A decade ago, few connoisseurs of old master painting would have listed the Bruce Museum, in suburban Greenwich, Connecticut, among major exhibition venues. Peter Sutton, who joined the Bruce as Executive Director in 2001, is rapidly changing the profile of this modest institution with well-crafted exhibitions that take advantage of his expertise as a curator, dealer, administrator and scholar of Netherlandish art. Love Letters, with its engaging theme and high-quality paintings, brought crowds to the Bruce after opening at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. Following several shows on more contemporary themes, the Bruce now hosts Drawn by the Brush, the first exhibition of Rubens oil sketches in more than fifty years and the first of its kind in the US (October 2, 2004 – January 30, 2005, traveling to the Berkeley (CA) Art Museum, March 2 – May 15, 2005, and the Cincinnati Art Museum, June 11 – September 11, 2005).
Love Letters brought together paintings of letter readers and writers by nineteen Dutch artists, tracing the theme from the 1630s (Cat. 1, a panel by Dirck Hals from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo) to the beginning of the eighteenth century (Cat. 44, Nicolaes Verkolje, from the Menil Collection, Houston). Of three well-known examples by Vermeer, the Dublin Lady Writing a Letter with her Maidservant was seen in Greenwich, while the Washington Lady Writing and Amsterdam Love Letter were exhibited in Dublin only. The brilliant Beit pendants by Gabriel Metsu (Man Writing a Letter and Woman Reading a Letter with a Maidservant) were lent by Dublin for their first-ever exhibition in the US. While the roster of skilled genre painters contains no surprises (TerBorch, Elinga, De Hooch, Metsu, Van Mieris, Ostade, Netscher, Steen, et al.), lenders included an eclectic roster of venerable institutions from the Netherlands, Europe and the US alongside private collections, both acknowledged and anonymous. The resulting assemblage mixes canonical objects with some that have rarely been shown or studied.
The catalogue of Love Letters may not be as hefty as Sutton’s landmark Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting(Berlin/London/Philadelphia 1984), but it is more opulently produced. Each painting exhibited merits a full-page color illustration (sometimes accompanied by a close-up detail), and there are numerous comparative figures in color or black-and-white. Thematic essays by three scholars examine the pictorial tradition and its historical context (Peter Sutton), the structure and content of Vermeer’s epistolary scenes (Lisa Vergara) and the social practice of penmanship (Ann Jensen Adams). Thorough catalogue entries, written by Sutton, Jennifer Kilian and Marjorie Wieseman, present concise biographies of the artists and lucid analyses of each of the forty-four paintings exhibited.
Considering its widespread popularity and complex social significance, the letter as a pictorial theme has received relatively little scholarly attention. The only synthetic monograph is a long-outdated volume by Jean Leymarie (The Spirit of the Letter in Painting, 1961). While two earlier exhibitions, Leselust (Frankfurt 1993) and In het licht van het lezen (Haarlem 1992), surveyed the pictorial representation of books as well as letters and included portraits and still life as well as narrative scenes, the present exhibition focuses (with one or two exceptions) on the letter as a favorite motif of Dutch genre painters specializing in the depiction of elegant domesticity. Building upon recent discoveries in social and literary as well as visual history, the catalogue offers an up-to-date and richly contextualized account. in his introductory essay, Sutton traces the migration of epistolary imagery from Haarlem in the 1630s to Amsterdam, Leiden and Delft. He then surveys the growth of literacy, the development of the postal system, and the social functions of letter-writing. Given the many practical uses of the letter, as well as the fact that male literacy rates were far higher than those of women, it is significant that the majority of genre paintings employing the motif depict female figures at home, engaged in correspondence of a private, and usually presumed to be amatory, nature. Yet, like so many aspects of Dutch schijnrealisme, the sense of intimacy is illusory. As discussed by Sutton and Adams, instructional manuals counseled temperance in the expression of personal emotion, suggesting both polite verbiage for all occasions (from unrequited passion to condolence) and the artful penmanship by which to convey it. As Adams points out, epistolary correspondents were well-aware that their sentiments might be read aloud, perused by nosy messengers, or even published without their consent. The choreographed interactions of writers and readers in paintings by Metsu, De Hooch and TerBorch mimic, in pictorial form, the artful decorum of epistolary expression, exemplified by numerous quotations in the catalogue essays and entries.
Vermeer’s contribution to the genre, as examined by Lisa Vergara, remains enigmatic. In his first known treatment, the Dresden Letter Reader of c.1657, X-radiographs reveal his deliberate obfuscation of an amatory context: the blank rear wall once displayed a painting of Cupid, while the table with its still-life of ripe peaches (a metaphor, in Vergara’s reading, for the marriageable young lady, or vrijster, stationed just above it) once held two wine goblets. Here and in the witty Amsterdam Love Letter, the drawn curtain in the foreground invites the gaze of a viewer who might be construed as the very writer whose words inspire such complex responses in their recipient. Proceeding from Arthur Danto’s concept of artistic beauty as the internal coherence of form and subject, Vergara’s sensitive reading yields to the poetic inferences of emotional nuance that Vermeer’s pristine orchestrations of figure, light, and space seem destined to evoke. Yet, her concluding discussion of Vermeer’s circumstances, including a likely personal connection with a local author of epistolary poetry who was related to the artist’s major patron, Pieter Claesz van Ruijven, re-establishes Vermeer, like Metsu, Ter Borch and other contemporaries, as a practitioner whose success lay in catering to the interests of paying customers. For the upwardly mobile citizens of the Dutch Republic’s wealthy urban centers, the vogue for letter-writing reflected a new level of sophisticated social interaction. By illuminating this practice and its pictorial expression, this exhibition and its catalogue provide a valuable contribution to the literature on Dutch genre painting.
Stephanie S. Dickey
Herron School of Art & Design, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis