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Officer and Laughing Girl

(De Soldaat en het Lachende Meisje)
c. 1655–1660
Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 46 cm. (19 7/8 x 18 1/8 in.)
Frick Collection, New York
acc. no. 11.1.127
Officer and Laughing Girl, Johannes Vermeer

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The map of Holland

Portrait of Willem J. Blaeu, Jeremias Falck

A portrait of Willem J. Blaeu
by Jeremias Falck

This map of Holland and West Friesland was designed by Balthasar Florisz. van Berckenrode in 1620. Twelve copies to the States General for 144 pounds. Victim of financial difficulties, Van Berckenrode was later forced to sell the rights and the copperplates to Willem Jansz. Blaeu who headed a florid publishing house in Amsterdam specialized in maps. The map contains no date, but it must have been printed between 1621, when Blaeu received plates and privilege to publish the map and 1629, when the privilege expired. Only one example exists (West Fries Museum in Hoorn) and confirms the precision of Vermeer's rendering. Not a single copy from the first state has survived.

Critics have frequently pointed out that while the present map has been colored, the other two other versions in Vermeer's oeuvre, The Love Letter and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, are executed in monochrome brown and the latter presents the same folds as those of the present picture. Since mapmakers advertised that their maps could be custom printed and hand colored, we have no way of knowing which one of the two versions was real. Oddly, the landmasses, instead of the sea, have been painted in light blue a fact which disorients the viewer even more than the unconventional orientation. However, one might speculate that the blue areas were once glazed with a transparent yellow giving them a "correct" green tone of the land masses. This yellow-over-blue glaze was standard practice among Dutch painters and was especially utilized by still-life painters for the depiction of leaves. Vermeer used this technique to color the leafy foliage of the Little Street. It now appears blue because the yellow glaze, which was prone to degrade, has faded over time now revealing the blue underpainting beneath.

The open window

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1657–1659
Oil on canvas, 83 x 64.5 cm.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

Vermeer seems to have represented four distinct types of windows in his 26 known interiors. The window in the Officer and Laughing Girl appears to be the same as the one in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window and The Milkmaid, even though in the latter the top row of characteristic lozenge-shaped panes cannot be observed. In both The Milkmaid and the Officer and Laughing Girl, the variations of color and unevenness of the glass panes are registered with the singular attention. In his later interiors, Vermeer treated the windows more as abstract patterns, accentuating their geometric properties.

Who is the young girl?

Officer and Laughing Girl (x-ray detail), Johannes Vermeer

It is possible that the young girl who smiles at the officer was Vermeer's wife, Catharina Bolnes, although there is no proof in regards. Many critics believe that she had posed for other of her husband's compositions. Her luminous face, her unabashed smile and glittering yellow satin bodice neutralize the austere presence of the cavalier. As can be seen from an x-ray photograph, Vermeer had originally painted a large white collar over her shoulders obscuring part of the yellow bodice. The large cap, which once covered only her hair, was extended forward to frame her face and focus the viewer's attention on her expression.


Holding a Glass of wine

Although in an unobtrusive manner, Vermeer employed gesture with great finesse to reveal the physiological state of his sitters. The relaxed openness of the young girl's sun-bathed hand contrasts markedly with that of the officer which instead, curls back in deep shadow.

In her other hand, the young girl holds a drinking glass used for wine, usually white. Wine, which was more costly than beer, was a sign of social refinement. Gérard de Lairesse's manual for painters illustrates how the artist might suggest the social position of his sitter by how they hold their glasses. Position No. 5, which is comparable to the gesture seen in Vermeer's Girl with a Wine Glass, is the most refined or as de Lairesse wrote, "A prince holds it handily and cautiously below on the foot." It is more difficult to understand how the young girl holds her glass in the present picture since the passage is painted with more attention to the dazzling effects of sunlight rather than anatomical accuracy.


