Ladies with Letters: Vermeer’s Letter Writer

Vermeer for blogI confess that I’m one of those philistines who knew very little about Johannes Vermeer until I watched the film, The Girl with a Pearl Earring. And now I will forever picture him as looking exactly like Colin Firth.

The 17th century artist’s legacy resides in a scant 34 paintings, primarily domestic scenes infused with light, such as this exquisite portrait of a woman writing a letter. Vermeer enjoyed a modest career in the Dutch city of Delft during his lifetime, but sank into obscurity until his work was rediscovered in the 19th century.

imagesNote that the woman in yellow wore the same enormous pearl earrings that figured so prominently in the portrait after which the  film was named. From her beribboned hair to her fur trimmed jacket, this was a woman accustomed to a comfortable lifestyle and the funds to purchase luxury items.

Compared to other parts of Europe, citizens of the Dutch Republic enjoyed a higher rate of literacy. The ability of a woman to write her own letters 350 years ago was the exception rather than the rule.

Vermeer detail for blogVermeer’s meticulous style captured a wealth of detail: a pearl necklace with ribbon ties lies on the table, the writer’s quill pen is stained black at the nib, and her beautiful brass bound chest sports drawers with keyholes to lock up her treasures.

What is she writing about to her friends or family? That the servants broke another plate or that the price of fish at the market has risen again or perhaps that her seamstress finished her new yellow coat.

Whatever the news, she conveyed it in style in Vermeer’s richly lighted world.

You can find cards and other items featuring Vermeer’s Letter Writer at the Post Whistle store on Zazzle.  

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Ladies with Letters: Madame de Pompadour

FRancois Boucher -- PompadourIn Wikipedia’s article about Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour, her occupation is listed as “Chief Mistress to Louis XV.”

And perhaps that is the best way to describe her position, a complex job that she filled for 19 years in the intrigue-filled world of the 18th century French court.

Jeanne became the king’s mistress at age 24 and held the official title of Chief Mistress until her death. Even though there were other mistresses, including some introduced to Louis by Madame de Pompadour herself, she maintained her position and influence through wit and charm, and by having several flattering portraits painted of herself to remind the king of her beauty even as age diminished it. Jeanne was also intelligent enough to treat Queen Marie with respect, leading her royal highness to frequently remark, “If there must be a mistress, better her than any other.”

Although Madame de Pompadour is neither reading nor writing a letter in this portrait by François Boucher, the supplies necessary to pen something are near at hand on the bedside table: quill pen, stick of red sealing wax, pot of ink and probably paper stored out of view in the little drawer. Apparently, she favored small sheets of notepaper, edged in gold, for those letters she wrote herself as opposed to those she signed after a secretary drafted them.

I love how her gown is as decorated with ribbons and roses as an old-fashioned wedding cake. Her femininity is also echoed in the lush roses at her feet, but she is careful to display her cultured side as well with books and papers strewn about the room. An opened letter sits on the table, waiting to be answered as soon as Madame de Pompadour finishes one more chapter of the book held in her silken lap.

You can find cards and other items featuring Madame de Pompadour in the Post Whistle store on Zazzle.

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Ladies with Letters: Bad News

Marguerite Gerard - Bad News 1804 zoom in to detailsMarguerite Gerard titled her 1804 painting Bad News, and clearly the woman has just read a surfeit of it. Collapsed in a chair, the offending letter grasped in limp fingers, she has swooned dramatically, unaware of an imminent wardrobe malfunction. Her bodice has slipped low enough to allow a hint of the forbidden (her right side, viewer’s left).

The woman’s letter was sent in a pre-envelope era so we see the paper that wrapped it lying on the floor, the four corners spread wide after the wax seal was broken. I have included a couple of close-ups to examine some of the painting’s rich detail more closely.

Marguerite Gerard - Detail1A young companion holds a bottle of smelling salts, made from an ammonia solution, to the woman’s nose to revive her. As late as World War II, the British Red Cross recommended that workplaces keep them on hand just in case… The young lady, while gowned more simply, is still richly attired with a diadem in her hair as well as a bracelet, brooch and earrings. Their high waisted dresses mark the time as the Regency era, now most frequently associated with Jane Austen films.

Marguerite Gerard - Detail 3The drama of the moment is echoed in the dog, who looks like he might be a King Charles spaniel. Note the slightly hunched back, and tail tucked between his legs. In fact, his behavior probably reflects Part I of the drama before the woman sank into her chair. Did she shriek, shout, drop her handkerchief to the floor before her collapse? Whatever happened, It’s clear that her little companion is not coming close enough to nuzzle her hand.

Dumont_-_Marguerite_GérardWhile Marguerite also painted portraits and miniatures, she is known best for her domestic genre work. Both sister-in-law and student of artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, she enjoyed a successful career in her own right with her work being acquired by several illustrious clients, including Napoleon and King Louis XVII.

Francois Dumont painted such a lovely portrait of Marguerite that I decided to include it along with her painting, perhaps as an apology for taking her work less seriously than it was intended. I can’t help adding my own caption to the scene: “Don’t faint…I sent you a letter.”

