One of the most exhilarating—perhaps even the most exhilarating—experience after months of planning and envisioning a new configuration of paintings in a gallery is the instant when the long-awaited new arrival takes its place on the wall and becomes a catalyst, changing how we perceive perfectly familiar paintings. Sometimes with breathtaking immediacy, and sometimes more incrementally, the relationships between works are transformed, and individual characteristics emerge or recede in response.
On Saturday, when Vermeer’s exquisite Woman in Blue Reading a Letter took her place in the center of our large gallery of Dutch paintings, rearranged for the occasion, the impact was intriguingly complex: she seemed calmly at home, while simultaneously introducing a strong, distinctive new presence.
The highly structured, almost geometric quality of Woman in Blue Reading a Letter is even more apparent here than in Amsterdam, where I last saw it in the Rijksmuseum’s conservation studio. We know that Vermeer adjusted the contours of the woman’s jacket and the left vertical edge of the map to achieve the compelling balance between fields of the white wall, strong horizontals such as the map rail, and the solid vertical of the woman in blue herself. Unlike its home environment at the Rijksmuseum, which includes three other works by Vermeer (shown below), the clarity and insistence of the composition has no parallel in the works of Vermeer’s contemporaries hanging nearby here at the Getty.
By comparison, Jan Steen’s The Drawing Lesson, which hangs to the left of the Woman in Blue, seems messy and far less serene than before (appropriate to the subject and the painter of brilliant wit), while the quiet interiority of the elegantly dressed young woman in Gerard Ter Borch’s The Music Lesson resonates clearly with his friend Vermeer’s sensibility.
Observing the striking monumentality of Woman in Blue, a colleague remarked, “the composition is so powerful—almost abstract, it would even look beautiful hanging upside down!”
As the painting settles in for the first week of her six-week stay with us, I’ll be examining the power of Vermeer from a variety of angles (though not upside down).
Connect with more “Power of Vermeer” content from this week’s Getty Voices:
- Wim Pijbes, director general of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and Tim Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in conversation in front of the lady herself
- The imagined text of what must have been a powerful letter, Dear “Woman in Blue,” Let Me Tell You of…
- What makes Vermeer great? Curator of Paintings, Scott Schaefer, answers with the idea of questioning.