The Love Letter (Vermeer)

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The Love Letter
Vermeer, Johannes - The Loveletter.jpg
Artist Jan Vermeer
Yearc. 1669-1670
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions44 cm× 38.5 cm(17 in× 15.2 in)
Location Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam

The Love Letter (Dutch : De liefdesbrief) is a 17th-century genre painting by Jan Vermeer. The painting shows a servant maid handing a letter to a young woman with a cittern. The painting is in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Dutch language West Germanic language

Dutch(Nederlands ) is a West Germanic language spoken by around 23 million people as a first language and 5 million people as a second language, constituting the majority of people in the Netherlands and Belgium. It is the third most widely spoken Germanic language, after its close relatives English and German.

Genre painting paintings of scenes or events from everyday life

Genre painting, also called petit genre, depicts aspects of everyday life by portraying ordinary people engaged in common activities. One common definition of a genre scene is that it shows figures to whom no identity can be attached either individually or collectively—thus distinguishing petit genre from history paintings and portraits. A work would often be considered as a genre work even if it could be shown that the artist had used a known person—a member of his family, say—as a model. In this case it would depend on whether the work was likely to have been intended by the artist to be perceived as a portrait—sometimes a subjective question. The depictions can be realistic, imagined, or romanticized by the artist. Because of their familiar and frequently sentimental subject matter, genre paintings have often proven popular with the bourgeoisie, or middle class.

Cittern stringed instrument dating from the Renaissance

The cittern or cithren is a stringed instrument dating from the Renaissance. Modern scholars debate its exact history, but it is generally accepted that it is descended from the Medieval citole. It looks much like the modern-day flat-back mandolin and the modern Irish bouzouki, and is descended from the English Guitar. Its flat-back design was simpler and cheaper to construct than the lute. It was also easier to play, smaller, less delicate and more portable. Played by all classes, the cittern was a premier instrument of casual music-making much as is the guitar today.



The tied-up curtain in the foreground creates the impression that the viewer is looking at an intensely private, personal scene. There is also an element of trompe l'oeil as Dutch paintings were often hung with little curtains to conserve them, and the device of painted curtains is seen in other Dutch works of the period. The diagonals on the chequered floor create the impression of depth and three-dimensionality. The fact that it is a love letter that the woman has received is made clear by the fact that she is carrying a lute (more specifically, a cittern, a member of the lute/guitar family). The lute was a symbol of love - often carnal love; luit was also a slang term for vagina. This idea is further reinforced by the slippers at the very bottom of the picture. The removed slipper was another symbol of sex. The floor brush would appear to represent domesticity, and its placement at the side of the painting may suggest that domestic concerns have been forgotten or pushed aside.

Curtain cloth used to block out light

A curtain is a piece of cloth intended to block or obscure light, or drafts, or water. A curtain is also the movable screen or drape in a theater that separates the stage from the auditorium or that serves as a backdrop.

Diagonal In geometry a line segment joining two nonconsecutive vertices of a polygon or polyhedron

In geometry, a diagonal is a line segment joining two vertices of a polygon or polyhedron, when those vertices are not on the same edge. Informally, any sloping line is called diagonal. The word "diagonal" derives from the ancient Greek διαγώνιος diagonios, "from angle to angle" ; it was used by both Strabo and Euclid to refer to a line connecting two vertices of a rhombus or cuboid, and later adopted into Latin as diagonus.

Three-dimensional space geometric three-parameter model of the physical universe

Three-dimensional space is a geometric setting in which three values are required to determine the position of an element. This is the informal meaning of the term dimension.

The colors blue and gold are important in the composition of the painting. In the household that the The Love Letter takes place in, gilded ornamentation indicates substantial wealth. [1] The gold is located on the woman's dress, the top of the fireplace, and many of the objects, which complements the blue on the floor, the maid's dress, the picture frames, etc. Classical influence is also apparent in the ionic columns of the fireplace.

The two paintings on the wall are also significant. The lower painting is of a stormy sea, a clear metaphor for tempestuous love. Above it is a landscape painting of a traveler on a sandy road. This may refer to the absence of the man who is writing to the lady. [2]

Painting practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a surface

Painting is the practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a solid surface. The medium is commonly applied to the base with a brush, but other implements, such as knives, sponges, and airbrushes, can be used. The final work is also called a painting.

Sea Large body of salt water

The sea, the world ocean or simply the ocean is the connected body of salty water that covers over 70 percent of the Earth's surface. It moderates the Earth's climate and has important roles in the water cycle, carbon cycle, and nitrogen cycle. It has been travelled and explored since ancient times, while the scientific study of the sea—oceanography—dates broadly from the voyages of Captain James Cook to explore the Pacific Ocean between 1768 and 1779. The word "sea" is also used to denote smaller, partly landlocked sections of the ocean.


