Exercise #1 – Answers

Mistress and Maid (c.1667), by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), Frick Collection, New York

Q.1 What is going on in this painting?

A. A richly dressed woman, seated at a table covered with blue (silk?) cloth is interrupted while writing a letter, by the entrance of her maid carrying another letter. The rich yellow clothing of the  jacket of ermine fur and velvet, the elegant intricate hairstyle interwoven with pearls, the pearl earrings and necklace, the pale fair skin, all convey that this woman is of a higher social class to that of the maid (ruddy olive skin, part of her right arm shows exposure to the sun, the plain unadorned dress and dark hair pulled back severely from her face). 

(we can recognise different materials by the skill of the painter but also by our inbuilt memory of the experience of touching them i.e. we ‘see’ by touch)

Q.2 What does the expression of the seated woman convey?

A. Her expression and gesture of her left hand is one of slight anxiety & surprise (recognized by our own experience). It appears that this is an unexpected event. It is implied  that it is more than a bill or some other household matter. Perhaps she was writing to someone special? A husband? A lover? Had something happened?

Q. 3. Where is the light coming from?

A. The light is coming from the top left of the painting because of the way the forehead of the maid is brighter on the right than the left and the way it falls on the face and clothing of the mistress and the tablecloth. The desk also casts a shadow onto the front of her dress.

Q. 4 How many windows are there in the room?

A. There are three: the one at the top left corner outside of the frame and the other two which are reflected in the ink wells on the writing desk.

This is an example of a ‘genre’ painting i.e. the subject is a scene from ordinary life