Cards with the Bad News image (along with less serious captions) are available at the Postwhistle Shop on Zazzle.

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Ladies with Letters: How Shall I Reply?

Sir Luke FildesThe tip of a quill pen pressed against her lower lip, this brown-eyed girl muses, “How shall I reply?” to the letter she holds in her hand. Her own stationery rests on a green leather blotter on the writing desk. A silver pot holds either ink (but no stopper) or sand for blotting.

Perhaps the young woman sits at a table rather than a desk. Knowing my own desk clutter, it’s hard to believe that highly polished surface is kept clear at all times of everything but one blotter and a silver pot!

Of course, quill pens were no longer the writing instrument of choice by the latter half of the 19th century when Sir Samuel Luke Fildes painted this charming portrait. Pens with metal tips had been mass produced for decades. However, the soft tip of a feather pressed against her lip evokes a very different mood than a wood and metal pen. Everything about her is soft, from the tendrils of hair curling at her forehead to the wispy, lace-edged scarf tucked around her bodice. Her dreamy reverie is the personification of innocence and perhaps young love.

Fildes, a British artist, was born in 1843 — the beginning of the Victorian age. Strongly influenced by the social realist movement as a young man, he joined the staff of The Graphic, a social reform weekly dedicated to the idea that visual images could help alter public opinion. In other words, if people saw the plight of the downtrodden, they might be more willing to support charities that helped them.

The 26-year-old Fildes provided black and white illustrations of London’s poor. His drawing of people lined up to spend the night in a shelter inspired Charles Dickens to commission Fildes to illustrate his final (unfinished) novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Edward_VII_in_coronation_robesFildes left The Graphic after a year to work on his oil painting full time. In stark contrast with his dark depictions of London’s slums, he turned his attention to romanticized scenes of life in Venice, joining a group of artists loosely referred to as the Neo-Venetian school. Fildes also painted numerous portraits, including the young woman with a pen.

Edward VII knighted Fildes in 1906. Was it because the king really liked the artist’s well-known portrait of him in full coronation robes? Always flatter the monarch.

For your own writing needs, you can find Fildes’ charming painting — as well as other Ladies with Letters images — on cards and other products at the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle. 

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Ladies with Letters: Message in a Bottle

Sir John Everett Millais-message-in-a-bottleI’ve been a beachcomber since I was a little girl, walking the tideline to pick up shells and wave-polished glass. I’ve braided strands of sea grass into bracelets, thrown living starfish back into the ocean and gathered sand dollars by moonlight. However, one ocean treasure that has eluded me is a message in a bottle.

Sir John Everett Millais painted “Message from the Sea” in 1884 when he was 55 years old.  A founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Millais had been the youngest student ever (at age 11) to enter the Royal Academy Schools. By the latter half of the 19th century, he was one of the wealthiest and most successful artists of his day.

The barefoot girl is obviously from a working class family, from her inexpensive, rumpled clothing to the basket strapped to her back for gathering seaweed or shellfish. Her lace edged cap reminds me of traditional Breton dress. Millais’ family lived in Brittany, France for a few years during his childhood, so perhaps he modeled her on the children he remembered from that region.

Did she find the bottle at low tide and break it open on the stone block where she is sitting? Perhaps the remains of a disused breakwater or pier, her seaweed-covered perch must be submerged for much of the day. Who threw the bottle off a ship, a fisherman, sailor or trader sending one last letter “home” before steaming away for distant ports? Or is it from young lovers sharing their passion with the world? Whoever the author, the language is French if a young Breton girl can read it.

Even today when we can connect with strangers on the internet and text our friends and family from every corner of the Earth, the idea of letting chance and the waves carry a handwritten message to someone unknown holds a powerful allure.

If you’d like to share this image with friends by more traditional mailing methods, cards featuring the painting — and other Ladies with Letters images — are available in the Post Whistle store on Zazzle.

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Ladies with Letters: Ups and Downs of Hair

Otto Franz ScholdererAlthough dressed as an elegant young woman, the subject in this painting entitled “Girl with a Letter” is wearing her hair loose under her charming velvet hat, something only an adolescent girl would do in the Victorian era.

Yet, look at the ring worn on the ring finger of her left hand. Is she engaged or promised? Then there are the roses in her lap, perhaps sent with the letter. Would a girl old enough for such romances still wear her hair down?

Pinning up one’s hair was a rite of passage for young women, making the mismatch between her attire and her hair puzzling. The fact that she has put on a hat also indicates that she is definitely dressed to leave the house, so it’s not a case of wearing casual attire in her own boudoir.

Wavy HairWhatever the reason she wore her hair loose, I feel a kinship with those wavy — slightly frizzy — locks. My own curly hair drove me crazy for years before I gave up the battle and admitted straight hair was not for me.

A German artist named Otto Scholderer painted the long-haired girl. Born in Frankfurt in 1834, his career took him to Kronberg, Dusseldorf, Munich, Paris and London, where he lived from 1871 until 1899, nearly half his life. Scholderer counted Edouard Manet as one of his friends, and possibly one of his artistic influences.

