Art Appreciation

Deciphering 4 Masterpiece Paintings with Enigmatic Narratives

Why interpreting women in art is not always easy

Christopher P Jones
6 min readApr 27


Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (c.1663) by Johannes Vermeer. Oil on canvas. 46.5 × 39 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Interpreting paintings undoubtedly relies on an accurate reading of the contents of a work. But what happens when appearances are misleading?

Take the case of the remarkable Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, which shows a couple inside a private room, appearing to make an oath to one another — perhaps as part of a marriage ceremony.

The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) by Jan van Eyck. Oil on oak panel. 82.2 × 60 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The image is abundant with symbolic suggestions that urge the viewer to connect the dots into a story, from the mysterious mirror on the back wall to the presence of a single flaming candle in the chandelier above the man’s head — whilst a recently burnt out candle sits above the woman’s.

Perhaps most noticeable is the woman’s swollen form, giving the distinct impression that she’s carrying a baby.

The precise meaning of the painting continues to divide historians. One intriguing reading is that this is a commemorative object in honour of the woman who has recently died. With the appearance of being pregnant, the idea is that she died in childbirth, hence the extinguished candle and the ashen face and dark clothing worn by her husband.

But despite looking pregnant, both in her form and posture, the evidence suggests this is not the case.

She is wearing an elaborate green wool overdress with a long train, and gathers up the excess material to her stomach. Since it is thought that the man was a cloth merchant, so the abundance of cloth worn by his wife would be an appropriate demonstration of their wealth and professional success.

Moreover, such long dresses were not uncommon among wealthy and noble ladies of the period, thereby making the shape of the dress a matter of fashion rather than pregnancy.

Virgin and Child, Saint Elisabeth of Hungary, Saint Barbara with the Carthusian monk Jan Vos (c.1443) by Jan van Eyck and workshop. Oil on panel. 47 × 61 cm. Frick Collection, New York, U.S. Image source Wikimedia Commons