The young girl holds what appears to be a Berkemeyer, a type of drinking glass that consists of a wide, cylindrical stem and a funnel-shaped bowl. The shape is said to be derived from a wooden cup, the prunts on the stem from gnarled branches or rough bark, which reminded drinkers of wooden beakers. The prunts were a means to reinforce the grip on the glass, which was important because at that time forks were not yet commonplace, and the hands of the eater were thus often fat and slippery. In a text titled "Sermon on Glassmaking," a contemporary Lutheran priest wrote: "Nowadays one applies buttons, prunts and rings to glasses to make them sturdier. Thus they can be held more easily in the hands of drunken and clumsy people." The Roemer, which became popular at the end of the 16th century, is distinguishable from the Berkemeyer for the convex shape of its cup. Berkemeyer glasses were originally manufactured in Germany, where they continue to be manufactured today. They were made of the so-called "forest glass" because the glass was produced in wooded areas where plentiful supplies of wood fuel were available for the furnaces. This glass was greenish due to contamination with iron compounds.

The satin jacket

he Music Lesson (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The Music Lesson (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas, 73.3 x 64.5 cm.
The Royal Collection, The Windsor Castle

The laughing young girl wears a smart satin jacket that is pictured in four other works by Vermeer as well. Only a few examples of these bodices have survived. The bodice fits tightly around the bust, drawing in the waist and pushing up the bosom to create an hourglass figure. It was probably internally boned or worn over a stay. That the painter was smitten by this garment is evident by the number of times he portrayed it and the loving treatment reserved for it. It is rendered somewhat differently from painting to painting.

In the Netherlands, it was sometimes called a schort or a wacht although it has been erroneously referred to in Vermeer literature as a caraco or a pet en l'air (both terms refer to a later and somewhat different type of garment). The Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt possesses a rare collection of well-preserved doublets and bodices from Cologne. While men wore international styles, Cologne women followed closely Netherlandish fashions which were much in vogue until they gradually began to succumb to French style during the second half of the 17th century. The upper part of the jacket in Vermeer's rendition was initially covered by a large white collar.

Although it cannot be seen in most reproductions, the girl wears a blue apron that drapes over a deep olive-colored gown hidden in the deep shadow cast by the table. Aprons of this color were common in Dutch painting. Blue was favored because it hid stains better than lighter colors. A plausible interpretation for the working apron might be that the officer had arrived impromptu while the girl was going about her morning chores. Her body language and expression reveals that the cavalier's arrival, if not anticipated, is nonetheless more than welcomed.

Negative space

Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1670–1671
Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 58.4 cm.
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Perhaps more than any other European artist Vermeer was aware of the expressive potential of the so-called negative space: the empty space around or between the solid objects. In the present composition, a large wedge-shaped area of white-washed wall divides the officer and laughing girl even though one senses that the descending diagonal contours of the figures' arms appear that they will eventually touch. This kind of pictorial device, which nuances the psychological relationship between the two figures, was not casual seeing that it was again repeated in a later painting, Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid.

Form, color, texture and expression

Officer and Laughing Girl (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Vermeer frequently juxtaposes contrasting forms, colors and textures of the motifs to invigorate the picture's narrative. In this work, we can almost feel a spark of uncertainty that crackles between the soldier and the seated young girl.

Even though the observer has the impression that the officer is seated at an arm's length away, it is difficult to gauge his thoughts because he turns his back towards us. His whole figure is immersed in deep shadow and we are permitted to view only a sliver of his face that reveals nothing of his character. One of his hands is hidden while the other curls back on itself conveying, perhaps, a certain emotional withdrawal. The otherwise bright red military jacket is silenced by the deep shadow in which it is enveloped while the silhouette of his pitch-black felt hat hovers menacingly over the scene.

Quete oppositely, it is impossible to ignore the young girl's radiant optimism. Her full, smiling face is bathed in the glittering morning sunlight. Her expression is so positively charged that even the officer's reticence is effectively dissimulated. The gesture of her palm-up open hand extends her openness and desire for communication. The brilliance of the white linen headgear and the shining yellow material of her smart morning jacket contrast markedly with the soldier's muted attire.

