How Did Johannes Vermeer Depict Women?

Many works by Johannes Vermeer show a singular female figure, some as a portrait with other paintings showing them doing everyday tasks.

May 2, 2024By Tyla Jade Whiteley, MSc Global Premodern Art, BA (Hons) History of Art

how johannes vermeer depict women


Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) is one of the best-known Dutch artists from the seventeenth century. Some of his most recognizable paintings feature a female subject. A lot of these artworks show a woman completing a daily task, such as reading a letter or making something out of lace. Vermeer’s works of art are extremely lifelike. In many cases, he created the impression that the audience is viewing private, personal moments.


Johannes Vermeer and The Mysterious Letters

girl reading letter open window vermeer painting
A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, Johannes Vermeer, c.1657/59. Source: Wikiart


Numerous paintings by Vermeer show a female figure either reading or writing a letter. As viewers, we do not know the contents of the written messages, however, our biggest clue is the facial expressions of the women and their surroundings. A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (c.1657/59) shows a girl completely engrossed by what she is reading. Even though her full focus is on the letter, her facial expression does not give away anything. This lack of information generates an air of mystery. In 2021, the restoration of this painting was completed to reveal an image of Cupid hanging on the wall behind the girl. This indicates that the letter could be from someone she has a romantic relationship with.


The famous Vermeer created works where women seem unaware of their audience. It is as if we are invading their privacy as we watch them. The open window is another interesting element in this particular painting. Anyone on the other side of it has a clear view of what the portrayed woman is doing. As the female figure appears unaware of her surroundings, it feels that viewers, and whoever could be looking in through the window, are intruding on a moment that’s not intended for public viewing.


woman reading a letter vermeer painting
Woman Reading a Letter, Johannes Vermeer, 1663. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


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Similarly, Woman Reading a Letter (c.1663) shows a woman immersed in what she’s reading unaware that we, the audience, are watching her. However, in this painting, no window can be seen. This creates a restriction between the woman and anything beyond the room Vermeer has depicted her in. Without the window, the feeling that the woman does not want an audience increases. It feels like we are invading her privacy. This also adds to the secrecy around the letter and who it may be from. Even though we cannot see the window in this painting, there is a map hanging on the wall which suggests that the sender is overseas.


On the table in front of the woman lies a jewelry box, a pearl necklace, and more pages, possibly from the same letter. The way that the woman’s clothes have been placed suggests that she may be pregnant. If so the letter could be from the father of her unborn child. As spectators of this painting, we don’t know how accurate this assumption is, but if she is in fact pregnant this leads us to speculate whether she is married or not. If she is not married then the reason there isn’t a window in this room is because she may be hiding her pregnancy. Removing the window gives her more privacy than the woman in A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window.


lady writing johannes vermeer painting
A Lady Writing, Johannes Vermeer, c.1665. Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


Differing from the previous paintings mentioned, the figure in A Lady Writing (c.1665) is looking directly at her audience. Therefore, she is aware that she is being watched. Vermeer creates the impression that we caught the woman in the middle of writing a letter and we’ve distracted her from the task. Hanging on the wall behind her is a still life painting, which was a very popular genre of painting in the Dutch Republic. She is wearing pearl earrings as well as a yellow, fur-lined cloak. All of these elements give the impression that the female figure comes from a wealthy family.


The mystery surrounding who the woman is writing to adds to the intrigue of the painting. Additionally, her direct eye contact with us gives the impression that she is inviting us to watch what she’s doing. The atmosphere of mystery and obscurity is evident within all three of these works of art. Even though they all depict women doing something they probably do on a daily basis, the unknown allows us to form our own narrative. There are other objects in these paintings, such as jewelry boxes and fruit bowls, however, there is also simplicity in these artworks. Vermeer did not place these women in chaotic surroundings. He clearly wanted the sole focus to be on the women and what they were doing.


Vermeer’s Women and Their Everyday Activities  

the lacemaker vermeer painting
The Lacemaker, Johannes Vermeer, c.1669/70. Source: Louvre, Paris


Alongside showing women who are a part of the bourgeoisie in society, Vermeer’s artwork also portrays working-class female figures who are doing their everyday jobs. For example, The Lacemaker (c.1669/70) features a woman working with different fabrics in order to make clothes and other material items. Irrespective of the fact that we do not know who the woman is by name, her surroundings and what she is doing are clear to the audience. Much like A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window and Woman Reading a Letter, she appears to be unaware of her audience while she concentrates on completing her job.  


