, the chairs and map rail casts bluish shadows on the wall, but not the woman herself. In keeping with the delicate atmosphere of the interior, he softened the topography represented on the large map of Holland and West Friesland to muted blue, taupe and ocher tonalities that suggest her complex internal state. This is Vermeer's most refined and enigmatic treatment of the popular theme of letter reading. 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. For some viewers, her shape suggests pregnancy, which would have been an untypical subject for the period. As seen in other paintings by Vermeer and his contemporaries, the conical shape in style in the mid-1660s was achieved by wearing a flared jacket over a thick skirt turned over at the waist.

Dutch Scenes of Domestic Interiors

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter represents one of Vermeer's most enigmatic depictions of a new theme in Dutch genre painting (subjects from everyday life): well-to-do women in domestic settings, often so preoccupied that they are oblivious to the viewer's gaze. This special installation highlights the variety of artistic contributions to the popular theme of the intimate interior in the 1660s to complement Vermeer's quiet, harmonious reader. Gerard ter Borch's Music Lesson, Jan Steen's Drawing Lesson, Pieter de Hooch's Woman Preparing Bread and Butter for a Boy, and Frans van Mieris's The Doctor's Visit from the Getty Museum's collection, as well as Gabriel Metsu's An Elegant Lady Writing at Her Desk with a Dog beside Her and Frans van Mieris's A Young Woman Feeding a Parrot (both on loan from private collections in New York) share refined brushwork and dazzling illusionism in the rendering of highly-constructed private spaces.


Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) was born and spent his comparatively brief career in Delft. A meticulous and careful painter whose innovations were not well-known outside his native city, he may have produced about fifty paintings in just over twenty years, of which about thirty-five survive. Despite extensive archival research that has revealed much about the difficult financial circumstances of the artist's life, familial relationships and avid support by a local patron, many questions about his life and artistic practice remain. After an early career as a large-scale history painter, Vermeer turned his attention to the interior domestic realm in about 1656. The apparently closely observed moments of private activity and thought he captured in paint are in fact artful constructs, in which Vermeer deployed his sophisticated command of perspective, optical effects, and emotional impact of color to create plausible, yet somehow elusive subjects. Woman in Blue Reading a Letter epitomizes the directness and quiet grandeur of his approach at mid-career.

Vermeer at the Getty

The presentation of Woman in Blue Reading a Letter pays tribute to the rewarding partnership between the Rijksmuseum and the Getty. In recent years, the two institutions have exchanged significant loans for exhibitions and fruitfully collaborated on conservation projects, notably the treatment and study at the Getty of the pair of large portraits by Frans Hals, on view in the same gallery.
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