Johannes Vermeer: Secrets Behind the Painting, “Woman Reading a Letter”

Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum

February 10 – June 4, 2023, The Rijksmuseum has promised the largest Johannes Vermeer exhibition, entitled Vermeer. The magnitude of this exhibition is envisioned in the research projects leading up to the February 2023 opening.  In the weeks ahead, ChasingART will travel virtually to The Rijksmuseum to find the stories behinds the paintings.

Who was Johannes Vermeer?

In the 17th century, Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer was just one of many masters working in a small town known for its trade. But today, he stands out as the greatest Dutch artist of his time and his work has earned him a distinctive place in art history.

Johannes Vermeer was born around 1632 in the Dutch city of Delft (it was known as Den Briel at the time). Little is known about his early life, and he appears to have led a rather unremarkable existence. We do know that he studied art in Delft and got married at the age of 27 to Catharina Bolnes, which was of concern to Catharina’s mother, Maria Thins, based on Vermeer’s financial circumstances.   Johannes and Catharina had fifteen children, four of whom, regrettably were buried before being baptized.

Johannes Vermeer’s artistic life spanned just over 20 years, during which he lived frugally and produced only 35 paintings.  His art is both old-fashioned and utterly timeless. When I view his paintings, I feel like I have stepped through a door into Johannes Vermeer’s time. There is an unexpected sense of intimacy that challenges me to consider the necessity of art within our lives.

His paintings are filled with light, and it is this radiance that makes his work unique. Vermeer used light in a way that nobody had done before. He wanted his paintings to look like windows into a real world, so he used light to create the illusion of realism. He painted light in a very deliberate way, using it to create shapes and patterns that look like they exist in the real world.

Johannes Vermeer is now considered the most famous artist of his time, but he was also the most mysterious. He left behind no letters, no journals, not even a list of his own works. After his death, the art world had no idea what to make of his paintings, until the French art critic, Théophile Thoré Burger, rediscovered him.  He is now considered one of the most original painters of his generation.  Through his masterpieces he reveals an innovative understanding of art as an important human activity.

Woman Reading a Letter, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1663

oil on canvas, h 46.5cm × w 39cm × d 6.5cm More details

Woman Reading a Letter, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1663

The story behind “Woman Reading a Letter”

Enjoying a quiet, private moment, this young woman is absorbed in reading a letter in the morning light. She is still wearing her blue night jacket. All of the colours in the composition are secondary to its radiant lapis lazuli blue. Vermeer recorded the effects of light with extraordinary precision. Particularly innovative is his rendering of the woman’s skin with pale grey, and the shadows on the wall using light blue.” The Rijksmuseum

#FridayPainting: John William Waterhouse “Circe”

Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.”

Madeline Miller, Circe

Circe is the daughter of the Titan sun god Helios, and the nymph, Perse, making her a granddaughter of Atlas and a sister to Aeetes.

In Greek mythology, Circe was a famous enchantress who had many abilities, one of which was her ability to transform people into animals. She lived on the island of Aea in the Black Sea where she transformed Odysseus’s men into swine with her magic potion and kept them as her slaves.

In this painting, John William Waterhouse combined feminine beauty and mystery in a reflective pose. The magic potion on the table reminds viewers that Circe is a dangerous enchantress.

Circe by John William Waterhouse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

#FridayPainting: John Duncan Fergusson “In the Patio: Margaret Morris”

They were an artistic power couple.

“In the Patio: Margaret Morris” captures the remarkable story of Margaret Morris, artist and influential innovator in modern dance and her partner, Scottish Colourist, John Duncan Fergusson.

In the Patio: Margaret Morris by John Duncan Fergusson (National Galleries Scotland

I have read that Margaret founded the Margaret Morris Movement, Celtic Ballet, and two Scottish National Ballets in Glasgow (1947) and in Pitlochry (1960). She also created a system of movement notation, which was first published in 1928.

For more information on Margaret Morris and to view her paintings, head over to the ArtUK. For her thoughts on Dance, head over to the Margaret Morris Movement website.

