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Arts & Entertainment

Breaking up with the blue lady: Vermeer's 'Woman in Blue Reading a Letter' at Getty

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, c. 1663–64. Johannes Vermeer.
Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, c. 1663–64. Johannes Vermeer.
Rijksmuseum/City of Amsterdam/van der Hoop Bequest/Getty

She's diminutive, almost waiflike, compared to the other sprawling old Dutch masterpieces on the walls of the Getty Center's main gallery -- just 18 by 15 inches. And she's just a visitor: Jan Vermeer's "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter." She's only staying here another month.

When she's gone back to Holland, there will be no more pictures by Holland's most enigmatic great painter left on public view in Los Angeles (two years ago, the Norton Simon had another Vermeer on loan from New York's Metropolitan Museum). There are only 34 to 36 authentic Vermeer paintings left in the world. Only four of these are in Holland's largest collection, the Rijksmuseum, from which "Woman in Blue" is loaned.

So our woman in blue is a great rarity. As the color blue itself as a rarity in paintings of this period, because the lapis lazuli mineral pigment needed for this blue paint, which also extends and blends into the walls and shadows, was quite expensive. But what else is she? She is wearing her costly blue dress over a body that is either freakily obese or quite pregnant. The light from an unseen window to the left falls on her face, but apparently not on the text of the letter she is avidly reading. She is young. She is somber. Behind her we see a dim, gigantic map of the Dutch seaborne empire of 350 years ago. Is her letter from a faraway husband in Dutch Brazil or Batavia, asking after her health and that of their unborn child? Or is it from her mother, in The Hague nearby, giving her unwelcome maternal advice on how to best prepare for the coming Blessed Event?

Myself, I fear the worst. Perhaps the letter is from some rich, cold-hearted and faraway merchant scoundrel, informing her: "I know it's probably my baby, but I'm not getting a divorce." And our lady in blue is herself blue, contemplating a degraded single mother's life for herself and her child.

Like most of Vermeer's female subjects, her face is resigned, impassive, sedate, calm. Taking the news, whatever it is, as best she can. There is so much here that we can feel, rather than describe, locked away in the depth of the painting, in the face of the pensive woman, in the simple interior with its plain table and its nailed-leather chairs (which look to us much like 1920s Mission style). An entire novel in waiting, if you will, like the one that author Tracy Chevalier wrote not long ago about a more famous Vermeer: "Girl With a Pearl Earring."

It's a story just for you, lurking deep in this unique, strange and wonderful little painting. But you've only another month left to see it.