Rediscovering Vermeer’s "Mistress and Maid": The Newest Book in the Frick’s Diptych Series

A woman is seated at a table, looking back at another woman handing her a letter.

In the tense months following the conclusion of World War I, Henry Clay Frick began negotiations with a German collector to purchase Johannes Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid. To do so, he was required to obtain a license from the War Trade Board, as decreed by the Trading with the Enemy Act. Frick explained in his 1919 application: “The painting by Vermeer . . . is an extremely valuable one and one that no doubt is sought by the art collectors of the world. I am anxious to secure it to add to the collection which I now have in my home in New York City.” Frick’s esteemed holdings were rich in Dutch Golden Age works, and he already owned two paintings by Vermeer, Girl Interrupted at Her Music and Officer and Laughing Girl. Nevertheless, he zealously pursued Mistress and Maid.

Vermeer chose a large canvas to depict the scene, which presents two women contemplating a recently arrived letter. The seated woman, dressed in elegant attire, is dramatically lit by an unseen source that illuminates her marble-like skin and yellow mantle. Before her is a table spread with a rumpled cloth on which lie several sheets of paper, a veneered box, and a set of glass writing accessories on a silver tray. A modestly costumed maid emerges from the dark background to deliver a letter. The mistress’s reaction, expressed by her hand quizzically touching her chin, suggests her intense curiosity. The letter’s inscrutable contents and the mistress’s response evoke a sense of mystery and uncertainty.

Vermeer's Mistress and Maid cover, by Margeret Iacono and James IvoryOnce in his possession, Mistress and Maid continued to captivate Frick. He reportedly changed his customary seat at the table for one that offered a better view of the painting, which he called “one of the finest pictures” in his collection. This treasured masterpiece is a fitting subject for the second diptych in the Frick’s ongoing series. The book begins with a poignant tale by renowned director, producer, and screenwriter James Ivory, inspired by Vermeer’s enigmatic scene. A complementary essay offers art historical and cultural context, detailing the painting’s extraordinary journey to 1 East 70th Street and presenting new information about its creation based on technical studies.

Ivory’s narrative transports the reader to the Dutch Republic in the mid-1660s and introduces Cornelia, an heiress and the mistress in Vermeer’s picture; her maid Amalia; and two suitors vying for Cornelia’s affection. Although Ivory’s story is fictitious, he highlights the period’s rigid societal constraints and limited prospects for women. While Cornelia’s options are restricted owing to familial expectations and her gender, for domestic servants like Amalia, life is even more difficult, as Ivory’s story relates.

Disparaging representations of maids were common in the literature and theater of the day. Female servants were often portrayed as defiant, immoral creatures who stole or, worse, led their unsuspecting mistresses astray. Such characterizations were no doubt exaggerations; however, the numerous ordinances passed in various cities in the Netherlands—one, for example, penalized maids for gossiping—suggest a wary attitude toward female domestics.

According to contemporary accounts, while some Dutch employers treated their domestic staff harshly, others respected them as members of their households. In return, maids sometimes affirmed their allegiances to their mistresses in court. Vermeer witnessed such loyalty firsthand when Tanneke Everpoel, a servant in his home, testified in 1666 on behalf of Vermeer’s wife, Catharina Bolnes. Everpoel recounted how she had defended Catharina from an attack three years earlier by her unstable brother, Willem Bolnes. Perhaps this is why Vermeer defies prevailing stereotypes, choosing to portray the two women in Mistress and Maid as partners in the episode, despite their unequal social status.

During the seventeenth century, citizens of the Dutch Republic boasted a high level of literacy compared to the rest of Europe, and even laborers and domestic servants attained some level of writing proficiency. Letter writing was particularly fashionable among the middle and upper classes, and the motif became a popular subject for Dutch painters beginning about 1650. Paintings depicting women reading or writing letters were typically associated with romantic liaisons, and contemporary etiquette manuals, novels, and plays perpetuated this association. In Mistress and Maid, the mistress composing one letter while receiving another has led some scholars to posit that more than one suitor was competing for her affection. In characteristic fashion, Vermeer withholds further information, leaving us to ponder the sender’s identity and the letter’s contents.

Technical studies undertaken in preparation for the diptych by Conservator Dorothy Mahon and Research Scientist Silvia A. Centeno of The Metropolitan Museum of Art have uncovered information about the picture’s original appearance and Vermeer’s working methods. Pigment analyses indicate that the curtain, today barely visible behind the mistress, was originally a translucent dark green. Its current brown color is the result of the pigments darkening over time. Pigment degradation similarly accounts for the relative loss of depth and form of the curtain. The appearance of the tablecloth also has changed considerably. Like the curtain, it was originally green, albeit a lighter and more richly colored hue. The pigments used to compose it have discolored, causing the fabric to appear blue.

Most exciting are the results of infrared reflectography (IRR), also conducted by the Met’s conservation lab. This non-invasive imaging technique reveals details beneath a painting’s surface, enabling us to better understand an artist’s creative process. The IRR of the Mistress and Maid canvas revealed that Vermeer’s original composition included a detailed, multi-figural element in the background, which he later painted out. This passage likely represented a wall tapestry or painting, similar to those found in several of his other works. After presumably deciding that a darker, less detailed background would better focus attention on the central interaction, he added the curtain, drawn aside to highlight the letter’s arrival. Vermeer’s brilliant edit endows the scene with the dramatic intensity of a tableau vivant. As the women muse over the letter’s contents, we await the story’s imminent—eternally elusive—denouement.

Vermeer’s iconic picture, costing Frick just under $300,000, was not the industrialist’s most expensive purchase, but it was certainly one of his most complicated. He had coveted the work while it was in the collection of James Simon, a German textile magnate, philanthropist, and close friend of Wilhelm II. Simon refused to part with the canvas and dismissed multiple offers to buy it, including one made on Frick’s behalf in 1914. A change in circumstances forced Simon to eventually sell the painting, but the transaction was quite protracted, as entries from Frick’s household journal reveal. Although an armistice with Germany had been declared in November 1918, peace terms had yet to be signed and the Allies and Central Powers remained officially locked in conflict. Following a complex series of communications—detailed in the diptych and reading much like an espionage thriller—Frick ultimately purchased the painting from the Dutch dealer Abraham Preyer, with considerable assistance from dealers Scott & Fowles and Duveen Brothers. Mistress and Maid arrived in New York in August 1919, whereupon it was taken immediately to Eagle Rock, Frick’s palatial summer home in Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts. Later that fall, the picture was installed in the family’s Fifth Avenue mansion. It was the last painting that Frick acquired before his untimely death on December 2, a crowning addition to a superlative collection.

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675), Mistress and Maid, ca. 1666–68, oil on canvas, The Frick Collection

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