‘Scottish Colourist’ John Duncan Fergusson is recognised as one of the most influential Scottish painters of the 20th century. Mostly self-taught, he moved to Paris in 1907, where he became a member of the Parisian art circles to which artists such as Matisse and Picasso also belonged. The outbreak of the First World War forced him to return to Britain, and by 1918 he was an established member of the art scene in Chelsea, London. In 1929 he went back to Paris for a further eleven years before moving to Glasgow, where he lived until his death. Like his friend S J Peploe, Fergusson’s early work was influenced by that of Whistler and the Glasgow Boys, but in France he came across Fauvism and adopted a similar style, using pure, bright colours and bold, rhythmic contours. National Galleries Scotland

For more information on John Duncan Fergusson and to view his paintings, head over to the National Galleries Scotland.

#FridayPainting: Samuel John Peploe “Pink Roses, Chinese Vase”

The first time I heard the name Samuel John Peploe was when I read Alexander Mccall Smith’s book, “44 Scotland Street: Book One in the 44 Scotland Series. The story revolves around the appearance and disappearance and re-appearance of a painting that may be a “Peploe.” Alexander Mccall Smith kept readers engaged in the chase to recover the painting.

Who was Samuel John Peploe?

Samuel John Peploe was a member of the Scottish Colourists who were active in the early twentieth century. His fellow painters included Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell, George Leslie Hunter and John Duncan Fergusson. They all spent time in France and were influenced by French artists’ bold use of colour and free brushwork.

Samuel John Peploe – Pink Roses, Chinese Vase – Google Art Project Scottish National Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

About Pink Roses, Chinese Vase

This work was painted during a time when Peploe was experimenting with using areas of bright colour in his still life paintings. Peploe had spent time studying in Paris and was influenced by contemporary French painting. He felt that every plane was to be represented by a change of colour and selected material for his still lifes which could be treated in flat areas of strong colour: lemons, oranges, roses, tulips, blue and white china, bowls and drapes were his main subjects. In this work the outlines are bold – some are blue or dark red – to emphasise the objects and their relation to one another. National Galleries Scotland

For more information on Samuel John Peploe and to view his paintings, head over to the National Galleries Scotland.

#FridayPainting: Vincent Van Gogh “Starry Night over the Rhône”

Vincent van Gogh, in his own words. A letter to his sister Willemien van Gogh in 1888.


At present I absolutely want to paint a starry sky. It often seems to me that night is still more richly coloured than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens. If only you pay attention to it you will see that certain stars are lemon-yellow, others pink or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance. And without my expatiating on this theme it is obvious that putting little white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky.”

Vincent van Gogh to Willemien van Gogh. Arles, Sunday, 9 and about Friday, 14 September 1888.
Starry Night Over the Rhone by Vincent van Gogh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.”

Vincent Van Gogh

#FridayPainting: Frederick Carl Frieseke “Afternoon – Yellow Room”

“Afternoon – Yellow Room by Frederick Carl Frieseke is held at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in Newfields, IN, USA. The painting is described beautifully by the art gallery:

Frieseke, Frederick Carl – Afternoon – Yellow Room – Google Art ProjectI ndianapolis Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The colorful patterns and glowing sunshine here are signature elements of Frieseke’s work. He painted his wife in this same room under various light effects that he used to heighten the sparkle of the patterning around her.

Look closely at the painting and you will see a ghostly image above the hand on the woman’s lap. This is called a pentimento, meaning “repentance” in Italian. These occur when the paint becomes more transparent with age and reveals changes made by the artist. To find out what was hidden, an infrared reflectogram (IRR) image of the painting was taken (shown below). The IRR shows that the woman was originally holding an open book. The artist painted it out and shifted the position of the woman’s hand.”


Indianapolis Museum of Art

Who was Frederick Carl Frieseke? He is described as “The Decorative Impressionist” who focused on various effects of dappled sunlight. He is especially known for painting female subjects, both indoors and out.

Frieseke, Frederick Carl – Afternoon – Yellow Room – Google Art ProjectI ndianapolis Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Frederick Carl Frieseke was not the only one to paint in the Decorative Impressionism style. He was an influential member of the famous Giverny Colony of American Impressionists, who left the United States to live and paint near the home of Claude Monet.

They were called the “Giverny Group” – Richard Edward Miller, Guy Rose, Edmund Graecen, Lawton S. Parker and Karl Anderson. They were known to paint either high-key outdoor depictions of women in languid poses, or interior scenes with the figures illuminated by natural light from windows.

Republished from Post August 27, 2021.