The following essay was written by an actual WCC student. There are many problems with the writing (English was not his first language), but the essay reflects a strong understanding of course concepts, and I like the fact that the student clearly used his own words to communicate what he learned. He did not just paraphrase information. Additionally, his analysis of the work shows that he really looked at it closely, and he makes some very insightful observations about how it was painted, and about its meaning.
Jan Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, 1657.
Oil on canvas, 25.39” x 32.68”. Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany
The Catholic Church has been a powerful institution since its establishment; through history the church has taken a dominant role in people’s lives and controlling their perception of life. The church became a luxurious institution that demanded a lot of money for their expansion, and personal lavish from its members to show their wealth and power over the people. Seeing all of this a German priest named Martin Luther saw in Rome the poor condition of the people and the abused of the church, and how they charged for their way into heaven. Luther believed that the actions of the pope and those below him were against the principles of Christianity and violated the faith of those who believe in the church and its leaders. He pronounced against this kind of practice from the Catholic Church through his Ninety-Five Theses. In his theses he revolted against the sales of indulgences, and other flaws that he pointed from the church. The disillusion that Martin Luther felt as a result of those flaws he pointed out, the protestant Reformation flourish as a new answer to clean Christianity from the pope for his failures of keeping the church as a spiritual institution rather than a controlling money making. This movement spread out rapidly throughout northern Europe during the 16th century.
Art and the church had walked hand in hand through most of history, art was used as advertising medium for the church to show the messages of the holy bible, but also revealed the power that it had. The protestant Reformation was against sacred images since they believe that true religion was the interaction between God and the individual. The United Dutch Republic was an early democratic nation mainly populated by middle class people dominantly protestant, due to restriction of religious images Dutch artist developed new themes to paint and master them to perfection. Some of the themes were: landscapes, still life, and domestic scenes, these were categorized as genre paintings. Artist like Jacob Van Ruisdael focusing on landscape paintings, portraying the growing economy of the Dutch, another well-known artist was Rembrandt, also known as the master of light and shadow. He was able to developed new techniques that used light and shadows to show a more psychological interior of the subject rather than the superficial, which relates to the believe of protestant of inner self connection with the divine. And lastly Jan Vermeer, he focused mainly on domestic scenes where he explores color techniques, and developed the study of “camera obscura to study the effects of light and color” (class notes.) This new study revealed that shadows were not gray but they were composed of opaque colors, making him not only a great artist but also a great scientist as well as a result of his observation of light.
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, a work by Jan Vermeer dating to 1657, is currently at Gemäldegalerie in Dresden. This piece like most of his work is an interior domestic scene reflecting the popular themes of the time and the effects of Reformation in art. The girl stands near the window to allow the light that is coming in to help her read the letter that she is holding in her hands. Her calmness is perceived by the motionless of her face as she concentrating on the letter, she stands firmly like a statue but at the same time as fragile like a feather, the softness achieved by Vermeer by the light reflecting in her face. As if she keeps reading her life is illuminating, bring her peace and relief. Her hidden urgency to read the letter is shown in the undone duties assigned to her like making the table, since it looks like she left the job half way done as the red rug covering the table is folded creating small hills holding a plate filled with fruits. Vermeer tells us that the rug it is not local but oriental since it has many patter and vivid colors that are not typical of 16th century Dutch. Her reflection on the open window reveals another perspective of her calmness, the same the room absorbers the light to give some color to the pale naked wall. The purity of the work establishes the state of mind of the girl and at the same time of the artist. He wanted to portrait a common scene of a girl who seems to beholding the most valuable thing in her life with clear mind that she forgets everything around her.
The great amount detail of Vermeer’s work is a characteristic that made him a master of the Dutch genre painting of his time. The roughness of the red rug on the table is reflected by a heavy texture and the way is laying on the table even capable of holding the plate in a diagonal direction, making it the only unstable object in the painting since the fruits are falling. The bright yellow coming from the window vacuums all of her expression leaving an emotionless tender face. He balanced the composition through the used of colorful objects such the warm red folded curtain on top of the window frame and the heavy like red rug on the table creating as a sort of frame that encloses the girl as the focus of the piece. Vermeer accomplished a realist look mostly through the folds of the amber yellow curtain hanging at the right side of the piece; it has a rigid and smooth surface that is interrupted by wrinkles at the lower end of it. The curtain and the girl share a significant characteristic of having a smooth surface, but a rig personality. The bared wall has a muted brown color receiving a vast amount of light creating serenity mood complementing to her reaction as she reads the letter.
The Dutch genre paintings were a response to the Reformation that was spreading at northern Europe. A nation with a majority of protestant, this kind of painting became very popular among middle class Dutch to show their wealth and importance in society. The church during the Reformation abandoned the patronage for art due to their belief that was forbidden to impersonate religious images. This was a reaction towards the Catholic Church used of art which later emerged a conflict between how to keep Catholics faithful and how to get away from religious imageries that were distracting the faithful. It is clear that art was a powerful medium and whoever control it wanted to get as much as possible out it. The statuses of artist rose because they were capable of interpreting religious ideologies, or make people conscious of what really matters when it comes to the real core of what religion should serve the people.