CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Love letters: Dutch paintings of letter themes in the age of Vermeer

Exhibition: 17 January - 28 April 2004

From the museum press release of 11 April 2003

The Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, USA, is organizing an exhibition entitled Love letters: Dutch paintings of letter themes in the age of Vermeer in partnership with the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Comprised of approximately 45 paintings drawn from European and American collections, the show examines the sudden interest among Dutch painters in scenes involving letters, their writing, dictation, delivery and reception. Following its opening at the National Gallery (10/1/03-12/31/01), the exhibition will have its only showing in the United States at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut from January 17, 2004 through April 18, 2004.

Never before has an exhibition been organized that explored this theme exclusively, and presented such a variety and range of works to illustrate for the public how genre painting reflects important developments in Dutch history and culture. In addition, the exhibition brings to America works of art from public and private collections throughout the world, including from such venerable Dutch collections as the Rijksmuseum and The Mauritshuis.

A broad range of educational programming will accompany the exhibition, including lectures by leading scholars in the field of 17th-century Dutch art and culture, Family Day events, studio classes for children, and guided tours for youth and adults. The Museum anticipates over 50,000 people will attend the exhibition and related programming during its run in Greenwich.

Museum information

Holland was the most literate country in Europe in the 17th century, the foremost center of publishing, and the focus of an explosion of epistolary activity. At this time the notion that writing letters could convey private feelings and emotions, as opposed to issuing public proclamations or mere commercial information, captured the popular imagination and transformed written communications among individuals.

The subject of letter writing became increasingly popular in art starting in the 1650s through the masterful works of artists like Gerard ter Borch, Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer. The works of these artists will be featured with images of figures writing, dictating, receiving, sending, and reading letters. Officers thoughtfully dictate to scribes or write themselves, while companion paintings feature images of ladies who are the glad recipients of these missives from the front. The introduction of pendants linking the sender and receiver of the letter was an invention that underscored the reciprocity and intimacy of letters.

The catalogue will investigate the contextual relationship of the letter theme to such cultural developments as the spread of literacy, the establishment of a reliable and widespread postal delivery system, the rise of an epistolary literature, and the importation and translation of letter writing manuals. From Westerbaen’s translation into Dutch of Ovid’s Heroides to the multiple French and Dutch editions of Puget de la Serre’s Secrétaire à la Mode (the most popular letter writing manual of the 17th century), the literature of the period attests to the allure and mystique of letter writing.

The exhibition will also examine the ways in which the content of the unseen letter is subtly conveyed through such time-honored devices as the painting-within-the-painting; Dirck Hals painted companion pieces that juxtapose a woman seated contentedly with a letter before a calm seascape with a woman swaying and tearing up a letter before a marine painting of rough seas. Some letter scenes convey the idea of the vanity of letter writing, while others by Jan Steen and Quirijn Brekelenkam use the letter as a prop in the traditional theme of the doctor’s visit to the lovesick maiden. Some letter scenes depict highborn women tantalizingly composing letters in their boudoirs. Other scenes seem to depict figures reading letters out loud, either to an unlettered audience or merely to share the pleasure of the communication. Many paintings by Frans van Mieris, de Hooch, Vermeer and others simply depict the beauty of the contemplative activity of the solitary figure reading or writing a letter. Finally a few paintings that depict history-painting subjects but in the guise of genre (e.g. Nicolas Knüpfer’s Sophonisba, and Steen’s Bathsheba) will be included to underscore the literary associations that sometimes resonated through traditional letter themes.


Love letters: Dutch genre paintings in the age of Vermeer
Peter C. Sutton, Lisa Vergara and Ann Jensen Adams, with contributions by Jennifer M. Kilian and Marjorie E. Wieseman
Catalogue of an exhibition held in 2003 in Dublin (National Gallery of Ireland) and in 2003-04 in Greenwich (Bruce Museum)
208 pp.
London (Frances Lincoln) 2003
ISBN 0-7112-2338-6 (hardbound)
ISBN 0-9720736-6-3 (paperbound)

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