The military man

The Procuress, Johannes Vermeer

The Procuress (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
Oil on canvas, 143 x 130 cm.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

The red color of the military uniforms, such as the one worn by Vermeer's soldier, had a practical function. In times of war, the colors and signs were essential to survival. Soldiers could be more easily identified and avoid an attack by his own troops in the tangle of a battle. This was especially true in the Netherlands since there was no single centralized army but a series of local militias banded together in times of necessity. As Vermeer expert Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. observed, the bold red color of the officer's jacket may have been chosen for this color's association with passion and power. Had it been green or beige, the mood on the painting would have been entirely different. The soldier in Vermeer's Procuress also wears a red uniform.

The fact that militia members appear in so many Dutch paintings which picture glutton, gaming, drunken carousing and overall poor behavior (in later pictures amorous situations such as in the present work) rather than in the heat of battle, may be explained by the fact that both abroad and at home the Dutch were not always considered well suited for military life. Even militia officers regularly complained about lack of discipline, insufficient armaments, disorderly weapons exercises and the ease with which one could buy exemption from duty.

The black sash which hangs around the visitor's shoulder tells us that he is probably an officer. But more than his social identity, the viewer's imagination is captured by his psychological presence. Vermeer, as many Dutch painters of the time, employed his officer as a device called repoussoir: the placement of a large figure—curtains were also commonly used—in the immediate foreground to amplify the illusion of depth. Caravaggio became famous for his paintings of ordinary people or even religious subjects in repoussoir compositions. Gerrit Van Honthorst, an immensely popular painter from Utrecht who had traveled to Italy to study Caravaggio's revolutionary works, applied repoussoir assiduously in his own compositions. One such work is The Procuress, which must have been known to Vermeer.

The "Spanish" chair

The Glass of Wine (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The Glass of Wine (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1658–1661
Oil on canvas, 65 x 77 cm.
Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz,
Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

This so-called Spanish chair presents two finials with lion heads with rings through the muzzles. The laughing girl is also seated on such a chair. Vermeer took great care in their rendering, particularly the heads of the hand-carved lions. Various writers have attributed psychological connotations to the lions. Lawrence Welscher opined that the "roaring lions heads carved into the chair posts signal potential violence." In the same interpretive vein, the wall maps signify the incessant shifting of national boundaries achieved at the cost of many lives. A few examples of Spanish chairs can be found in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Prinsenhof Museum in Delft, Vermeer's birthplace. The same chair is represented other times in Vermeer's scenes. In the Woman with a Lute, it appears with a large piece of drapery heaped up in front of it. The different lighting scheme in The Glass of Wine (detail left) lets us observe the finely carved finials.

The fancy felt hat

Soldiers Playing Cards, Pieter de Hooch

Soldiers Playing Cards (detail)
Pieter de Hooch
Oil on canvas, 51 x 46 cm.
Private collection

Vermeer's cavalier sports a fine felt hat made of beaver pelt. This kind of wide-brimmed hat could be made of wool or other materials. Felt made from beaver hair produced a superior hat that held its form and was more weather resistant. Such a hat could not be afforded by all. Vermeer undoubtedly owned one or more hats but in the 1676 probate inventory of his home they have been left out.

Hats played a role in the social ceremonies—both indoors and outdoors. Although a gentleman's hat was normally kept on his head, a few ceremonies required him to take it off such as during prayer, the first time when offering food or when an esteemed person toasted to somebody's health. Thus, Vermeer's dashing soldier who keeps his hat on during his visit is not disrespectful.

As the historian Timothy Brook noted, during the 17th century, beaver pelts imported from the New World were at the center of a lucrative web of trade since the beaver population of Europe had been largely depleted. The beaver-rich New World territory, eventually named New Netherlands, came under the jurisdiction of the Dutch West India Company in 1621, as part of the conditions of the Company's charter.