For your own writing needs, cards depicting Scholderer’s painting are available at the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle.

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Ladies with Letters: Woman in White

Thomas Benjamin Kennington -- blogThe first thing you notice is the layer upon layer of white in this portrait by Thomas Benjamin Kennington; the second is the hair. Or rather at first glance what appears to be a magnificent mountain of hair. It’s actually a hat, some feathery confection that perches on her head like a curled up pet. I wonder about that choice of hat. Everything else is so serene, bright, frothy. Sunlight gilds her letter, the leaves, her cheeks and forehead. Light spills down her dress and pools in her lap. She exists in a spun sugar world of white. Then there’s the hat.

Kennington was born in Grimsby, England, and studied art in the 19th century in Liverpool, London and Paris. He painted not only idealized domestic settings like this, but also scenes of society’s less fortunate with titles like “Homeless” and “Orphans.” To modern eyes, those works appear idealized as well, but they played on the sensibilities of Victorian society. Who knows, perhaps his more socially realistic paintings tugged on corseted heartstrings enough to elicit larger donations for the poor.

And perhaps the hat in this portrait is another nod to realism, a touch of the matter-of-fact to serve as counterpoint to the glowing unreality of the woman in white.

Cards with this image, and other products, are available at the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle.

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Ladies with Letters: By the Sea

Alexander Mark Rossi 1894When I visit the beach, I am almost as covered up as these three ladies in their Victorian gowns. Long gone are my childhood days of scrabbling over mussel-encrusted boulders, the wind whipping my hair against my face. Older and maybe an inch wiser, I sit under an umbrella, a skirt protecting pale legs, my toes burrowing into the sand.

In my bag of water, grapes, hardboiled eggs and sunblock is a book. It’s always there, but I seldom read more than a page or two.

The waves hypnotize me, roaring with the collapse of a billion bubbles. What do you call that shade of green in the deep hollow of the curl, or that shimmering translucence right before it breaks? And yet the distant water is blue, blue and bluer still until the horizon melts into the sky.

I watch seagulls steal chips from the young mother snapping photos of her child and search for the flash of dolphins, which sometimes arc through the surf just offshore. Pelicans fly overhead in a V formation, their shadows gliding across the sand like bombers in WWII news reels.

The glare and salt and whoosh make me drowsy beyond measure, but I don’t close my eyes. I look at everything…except the pages of my book.

That’s why, as much as I enjoy this 1894 painting by Alexander Mark Rossi, I can’t picture myself as one of the three women ignoring the sea behind them.

The painting is (inevitably) entitled “The Love Letter,” so they must be sisters rather than a mother and her daughters. With her hair pinned up, the middle woman is clearly older than the girls whose hair streams down their backs. An envelope lies on the rock, and a little sailboat floats forgotten in a puddle—perhaps a comment on leaving behind childish things for more “grown-up” pursuits like romance.

In the background a barefoot woman with a basket on her back appears to be looking for something, clams perhaps or seaweed? And on the horizon, a ship trails smoke as it steams away from port.

Rossi was born in Corfu in 1840, the son of an Italian judge, and emigrated to London in the 1870s. Over the next 30 years he exhibited 66 works at the Royal Academy, often painting children and young adults, many modeled on his own family members.

Cards and other products featuring this painting are available in the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle.

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Ladies with Letters: The Mending

Eugen_von_Blaas_-_The_Love_Letter_1904The heaped basket says there’s work to be done, but who can think of mending when spring is in the air and someone has a love letter to share. That’s right, it’s another piece entitled The Love Letter, this one painted by Eugene von Blaas in 1904. An Italian painter born to Austrian parents, von Blaas made his home in Venice.

Unlike the wealthier subjects of most paintings that pose ladies with letters, these young women appear to be servants or members of a more modest household. I love how each woman reacts differently to the letter. The one on the left looks as if caught mid question—”So who is he, Maria? Has he kissed you yet?” The dark haired beauty in the yellow kerchief appears to hang on every word. Her companion raises one hand to her chin, eyes shyly downcast. Is the letter too steamy for her modest ears?

As for the young woman reading aloud, her red stockings and cheeky half smile depict a lively and engaging personality. Behind them, trees blossom in a cloud of pink and white.

Centuries may pass, but talking over boys with the girls never changes.

Cards with this image are available at the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle.

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Ladies with Letters: Roses for You

charles_trevor_garland blogWhether you’re celebrating as a mother or with your mother tomorrow, or remember making cards and picking flowers for her years ago, Happy Mother’s Day!

When my daughter was seven, she made me breakfast in bed for Mother’s Day, proudly telling me how she toasted the bread three times in a row to “make it extra crispy.” Now that she’s grown, I request homemade scones in lieu of extra crispy toast. Do you remember making breakfast in bed for your mom?

Charles Trevor Garland painted this charming portrait of a young girl holding roses and a ribbon-bound letter.  A 19th century British painter, he often depicted children and pets, two themes dear to the hearts of his Victorian audience.

Cards and other products featuring this painting are available in the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle.

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Happy Mother’s Day