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Masterpiece 4: Johannes Vermeer Masterpiece 4 - A Lady Writing a Letter, with Her Maid, c.1670
Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

Johannes Vermeer (Delft 1632-1675)
A Lady Writing a Letter, with Her Maid, c.1670
Oil on canvas
71.1 x 60.5cm
Sir Alfred and Lady Beit Gift, 1987 (Beit Collection)
National Gallery of Ireland
The Artist

Born in Delft in 1632, Johannes Vermeer became one of the most gifted painters of his time. He specialised in genre scenes, particularly those depicting women in domestic settings. Vermeer's work displays an unprecedented level of artistic mastery in its illusion of reality. Vermeer's figures are often quiet and inactive, which contributes to the solemn and mysterious atmosphere of his paintings. His paintings are unusually small. Probably as few as thirty-six pictures have survived.

The Painting

This captivating painting is Vermeer's most ambitious depiction of the theme of letter writing. While a maidservant is staring out of the window, her mistress is writing a letter. In the foreground on the floor lie a red seal, a stick of sealing wax and an object which is either a letter with a crumpled wrapper or a letter-writing manual, a standard aid for personal correspondence at the time. In either case, the objects seem to have been thrown away by the lady in some agitation.

Vermeer did not sell the painting during his lifetime. His widow gave it to a local baker in payment for a substantial debt for bread. The painting was eventually inherited by wealthy British heir and Conservative MP Sir Alfred Beit. In the mid-Fifties, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit moved their large art collection to their new home at Russborough House in West Wicklow.

The painting was, most famously, twice stolen and twice recovered in dramatic circumstances. It was generously donated to the people of Ireland in 1987. It now hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland.


Foreword by Mike Murphy Foreword by Mike Murphy

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