Nicolaas Verkolje, Dutch, 1673 - 1746
Young Woman with a Candle and a Letter in a Window with a Maidservant, early 18th century
Oil on panel
13 ¼ × 10 7/8 in. (33.7 × 27.6 cm)
Gift of Baroness Tamara de Kuffner de Lempicka

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Nicolaas Verkolje was born in Delft and, like many Dutch painters, received his first drawing and painting lessons from his father, Johannes Verkolje, a Delft portraitist, genre painter, and one of the pioneers of mezzotint printmaking. In addition to apprenticing with his father, Verkolje taught himself by imitating the work of well-known masters—a common and valued practice at the time. By studying the Leiden-based painter Gerard Dou, Verkolje learned a certain style of night scene, such as the one shown here, wherein a single lamp or candle creates intense contrasts between light and dark. Copying paintings on commission may have been an important source of income in Verkolje's very early career. 

Young Woman with a Candle and a Letter in a Window with a Maidservant depicts a young woman framed in a window, dramatically lit by the candle that she holds. She addresses someone diagonally below her, unseen outside the picture plane. The letter she holds is interpreted as either from or for a suitor. The subject looks downward, presumably at her paramour, either to acknowledge receipt of or to deliver her own message. Behind her, a servant holds a finger to her nose. Scholars suggest this gesture is a signal to the unseen suitor that the woman is receptive to his advances.  

At the bottom right of the painting, Verkolje adds the partial phrase “T LAND VAN BE” over a stone façade, bearing an engraving of a turbaned worker. The image and the inscription refer to the vineyard workers in “The Promised Land (‘T LAND VAN BELOFTE),” a common theme on gable stones in 18th-century Amsterdam where Verkolje lived. The artist’s reference to the promised land is ambiguous, perhaps referring to the young lovers’ promises to one another. A second interpretation considers the image of the vineyard worker as an evocation of wine, the symbol for the blood of Christ. Taken this way, the inscription can be read as a moralistic message that the “promised land” (i.e., the afterlife) would be unavailable to those who lead an immoral life.