In the second half of the 17th century, the painting probably found its place in the collection of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth's monarch John III Sobieski. [3] The 1696 inventory of the Wilanów Palace in Warsaw lists among Dutch paintings "a painting of a lady, playing a lute in a golden robe, while a girl gives her a letter in the black frames (obraz damy, grającej na lutni w złotej szacie, a dziewczyna list jey oddaje w ramach czarnych)". [3]

Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth Former European state

The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth – formally, the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and, after 1791, the Commonwealth of Poland – was a dual state, a bi-confederation of Poland and Lithuania ruled by a common monarch, who was both King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. It was one of the largest and most populous countries of 16th– to 17th-century Europe. At its largest territorial extent, in the early 17th century, the Commonwealth covered almost 400,000 square miles (1,000,000 km2) and sustained a multi-ethnic population of 11 million.

John III Sobieski King of Poland, 1674 to 1689

John III Sobieski was King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1674 until his death, and one of the most notable monarchs of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Wilanów Palace royal palace located in the Wilanów district, Warsaw

Wilanów Palace or Wilanowski Palace is a royal palace located in the Wilanów district, Warsaw. Wilanów Palace survived Poland's partitions and both World Wars, and so serves as a reminder of the culture of the Polish state as it was before the misfortunes of the 18th century.


On September 23, 1971, the painting was stolen from its display at The Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, where it was on loan from the Rijksmuseum. The thief, 21-year-old Mario Pierre Roymans, had locked himself in an electrical closet till the museum was closed. He then took the painting off the wall and tried to escape out of a window. However, when the frame failed to fit through the window, he cut the canvas from its frame with a potato peeler and hid the strip in his back pocket. Roymans first concealed the painting in his room at his place of work, The Soetewey (or Soete-Wey) Hotel. Later he buried it in a forest, but when it started to rain, he recovered it and hid it in his room inside his pillowcase.

Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels Belgian cultural institution, arts centre (museum and concert hall) in Brussels

The Centre for Fine Arts is a cultural venue in Brussels, Belgium. Often referred to as "BOZAR" or "PSK", the building was completed in 1929 at the instigation of Henry Le Bœuf (1874–1935) and includes exhibition and conference rooms, a cinema and a concert hall, which serves as home to the National Orchestra of Belgium.

Roymans is thought to have been motivated by news of the bloodshed, rape, and murder in the 1971 Bangladesh genocide. On October 3, 1971, using the name "Tijl van Limburg" (a character similar to Robin Hood), Roymans contacted the Brussels newspaper Le Soir and asked for a reporter to meet him in a forest with a camera. He drove the reporter, blindfolded, to a church and unveiled the painting from a white cloth cover. After letting the reporter take photos of the canvas in the car's headlights, he drove him back. He told the reporter that he actually loved art, but also loved humanity. After the encounter, the pictures were published, alongside Roymans' conditions: 200 million Belgian francs to be given to famine-stricken Bengali refugees in East Pakistan. Roymans also requested the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels organize campaigns in their respective countries to raise money to combat world famine. Roymans set the deadline for Wednesday, October 6.

The police took the photographs as evidence and asked an art expert to validate that they were of the actual painting. It was confirmed they were, but immediately after the confirmation, the director of the Rijksmuseum, Arthur van Schendel said that the photos were not sufficient proof of authenticity. [4] In the following days Roymans continued to make contact with the media; when he was finally apprehended by police, on the day of his deadline, he was trying to call a news station.

The painting was returned to the Rijksmuseum on October 8 but wasn't announced to the public until October 11. It was in very poor condition after being cut out of its stretcher bars and frame. The restoration took almost a year. Roymans was given a court fine and sentenced to two years in prison, but only served six months in the end. [5]

See also

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  1. Wheelock, Arthur (1981). Vermeer. New York: Harry N. Abrams, INC. pp. 110–113.
  2. Patrick de Rynck, How to Read a Painting: Lessons from the Old Masters (Abrams: New York, 2004)
  3. 1 2 Drecka, Wanda (1977). Na tropach obrazów ze zbiorów Jana III Sobieskiego (PDF) (in Polish). Studia Wilanowskie I. p. 135.
  4. Janson, Jonathan. "Vermeer Thefts: The Love Letter".
  5. "Vermeer Thefts: 1971-The Love Letter". 4 September 2015.

Further reading

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