#FineArtFriday: Officer and Laughing Girl by Johannes Vermeer circa 1657


Artist: Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675)

Title: Officer and Laughing Girl

Genre: genre art

Date: circa 1657

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: height: 50.5 cm (19.8 in); width: 46 cm (18.1 in)

Collection: The Frick Collection

What I love about this painting:

Vermeer paints a story for us. He shows us a courting couple, a modestly dressed young woman seated opposite a young officer. Is this the home of her parents?

It is clearly not a tavern, as she has a crystal wine glass, which taverns wouldn’t have. Another clue to her social status is the map on the wall behind her, indicating her family may be merchants. Taverns rarely displayed maps as they were expensive.

Our girl is dwarfed by the map and also by the large man, whose face we don’t see, as he is captivated by her. Yet though she is physically smaller than her companion, she is not made small in this painting. Indeed, she has a large presence; her personality and smile have power, speaking to us across the centuries.

The light falls gently though the open window, illuminating the woman, bathing the scene with that quality Vermeer recreated so brilliantly.

Some male art critics suggest that the position of her hand indicates a less savory transaction is occurring here, but I feel they are wrong. Her hair is completely covered. She is not dressed provocatively, nor are they shown in a tavern or brothel. Her hand is shown as if gesturing in conversation, a natural gesture.

I think that nasty kind of interpretation is the result of a Victorian-era male art critic prejudice against women in art, dismissing them as morally corrupt. That sort of attitude poisons art interpretation at all levels. Maybe traditional critics need to look at paintings such as this with a fresh eye and see what is actually there: a young woman talking to a young man, seated in a corner at a table, most likely in full view of her middleclass parents.

Vermeer paints us a story of courtship within the bounds of society, of two people with middleclass values who are clearly attracted to each other. Will they be married? I like to think so.

The model for the woman in this painting was most likely Vermeer’s wife, and the dress she wears appears in other domestic scenes painted by Vermeer, as does the window and the table.

About Johannes Vermeer, the Master of Light (from Wikipedia)

Johannes Vermeer (October 1632 – December 1675) was a Dutch painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. He was a moderately successful provincial genre painter in his lifetime but evidently was not wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death, perhaps because he produced relatively few paintings.

Vermeer worked slowly and with great care, and frequently used very expensive pigments. He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.

Vermeer painted mostly domestic interior scenes. “Almost all his paintings are apparently set in two smallish rooms in his house in Delft; they show the same furniture and decorations in various arrangements and they often portray the same people, mostly women.”

He was recognized during his lifetime in Delft and The Hague, but his modest celebrity gave way to obscurity after his death. He was barely mentioned in Arnold Houbraken‘s major source book on 17th-century Dutch painting (Grand Theatre of Dutch Painters and Women Artists), and was thus omitted from subsequent surveys of Dutch art for nearly two centuries. In the 19th century, Vermeer was rediscovered by Gustav Friedrich Waagen and Théophile Thoré-Bürger, who published an essay attributing 66 pictures to him, although only 34 paintings are universally attributed to him today. Since that time, Vermeer’s reputation has grown, and he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. [1]

Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Johannes Vermeer – De Soldaat en het Lachende Meisje – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Johannes_Vermeer_-_De_Soldaat_en_het_Lachende_Meisje_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=617576363 (accessed April 29, 2022).

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Johannes Vermeer,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Johannes_Vermeer&oldid=1082091616 (accessed April 29, 2022).

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