Beaver pelts were first sent to Russia, where they were valued for their shiny outside fur. Russian customers would eventually sell the furs back into the trade. Once they were worn, dirty and sufficiently greasy, they could be properly felted and converted into felt hats and resold. Hatters used mercury to mat beaver fur's dense, warm undercoat. Exposure to the toxic chemical, however, caused severe mental disorders and is the source of the otherwise strange expression, "mad as a hatter." By 1660 the brim had become so wide that the corners were turned up forming the tricorner.

most of the information above was drawn from Timothy Brook, Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, 2009

The young girl's chair

Spanish chair

Like that of the officer, the chair on which the young girl is seated on was called a Spanish chair, a type of chair which was manufactured in great numbers throughout Europe, although its fundamental form and upholstrey seem to have originated in Spain. Similar chars, clearly a bourgeois piece of furniture, can be seen in numerous well-appointed Dutch interior scenes and are a standard fixture in Vermeer's painting as well. Spanish chairs were made in all kinds of wood and in various sizes, some soberly decorated, others more lavishly ornamented. Normally, rather small, the legs of the chair were slender dimensions and sometimes baluster-shaped (vase-shaped) or twisted. In an engraving by Abraham Bosse, a whole row of such chairs has been lined up against a wall. The fine proportions of these chairs were made more impressive by exquisite upholstery in gilt leather or fabric bordered with fringes. The lion-head finials of Vermeer's chair were probably carved separately by a specialized artisan. The pronounced pointillist treatment of the finial and the embossed leather covering reinforces the air of sparkling morning life which invigorates the encounter between the smiling young girl and her dashing suitor.

A blue apron

Young Woman Wring a Letter with her Maid, Gabriel Metsu

Woman Reading a Letter (detail)
Gabriel Metsu
c. 1664–1666
Oil on panel, 52.5 x 40.2 cm.
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Although it cannot be noted in most reproductions of the painting, the young girl wears a blue apron over a gray gown. The color of the apron, which is evident in various representations of maids by Vermeer and in countless other Dutch genre interior painting, was suited to hide stains. That the young girl is wearing such a workday garment suggests that the officer may have arrived unannounced, or that he was not an ardent suitor as is generally believed by critics, but a familiar face to the young girl.

The green tablecloth

Officer and Laughing Girl, Johannes Vermeer

The green color of the tablecloth contrasts strongly with the officer's red jacket not only through different in brightness but by way of color as well, since green is the complementary of red (complementary colors seem more brilliant when they set next to each other). In order to further increase the apparent luminosity of the tabletop, Vermeer applied thick dabs of paint that "stand up" from the painting's surface and replicate sparkle of daylight in a pointillist fashion.

Rather than a single green pigment, Vermeer probably used some sort of mixture of yellow and blue to create the particular green of the table cloth, because there were few green pigments available to painters at the time and none seem to match the green of the table. Verdigris, the common name for a green obtained by applying acetic acid to a copper plate, is a vivid green and has a somewhat metallic effect, while another well-known pigment, earth green, although useful in some cases, is too lifeless for the present case. However, the knottiness of the paint surface paint is typical of lead-tin yellow, which painters utilized not only for its peculiar tint but for its textural qualities. This lovely, soft, subtle lemony pigment dates back many centuries but was gradually replaced by Naples yellow during the eighteenth century. Prized for its incredibly high covering power lead-tin yellow also blend beautifully with blues to create subtle greens, such as the green trompe l'oeile curtain in Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. Dutch still-life painters often used lead-tin yellow to represent the color and characteristic lumpiness of lemons.

The signature

No signature appears on this work.

(Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)


c. 1658
Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1658–1660
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 2000

c. 1657
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

c. 1657
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).

The painting in its frame

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in their frames).

Johannes Vermeer's Officer and Laughing Girl with frame


  • (?) Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1674); (?) his widow, Maria de Knuijt, Delft (d. 1681);
  • (?) their daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1682);
  • (?) her widower, Jacob Abrahamsz Dissius (d. 1695);
  • Dissius sale, Amsterdam, 16 May, 1696, no. 11;
  • Charles Scarisbrick sale, London (Christie's), 10 May, 1861, no. 89, as by De Hooch, to Lee Mainwaring, said to have been purchased in an unidentified London sale by Double;
  • Léopold Double, Paris (Double sale, Paris [Pillet], 30 May, 1881, no. 16 to Gauchey for Demidoff);
  • Prince Demidoff di San Donato, Villa di Pratolino, near Florence;
  • Samuel S. Joseph, London (1891); Mrs Samuel S. Joseph (1900);
  • [Knoedler, New York, 1911]; Henry Clay Frick, New York (d. 1911);
  • The Frick Collection, New York (acc. no. 11.1.127).


