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This eccentric red hat has no exact prototype in either Dutch fashion or Dutch painting, and one wonders how Vermeer may have come upon it. Perhaps only Rembrandt or Michael Sweerts, two Dutch painters who delighted in rendering exotic headgear, could have been able to pull off a picture with such an unusual combination of such an outlandish garment and mundane face and produce a work of great human significance.
In lack of convincing evidence, Vermeer expert Walter Liedtke considers that Vermeer may have based the hat's shape on some lost source in art and perhaps invented its material "for the occasion, for instance by pinning fur pelt or feathers onto a hat like the one in the Girl with a Flute." Although modern authors have described the hat's material as cloth, leather or velvet, its blurry, fractured outline hints at feathers. In any case, the illusionistic depiction of rare fabrics or furs was one of the tell-tale signs of the so-called tronie, small-scale studio pieces meant to entice the purchasing appetite of potential clients.
The hat was painted with the glazing technique. This two-stage method achieves a brilliance and depth impossible with straightforward opaque paint. In this case, the basic form's lighting and coloring were first defined with tones of a vermilion red and black, producing a somewhat drab monochrome base. When thoroughly dry, the preparatory underlayer was "glazed" with a thick, highly transparent ruby red pigment called red madder creating a special shine-through effect. The glaze also helped to protect the vermilion, which tends to turn black when exposed to the atmosphere.
It is difficult to make out the design of the wall tapestry that hangs behind the girl's head. Its border may be seen running downwards along the right-hand side of the work. Textile experts see the design as late 17th century from the south of Holland, similar to other tapestries which populate Vermeer's canvases.
It is difficult to make out the design of the wall tapestry which hangs behind the girl's head. Its border may be seen running downwards along the right-hand side of the work. Textile experts see the design as late 17th century from the south of Holland, similar to other tapestries which populate Vermeer's canvases.
Even though some writers have hypothesized that one of Vermeer's daughters modeled for the Girl with a Pearl Earring, it was not conceived as a portrait even though the care with which Vermeer portrayed her androgynous features suggests it was executed from life. Rather, the work is a perfect exemplar of the tronie.
Tronien were, in effect, paintings conceived independently by the artist and sold for the open market. The painter was entirely free to choose the sitter, dress and technique. On the other hand, the genesis and execution of a true portrait is a quite different matter. As the art historian R. H. Fuchs has pointed out, "no category in pictorial art is so conservative as portraiture. A portrait is not just a likeness of an individual to be preserved for posterity; it was also an image of pride, a projection of social position. A man who wants his portrait painted cannot but attach a certain importance to himself, in whatever sense, and he is not likely to take chances; he is concerned about his appearance. Normally, and the history of portraiture testifies to this fact, he opts for the classic formula—the formula which has proved its efficiency."
Thus, the informal red hat, the lack of definition of the facial characteristics, the ambiguous lighting scheme and the display of the humid, open mouth disqualify any notion that this work was a commissioned portrait.
The twin lion-head finials in the lower foreground of the painting have attracted considerable scholarly attention. Their idiosyncratic rendering recalls, at least to the majority of Vermeer scholars, certain characteristics of the image produced by the camera obscura with its broken tones, soft sheen and globular pointillés highlights.
One of the few scholars who contests the authorship of this work, Albert Blankert, maintains the portrayal of the chair with respect to the position of the girl is highly uncharacteristic of the artist's careful adhesion towards reality. If, in fact, the finials belonged to the girl's chair they would not have faced the viewer as they do in Vermeer's rendition. Thus, either Vermeer has taken some artistic liberty revolving the finials around towards the viewer or else the chair with the finials is in front of the chair upon which the girl is actually seated.
Furthermore, the finials themselves are not correctly aligned. The left-hand finial is much larger than the right-hand one and is angled slightly to the right. Most contemporary historians retain that these anomalies do not disqualify the work from Vermeer's oeuvre pointing to the work's exceptionally expressive quality and extemporary handling of paint and brush.
Much scholarly attention has been bestowed on the twin lion-head finials in the lower foreground of the painting. Their unique rendering strongly recalls, at least to the majority of Vermeer scholars, certain characteristics of the image produced by the camera obscura with its broken tones, soft sheen and pointillés highlights.
One of the few scholars who contests the authorship of this work, Albert Blankert, maintains the faulty portrayal of the chair in respects to the position of the girl is not in line with the artist's careful adhesion towards the reality he depicts. If, in fact, the finials belonged to the girl's chair they would not have faced the viewer. Thus, either Vermeer has taken some artistic liberty revolving the finials around towards the viewer or else the chair with the finials is in front of the one upon which the girl is seated.
