'This is a whole operatic scene, full of drama and beauty, crying out for enactment at The Grange'

michael chance

The Love Letter, 1669–70, by Johannes Vermeer (1632–75), 18¼in by 15¾in, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Michael Chance says:
Singing Elizabethan lute songs around the world has been a thoroughly enjoyable part of my performing life. They are intense private expressions of passion, full of wit and delicious conceits. I love how the lutenist in this engrossing painting leaves her left hand still in correct position while looking up, a little startled, as the maid gives her the letter. The contents are likely to match both the intimacy of the scene on which Vermeer invites us secretly to eavesdrop and the essence of the music so recently interrupted. This
is a whole operatic scene, full of drama and beauty, crying out for enactment at The Grange.’

Michael Chance is an internationally renowned countertenor and teacher and the Artistic Director of The Grange Festival, which opens its first season June 7, 2017

John McEwen comments on The Love Letter:
Vermeers are a popular choice for this page. Neglected for two centuries, his paintings certainly con-
form to the Modernist taste for order and restraint, for the formal qualities of a picture more than the story it tells. Vermeer does not tell stories. This is an exception.

The pictures within the picture signal that the letter, delivered by the maid, is a love letter. The seascape is the first clue. In the 17th century, the sea was often poetically equated with love, the lover with a ship. The allusion is emphasised by the landscape with its wanderer, another poetic image of love. Both ship and wanderer speak of exile and yearning for reunion.

Dutch pictures of this, the Golden Age of Dutch art—a consequence of the apogee of the marine and mercantile power of the Netherlands—are loaded with symbols and the spoils of imperial success. The pictures have frames made from ebony imported from the Dutch East Indies and the marble, luxurious curtain and the mistress’s silk dress all suggest foreign imports. The pictures themselves are testimony to solid burgher prosperity, the product of international dominance, from which Vermeer, as artist and dealer, benefited.

However, that does not explain the skill that magically transforms this mundane scene. For that, one must consider the rendering of the battered and stained woodwork. The subtle geometries that harmonise the severe lines framing the door with the whole. The sumptuous curtain that, when dropped, will stifle the keenest draught. The touches of colour, the play of light that, with the broom and discarded slippers, lend their own vernal symbolism to the scene.