  • Paris 1886
    Exposition rétrospective tableaux anciens empruntés aux galeries particulières
    Palais des Champs-Elysées
    36, no. 107
  • London 1891
    Winter Exhibition
    Royal Academy of Arts
    15, no. 52, as "Interior," lent by Samuel S. Joseph, Esq.
  • London 1900
    Exhibition of Pictures by Dutch Masters of Seventeenth Century
    Burlington Fine Arts Club
    25, no. 18 as "Le Soldat et la Fillette Qui Rit," lent by Mrs. Joseph
  • New York January 11–27, 1912
    Exhibition of Old Masters for the Benefit of The Artists' Funds and Artists' Aid Societies
    M. Knoedler & Co.
    54 and ill.
  • New York June 3–November 2, 2008
    Frick's Vermeers Reunited
    Frick Collection
    no catalogue
  • The Hague September 29, 2022–January 15, 2023
    Manhattan Masters: Frick Collection, New York City

(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).

The painting in scale

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in scale).

Johannes Vermeer's Officer and Laughing Girl in scael

Map-making in the Netherlands

Officer and Laughing Girl (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The links between cartography to art are as old as the field itself. The art of painting has always been present within maps, which in turn have always been regarded as a combination of scientific and artistic skills. One of the most notable examples of the marriage of maps as scientific tools and objects of culture is witnessed in the Netherlands during the 17th century when the Dutch were world leaders in the field of cartographic production.

Dutch mapmakers of the time were usually combining more skills: they were surveyors, cartographers, painters of landscapes and engravers. On the other hand, many 17th-century Dutch painters such as Frans Hals, Vermeer, Gerriter Borch, Pieter de Hooch, Jan Steen, Jacob Ochtervelt, Nicholaes Maes and others, introduced depictions of real maps into their works and decorated their interiors with maps for symbolic or allegorical reasons.

There is a strong Dutch and European custom of using maps as wall hangings even in simple homes. In addition, globes and cartographic artifacts have often been displayed simply because of their own intrinsic beauty. Many maps represent a visual summa of contemporary knowledge, power, and prestige, some of it was religious but most of it secular.

Observation & the "inferiority" of Northern painting

Girgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Excellent 
         Painters, Sculptors, and Architects

A cover of the Lives of the Most Excellent
Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari

first published in 1550

Although Netherlandish painting is universally admired today, in the past, it had detractors. Michelangelo once disparaged Northern painters because although they painted with great ability "trees and grass," they were unable to create great compositions. For example, he found Durer's work uninteresting. Flemish painting was equally distastefu since their work was made "expressly to deceive the outer vision ... and all this, although it may appear good to some eyes, is done truly without reason or art, without symmetry or proportion, and without attention to selection or rejection."

Leonardo da Vinci, when speaking about mechanical means of imitating natural effects method (which Dutch painters excelled in), exhorted the artist not to rely on such shortcuts lest he "always remain poor in inventing and composing narratives which is the aim of that art." Later Sir Joshua Reynolds in his Discourses acknowledged the "mechanical excellencies" of the Dutch school but regretted the "vulgar" use frequently made of such skills.

This attitude reflects the theoretical underpinnings of the great art of Europe which originated in Italy. Even though mimesis, or the most faithful imitation of nature, was a cardinal point in Renaissance painting theory, it was not considered an end in itself. Vasari, whose Vite (Lives) of the Italian painters exerted a lasting influence on the theory of European art, saw the representational skills as a means which always served a main social function—the evocation of a sacred or edifying story, in other words: dramatic narrative. A painting could only be as good as the idea it represented.