In the forefront of The Lacemaker, a significant amount of intricacies can be seen in the different threads and materials the woman will use. Vermeer has also added a lot of details to the collar of her yellow dress. All of these elements combined with the simplistic, beige background draw the viewer’s attention to the female figure and what she is doing. This image gives today’s audience an idea of what sort of job roles a seventeenth-century woman could have had in The Netherlands. These works of art are time capsules showing us the lives of Dutch women.


the milkmaid vermeer painting
The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer, c.1658/60. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Furthermore, The Milkmaid (c.1658/60) shows a woman in the middle of completing a task. The female figure is wearing a white headscarf, yellow bodice, red skirt, and a blue apron. Even though Vermeer has included a lot of details within the painting, the use of primary colors creates an element of simplicity and serenity. This is accompanied by the fact the woman is solely focused on what she is doing, which is making butter and cheese. She is unfazed by the fact that we are watching her while she works. The female figures depicted in The Lacemaker and The Milkmaid can be viewed as symbols of domestic life.


Vermeer’s Tronie Portraits

study young woman vermeer painting
Study of a Young Woman, Johannes Vermeer, 1666-67. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City


Study of a Young Woman (c.1666/67) and Girl with a Pearl Earring (c.1665) are paintings known as tronie portraits. As we do not know who the women are or why Vermeer depicted them, the main focus of these paintings is solely on the female subject matter. Vermeer has made the background in both of these pictures dark whilst highlighting their facial features. This juxtaposition enforces the idea that Vermeer wanted these artworks to be about women, not their surroundings. Additionally, both of these female figures are looking at the audience. Similar to A Lady Writing, this breaks what could be viewed as the fourth wall and creates a direct connection between the viewer and the depicted woman.


In Study of a Young Woman the figure’s body is facing the left side of the image with her head turned towards the viewer. She is wearing a headscarf as well as pearl earrings. Vermeer’s use of light and shadow makes the woman’s face the main point of interest. She has slightly upturned lips but otherwise a neutral facial expression as she looks towards us.


girl with pearl earring johannes vermeer painting
Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, 1665. Source: Mauritshuis, The Hague


Girl with a Pearl Earring features a similar composition. The figure is also sitting towards the left with her head turned outwards, facing her audience. She is wearing what looks like a yellow jacket, while her hair is covered with a blue and yellow headscarf or turban.


Girl with a Pearl Earring is seen as one of the masterpieces of the Dutch Golden Age. In this work, Vermeer used white paint to highlight the pearl earring and that’s why the painting was titled Girl with a Pearl Earring. Additionally, her mouth is slightly opened giving the impression that she is about to speak. This adds an element of intrigue surrounding who the female figure is and why Vermeer decided to depict her.


Why Did Johannes Vermeer Paint Women?

girl pearl earring movie
Poster of the film inspired by Vermeer’s work. Source: IMDb


All of the works of art mentioned here feature elements of mystery. Who were these women why did Vermeer paint them? The environment seen in these works might help the viewers form their own narrative. Whilst capturing their physical beauty, Vermeer created an idealized world that these women live in as they appear peaceful and content. Even though these artworks only catch a brief everyday scene, they do give us a glimpse of the realities of these girls.


When looking at the Girl with a Pearl Earring and Study of a Young Woman we can easily notice the figures’ beauty. It can be suggested that this allows for the two women to be objectified by viewers as they have been put on display with the sole purpose of being aesthetically pleasing. Vermeer became one of the most famous Dutch painters of his era, but we will never know the reasons behind his artistic decisions. We can only imagine why he was so fascinated with documenting the everyday lives of women.

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By Tyla Jade WhiteleyMSc Global Premodern Art, BA (Hons) History of ArtTyla Jade is an art historian who holds an MSc in Global Premodern Art: History, Heritage and Curation from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in History of Art from the University of Plymouth. Based in London, Tyla Jade has previously worked in art galleries as well as assisted with lectures for Utrecht’s Summer School in The Netherlands. She is passionate about research and enjoys writing about varied art historical topics. Also, she enjoys travelling and learning about different cultures from around the world.