In this intimate candlelit scene, a young woman, seated in the privacy of her bedchamber, leans over her writing desk to compose a letter. Wearing a white linen cap and a fur-trimmed velvet jacket over a tight-fitting bodice, she responds to the two-page missive that lies opened on the small, foreground table. With a brass inkwell near at hand, she carefully places the tip of her elegant quill pen at the top of a sheet of paper while steadying it with her other hand. The candlelight, domestic setting, and faint smile animating her face leave little doubt that this correspondence is amorous in nature.1
Frans van Mieris (1635–1681) painted this endearing scene around 1670, at a time, relatively late in his career, when he made a number of paintings of young women engaged in the letter-writing process.2 Many of these epistolary scenes are illuminated by candlelight, a light source that suggests both privacy and intimacy—although, in one instance, the flame of the candle also serves to melt the end of a red wax stick that the woman will use to seal her letter.3 A Young Woman Writing a Letter is the only painting among these works that explicitly depicts the receiving and subsequent writing of a letter, underscoring the sentiment of mutuality. In Van Mieris’s other painted images, the letter to which the sitter responds is only implied or, if visible, not given this central role. Here, he emphasized the physical presence of the letter in the foreground through the striking patterns of light and shadow created by its complex network of creases. These diagonally interlocking folds, which the young woman’s correspondent made to prevent others from reading its contents, signal the amorous nature of their exchange.4 Adjacent to the letter is a wooden sealing wax stamp, which is ready for the young woman’s use once she finishes her reply, a subtle reference to the continuing correspondence between her and her distant loved one.
The letter motif first appeared in Dutch painting in the 1630s, but it reached the height of its popularity around mid-century with the innovative thematic and stylistic contributions of Gerard Ter Borch (1617–81).5 The Deventer artist’s genre scenes of upper-class men and women reading, writing, and dispatching letters in elegant interiors reflected the taste for “modern” subject matter that was often associated with themes of love.6 An important painting in this context is Ter Borch’s depiction of his half-sister, Gesina, deeply absorbed in a letter on the table before her (fig 1). With his careful attention to such details as the oriental carpet pushed aside to clear the writing surface, the open inkwell, and the graceful way in which she holds the quill pen, Ter Borch evoked a shared intimacy between subject and viewer in this tranquil scene.
Ter Borch’s letter writers provided an important model for Van Mieris as well as for several of his contemporaries in the 1660s and 1670s, including Gabriel Metsu (1629–67), Caspar Netscher (ca. 1639–84), and Johannes Vermeer (1632–75), each of whom also explored a range of the psychological and emotional reactions that arise from the exchange of letters. In Gabriel Metsu’s Elegant Lady at Writing at Her Desk in The Leiden Collection, for example, the sitter, who has been interrupted from writing, holds her quill pen above the inkwell and, with a bemused expression, gazes directly at the viewer (fig 2).7 By involving the beholder in this narrative moment, Metsu imbued his scene with a strikingly different—and more dramatic—character than the private inner worlds depicted by Ter Borch and Van Mieris.
The great interest in portraying letter themes reflected the increasing use of letters as a form of personal correspondence in the seventeenth century. While advances in the postal system made the sending of letters more reliable in the Dutch Republic, letter writing manuals, which first emerged in France, also helped to popularize epistolary exchange.8 Like Jean Puget de la Serre’s Le Secrétaire à la mode, one of the most widely read manuals in this period (published in French in 1630 and translated into Dutch in 1651), these books provided models for composing various types of correspondence, especially love letters. In his text, Puget de la Serre stressed the importance of responding point by point to the letter that one has received.9 The thoughtful way that the woman in the Leiden Collection painting begins to compose her letter—keeping her lover’s close by her side for reference—emphasizes the measured and delicate approach that was required for this private task.
The intimate character of A Young Woman Writing a Letter is closely related to its distinctive brushwork and muted palette of grays, browns, ochres, and purple.10 Van Mieris executed this painting with mostly fluid, thin brushstrokes, in some areas in only one or two layers, and left the brown ground layer exposed in certain places to enhance the effect of shadow, as in the darker areas along the side of the woman’s neck and beneath the folded corners of the letter in the foreground. This unusual technique has led Quentin Buvelot to raise the possibility that the painting was not finished, yet the careful and nuanced manner with which Van Mieris approached the composition—and the presence of the artist’s signature—indicates otherwise.11 In the flesh tones and sleeve of the woman’s jacket, for example, he layered his brushwork densely and modeled the folds of her sleeve wet-in-wet with a deep shade of purple.12 He executed the rest of composition more broadly and used the restrained palette to capture the warm tonalities of flickering candlelight in a darkened chamber. The intimacy of the scene would have also been enhanced by the panel’s original arched shape (fig 3), a format favored by the artist that helped to draw the subject closer to the beholder.13
A Young Woman Writing a Letter’s muted colors and subtle lighting effects are reminiscent of the technique of grisaille, a manner of painting that emphasizes the modeling of forms through light and shadow without the use of color.14 Although Van Mieris’s palette is more varied in this scene, he clearly intended the restrained colors to enhance the quiet, nocturnal setting and imbue the painting with a warm, seductive quality.15 Interestingly, scholars have not addressed the work’s near-monochromatic palette, despite the fact that the earliest known references to the painting in the eighteenth century characterize it as having been made “in ’t graauw” (“in gray”) or “camayeuse,” terms that were used to describe paintings in monochrome.16 As one of Van Mieris’s only works rendered in this manner, A Young Woman Writing a Letter demonstrates his exceptional effort to seek new pictorial solutions for the depiction of the letter theme, creating a tender, meditative moment through the masterful effects of light and color.
That early collectors treasured this painting’s pictorial qualities is evident in its remarkable provenance. After having been in the collection of the notable Dutch collector Gerard Bicker van Zwieten II (1687–1753) in The Hague in the first part of the eighteenth century, A Young Woman Writing a Letter was acquired by aristocratic Swiss collector and banker François Tronchin (1704–98).17 Tronchin, who mingled with elite intellectual and cultural circles in Geneva and Paris, had purchased the painting by at least 1761, the year in which he compiled a handwritten inventory of his collection.18 In 1770, he sold the painting, together with ninety-four other works from his collection, to Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (1729–96).19 Van Mieris’s painting remained in the imperial palace in St. Petersburg until the Russian Revolution in 1917, at which point it was transferred to the State Hermitage Museum until its eventual sale in 1929.20 Van Mieris’s small masterpiece subsequently passed through multiple private hands before being was acquired by The Leiden Collection in 2021.21