Furthermore, the finials themselves are not correctly in line. The left finial is much larger than the right one and is angled to the right. Most contemporary historians retain that these anomalies do not disqualify the work from Vermeer's oeuvre pointing to the exceptional technical and expressive quality of the painting.
The candid white cravat worn by the figure demonstrates Vermeer's penchant to experiment with pictorial techniques. If examined closely, it can be seen that various shadows of the cravat were produced not darkening the white paint with gray, but by digging into the white paint with the wooden handle of the brush exposing the darker layer of paint beneath.
The young girl flaunts a red feather hat and a bolt of bluish satin-like cloth casually draped over her shoulders and arm. The informal pose and bizarre dress indicate that the painting was not made as a formal portrait but as an impromptu study.
In any case, the girl's garment should not be taken literally as a real article of dress but as a spirited prop improvised for the occasion such as the one worn in the self-portrait by Frans van Mieris. Viewers would have required no explanation to understand that Van Mieris did not go about painting day-to-day with a brocade-trimmed felt hat and a shiny satin robe.
A curious detail of Vermeer's rendering is the yellowish tone of the highlights that in reality should have been cooler in hue. Vermeer used the same technique in the Woman Holding a Balance. Perhaps the color has intensified in time but it seems more probable that the anomaly is an act of artistic license. Vermeer writers have linked the garment's peculiar "optical" sheen to the image produced by the camera obscura of analogous textures.
For a painter who excelled in the observation of light, nothing was a more suitable vehicle than the present picture: a bust-length figure of a woman wrapped with a luxurious material, an outrageous hat, moist lips set between glistening pearls, and daylight streaming in from a nearby window on the right. That the model has a distinctive, somewhat androgynous features and conveys a certain attitude (which would have been needed to carry off such a costume) adds considerably to the work's "curiosity," a term routinely employed by connoisseurs of the period to express admiration.
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer and the Delft School, 2001
Inscribed upper-left center; (IVM in Ligature)
(Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 2000
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015
(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).
The support is probably oak, with a vertical grain. A slightly larger cradle 24.3 x 19.2 cm. (9 9/16 x7 9/16 in.) and wooden collar protect the edges of the panel. X-radiography shows, over the white chalk ground, a portrait of a man with a large hat. The Girl with a Red Hat was painted directly over this earlier image. The painting is in remarkably good condition, with only slight abrasion to the thin glazes of the face and a few scattered minor losses.
* Johannes Vermeer (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis - Washington and The Hague, 1995, edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).
(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in scale).
Surprisingly, x-ray images and neutron reflectograms have revealed that underneath Vermeer's image lies a bust-length portrait of a man with a wide-brimmed hat executed in thick, broad brushstrokes. Before painting over the old portrait, Vermeer turned it upside down, evidently, to avoid being disturbed by the image. The male portrait brought Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. to consider Carel Fabritius as male portrait's author even though no evidence rules out that Vermeer himself painted the portrait. Wheelock cites the fact that, at his death, Vermeer detained two small tronien by Fabritius which must have been part of his stock in Vermeer's collateral painting trade. Walter Liedtke, however, observes out that it would be illogical for Vermeer to have destroyed a work whose author he had so admired.
The Girl with a Red Hat is considered as a tronie, an obsolete term that refers to a type of picture made familiar by Rembrandt and his followers. Most Dutch tronien were based upon living models, including the artists themselves, relatives or colleagues. However, they were not intended as formal portraits but were kept on spec in the artist's studio ready to stimulate the potential buyer's appetite. An old man, a comely young woman, a "Turk," or a dashing soldier were all standard tronien subjects. Artists favored garments that looked particularly exotic which would offer an opportunity to show off painterly technique, one of the strongest calling cards of the professional artist. In the 17th century, there was an avid market for tronien, which were considered a separate genre. They also served as a storehouse of facial types and expressions for figures in history paintings.
Vermeer is known to have painted three tronien in all. John Larson was a Hague/London sculptor who in an inventory drawn up in August 1664 had a painting described as "a tronie by Vermeer" valued at 10 guilders. In the Dissius auction of 1696 in which 21 works by Vermeer were sold, two of the paintings were described as tronien.
The word "pendant" comes from the Latin pendere, meaning "to hang." In painting a pendant is a pair of paintings intended to hang together. Pendants are generally the same format and with identical frames. In Dutch homes, pendants were frequently were hung on the two sides of a door or fireplace.
