Woman Reading a Letter (NGI.4537)

Gabriel Metsu, 'Woman reading a Letter', c.1664-c.1666.

Gabriel Metsu (Leiden 1629-1667 Amsterdam)

Woman reading a Letter, c.1664-c.1666

Oil on wood, 52.2 x 40.2 cm
Presented, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, 1987 (Beit Collection)


A woman sits on a wooden zoldertje platform in a marble-floored hall and reads the letter that we see being written in the pendant painting (NGI.4536). The favourite curl on her plucked forehead shows that she is engaged. One senses disorder in a calm domestic world. She has stopped sewing and dropped her thimble. The cast-off shoe has erotic connotations, while the mirror in a sober ebony frame is a warning of vanity and against lasciviousness. The excited spaniel, normally a symbol of domestic fidelity, has become a reminder of the lover. A curious servant, who has another letter to deliver on her way to market, holds a bucket decorated by Cupid’s arrows and draws back the protective curtain over a stormy seascape. This was a frequent metaphor for the trials of love and the hazards of separating and meeting.

Metsu may have trained with Gerrit Dou, but his brushwork is always freer and his sources more numerous, with a memorable feel for textures and colours.