Mistress and Maid by Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer

Mistress and Maid, 1666−67, Oil on canvas, 90.2 x 78.7 cm, The Frick Collection, New York; Henry Clay Frick Bequest, 1919.1.126, Frick Collection, New York, USA / Bridgeman Images

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Nocturnal Movements

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
John Handley

Do not stir up nor awaken love until it pleases.
(Song of Solomon 3:5)

Johannes Vermeer presents a scene filled with mystery in his Mistress and Maid, painted around 1667. A master at painting light, he has shifted from his more typical scenes representing softly diffused daylight streaming through leaded glass windows, and given us instead a dramatically-shadowed space illuminated to reveal little more than the immediate exchange taking place.

Vermeer depicts the bare essentials of an implied story: a finely-dressed woman is seated at her desk, having just now been interrupted from her letter-writing by the arrival of her maid who emerges from the shadows. Although we cannot see more than her profile, the bemusement of the Mistress is apparent: while laying down her pen she raises her left hand to her chin, a sign of apprehension.

The maid’s face is clearly visible, her eyes lowered, lips parted, she appears to whisper something; a slight grin on her face suggesting she might know something about the author of the letter but dare not tell, echoing the suspense in Song of Solomon 3:1.

The unopened letter is offered in a gentle gesture, as if to negotiate the space between them: the letter, bright white, hovers at an equal distance between the faces of the women, creating a sense of mystery. To whom is the Mistress writing so late at night? And who has written to her? Why is she so finely dressed, adorned with pearls, her hair delicately fixed? Is she awaiting the arrival of someone? Or perhaps her guests have recently left? We do not know.

The tension of waiting, and of longing late into the night, are conveyed in both the Song of Solomon and Mistress and Maid. As such, the text can imbue our experience of viewing this painting, and vice versa.