(Photo by Renee Jones-Schneider, StarTribune)

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts had promised surprise masterpieces for its centennial celebration, and it delivered a big one Friday, unveiling "Woman Reading a Letter," one of only 34 known works by 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.

The oil painting -- an enigmatic gem about 18 inches high and 15 inches wide -- will be shown for a limited time in the museum's Cargill Gallery, just off the main lobby. There is no charge for admission.

The MIA scored this coup via a loan from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum. It is a prime example of Vermeer's mastery of light and shadow, with the woman's dress rendered in a striking blue  created from lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone that was imported from Afghanistan, ground into powder and then mixed with oil to make paint.

It's the first of three promised masterpieces on loan that the MIA will be unveiling at unannounced times throughout its centennial year.

Look for a bigger story about the Vermeer later today at startribune.com/art.

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