Some Vermeer specialists have proposed that the Girl with a Red Hat and the with a Girl with a Flute were intended as a pendant. Both pictures show a young girl wearing an exotic hat, under similar light, with a tapestry hung loosely in the background. Both pictures are executed on panel and roughly the same size.
Of all 35–36 surviving Vermeer's, only two works, the Girl with a Flute and Girl with a Red Hat were not painted on canvas. The latter was done on a thin oak (?) panel with a vertical grain. However, in Vermeer's death inventory of 1676, there were listed 10 unpainted canvases and 6 unpainted panels in his studio. This fact may indicate that the artist's preference for canvas was not so accentuated as the proportions of his surviving paintings would lead us to believe.
Vermeer specialists have proposed various explanations, principally aesthetic, for the artist's choice support for Girl with a Flute. Paint tends to flow easier on the smooth, hard panel favoring a calligraphic touch which is evident in the present work. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. supposed that the artist employed a panel because he wished to emulate the dreamlike sheen of the images produced by the camera obscura. However, the perfectly smooth surface of the panel also permits the highest degree of detail possible with the oil paint technique. We should also consider that panel may have been chosen for a somewhat banal motive. Since Vermeer's painting lies over another work, he may have simply found it a convenient format for a quickly executed, salable work in the hopes of attracting a buyer with an enticing image. In the final years of Vermeer's career, the war with France had caused a virtual collapse of the art market and with it, Vermeer's fortunes.
The distinctive lighting scheme of this work has often be traced to early self portraits by Rembrandt van Rijn. The late Vermeer notable Walter Liedtke pointed out, that while Vermeer may not have had access to Rembrandt's early works, his talented pupils Flinck and Bol had made such poetic expressions a familiar pictorial convention by the 1650s and 1660s.
Curiously, the deep shadows of the young girl's face are painted with a dull green tone (green earth) readily visible when observing the original. Vermeer employed the same unusual tone in other late paintings in analogous passages of flesh. By the 17th century, painters invariably used warm brown for darker flesh shadows although this technique had been adopted by a few Utrecht Caravaggists. Vermeer biographer John Michael Montias hypothesized that the young Vermeer had likely studied in Utrecht but still, such a specific technical/stylistic tie is tenuous at best.
Among all of Vermeer's paintings, this one comes closest to the type of image produced by an instrument known as the camera obscura, an optical device that is a precursor of the modern photographic camera.
While experts are not in agreement as to what extent Vermeer and other Dutch 17th-century artists used the camera obscura to compose their paintings, it is certain that the images which it produced present many of the characteristics seen in Vermeer's painting.
Charles Seymour ("Dark Chamber in a Light Filled Room," in Art Bulletin 46, 1964) tested the hypothesis that Vermeer might have been guided by the images he saw in a camera obscura. By observing similar objects (he carefully chose the props) in similar lighting conditions to the ones found in Vermeer's painting through a real 19th-century camera obscura, Seymour found that the resulting image exhibited qualities much like those seen in Vermeer paintings.
One of the most curious techniques of Vermeer's late works is the use of the dull green natural earth pigment as a component of the shadows of the flesh. In both the Girl with a Red Hat and its pendant, The Girl with a Flute, green earth can be clearly detected with the naked eye although it is not always apparent from reproductions. Art historians have not been able to offer a plausible motive why Vermeer would have opted for such a technique.
Green earth had been widely employed by medieval and early Renaissance painters as a base tone for flesh in order to mitigate the effect of the stark white gesso preparation of panels. When the pinks and red tones necessary for painting flesh are laid over the white gesso preparation they produce a fastidious "sunburn" effect. In short, the flesh was modeled over the dry unmodulated layer of flat green earth with lighter mixtures of white, red lakes and yellow ochre. This layering created a natural pearlessence close to natural skin tones. However, owing to the fading of the red pigments, many examples of this technique today appear much greener than they were in origin.
An unfinished painting by Michelangelo reveals that artists of the time constructed their compositions in a piecemeal fashion, (a procedure todays' painters universally abhor) and also reveals how a flat layer of green earth was laid in under those areas to be occupied with flesh tones.
Likely, Vermeer did not lay in an unmodulated layer of green earth as in Michelangelo's work. Perhaps he applied green earth only in the shadowed areas (over a brownish ground) feathering it wet-in-wet with the pink flesh tones as patches of light and dark came into contact.
It has been noted that some Mannerist painters from Utrecht had unearthed green earth as a component for painting flesh but their artistic and aesthetic goals were so extremely divergent from those of Vermeer that the connection seems less than plausible.