Mistress and Maid is a genre painting by Dutch Golden Age artist Johannes Vermeer. It was created in 1666. This work is located in The Frick Collection in New York City.
The painting represents Johannes Vermeer’s lifelong dedication to elegant scenes of the everyday lives of mostly wealthy people, usually involving female characters intent on displaying, deliberately or unwittingly, an important aspect of their existence.
In this case, the event we are observing in Mistress and Maid is clearly playing out without its participants being aware of themselves, or us.
A maid is handing a letter to her lady who, interrupted in the act of writing, has looked up from the paper before her, over which she has dropped her pen, and brought her left hand to her chin. The hand and the half-open mouth make us think that the lady is either thrilled or distressed at receiving the letter.
But the maid’s serenity reassures us at once that the contents of the envelope cannot be truly bad. Indeed, the half-allusion we imagine in the maid’s face, combined with the lady’s excitement, has made many a spectator instinctively decide that the letter must be a love letter.
Vermeer has therefore transformed an occurrence of manifest triviality — the delivery and reception of a letter — into a surprisingly intimate space. We believe we read something in the two women’s faces, and we wonder. We perceive our presence, for a moment, as being that of intruders upon a private event.
This is a genre painting, displaying a scene of someone’s everyday life and telling us something by means of concrete elements of scenery and identifiable human acts. With typical realism, Vermeer allows us to observe the pen and paper under the lady’s hand, and then an inkwell and an inkpot on a tray beside.
The wooden case further left is likely where all of these instruments were stored. Writing, we are reminded today, is a complex procedure in the Baroque.
One expectation of Vermeer’s style that Mistress and Maid disappoints is the studiously elaborate background, here entirely absent. We are presented with the two figures in light surrounded by utter darkness. The cause, rather than being stylistic, was most likely that the artwork, painted in Vermeer’s late years, never had the fortune of being finished.
The absolute darkness in which Vermeer would thus appear to have generated his subjects seems to confirm the assumption that he relied on a procedure inspired by the camera obscura – especially for Mistress and Maid.
The camera obscura for Dutch painters would have primarily been a portable box with a hole on one side through which light could pass and project an illuminated vision of the object on one side of the hole. Vermeer is thought to have not only used the camera obscura to visualize the impacts of light on objects, but he may have even had a system of several mirrors to amplify the projections of the camera obscura method and visualize complex stationary objects, like still-lives, from several angulations.
Looking at Mistress and Maid we can readily imagine how a conical projection of light from the lower left-hand side might have come onto the scene from a single circular passage.
It may also explain why areas in light in such paintings as this, where an object is strongly impacted, appear as patches out of focus. The particular distance of their different parts from that single source of light would be responsible for this.
Yet precisely because of its exceptional decontextualization, Mistress and Maid allows us to admire in purer form the virtuosity of Vermeer’s brushstroke and the effect of strong lighting, all from one side and all cold, which can only fail to impress if we have seen it often elsewhere in his collection.
We absorb ourselves easily in the lady’s canary-yellow vest with furred edges, her necklace and earring, Vermeer-Esque chignon, and expressive profile. The jewelry is glinting in the shine; the creases in the vest are expressly distinct and recognizable one by one, despite the pools of white wrought by the illumination from the left.
For a comparison see Study of a Young Woman, a.k.a. Girl with a Veil (c. 1667), a perfect contemporary of Mistress and Maid. The soft lines of the young woman there are similarly invested by white light from the left. The features of her face are largely dissolved and, if she had any eyebrows, they do not appear at all.
Vermeer’s light thereby obliterates the detail to delineate the essential form. Like in Mistress and Maid, in Girl with a Veil too, and even more strongly, we feel we are in the presence of a human personality we can understand.
Mistress and Maid was likely sold at the 1696 auction in Amsterdam alongside many other Vermeer paintings. It belonged to several European collections prior to its purchase in 1919 by the magnate Henry Clay Frick. It was one of the last purchases which he personally inducted into the Frick Collection, today in New York City.