In her groundbreaking The Art of Describing Svetlana Alpers argues that we are still the heirs of this tradition, which did indeed dominate the teaching of art in the academies of Europe. She criticizes in particular the tendency to apply methods originally developed by Erwin Panofsky (and later elaborated on by Eddy de Jongh specifically in regards to Dutch art) for the interpretation of images conceived in the classical tradition searching for hidden meanings with reference to emblem books. According to Alpers, this bias has obscured the principal trait of Dutch 17th-century art, the capacity to explore and understand the world through the eye which was a central means of self-representation and visual experience, a central mode of self-consciousness in which meaning is not "read"' but "seen."

Vermeer's debt to Pieter de Hooch

Soldiers Playing Cards, Pieter de Hooch

Soldiers Playing Cards
Pieter de Hooch
Oil on canvas, 51 x 46 cm.
Private collection

Comparisons between the work of Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer are inevitable. In the years when De Hooch was active in Delft, there is little doubt that in such a small city they would not have known each other. Both were members of the Guild of St Luke, the trade association which protected the rights of artists and artisans of Delft. Clearly, they knew each other's work, but the precise nature of their relationship remains conjectural. It was originally assumed that De Hooch, who was three years Vermeer's senior, was indebted to his more renowned colleague. But it was more likely that De Hooch was the true innovator among the two, creating a new type of genre painting with unprecedented spatial order and naturalism. De Hooch's illusionistic integration of figures within a fully rationalized space flooded with natural light was a lesson Vermeer would seize upon and improve after a brief period of "incubation."

As Peter Sutton pointed out, virtually none of the luminous small-scale works of Vermeer can be shown to predate the 1650s, the years in which De Hooch reached his artistic maturity. Moreover, Vermeer's only dated painting of the 1650s was The Procuress of 1656, a large, animated bordello scene in the tradition of the Utrecht Caravaggisti. The work's dark and shallow space has nothing in common with later works and is stylistically incompatible with De Hooch's interiors of the same years.

De Hooch may have very well provided specific models for some of the best works by Vermeer such as the Woman Holding a Balance and The Love Letter.

The encounter

Despite the fact that the composition of the Officer and Laughing Girl is engineered with remarkable precision, just what the painter intended to represent is not certain. Most Vermeer writers read into the scene no more than an honorable woman being courted by a gallant figure, which the extraordinarily brilliant light and intense coloring of the scene seems to confirm. But in Dutch paintings judgments of identity based solely on appearance can be deceptive. Some historians note that the girl's opened hand and smile could be interpreted as a request for remuneration for anticipated illicit activities. Such an interpretive conflict is even apparent in the few mid-17th-century images that do depict a blatant offer of a coin.

Parable of the Prodigal Son
Johan Baeck
Oil on canvas, 122.5 x 184.5 cm.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

As art historian Roberta J. Pokphanh observes, the "conflation of possible prostitutes with female figures who might also be construed as honorable single young women reflect, in some measure, the social reality of the time. Where in previous times, towns in Europe had set regulations on the dress of prostitutes and the location of brothels, which rendered them easier to identify, in the seventeenth-century Netherlands, the profession came to be dominated by poor single women. These women worked out of a variety of locations, including many small-scale brothels, which made it more difficult to readily distinguish prostitutes."

What significance does the map of the Netherlands have? Does it betray the soldier's desire for territorial "conquest" as various writers have suggested or is it merely a symbol of the goodness associated with the Dutch homeland? The cultural distance which separates us from the 17th century prevents us from understanding these few clues, despite Vermeer's picture remains one of his most uncomplicated compositions. It has been recently argued that the ambiguity of mid-17th-century Dutch genre interiors was intentionally calculated so that the eventual purchaser could read the painting according to his own tastes or interests.

The camera obscura

Drawing of a portable camera obscura

Drawing of a portable camera obscura

As long ago as 1891, when eyes had not grown accustomed to the camera's way of seeing, photographer J. Pennell was struck by the disproportionate dimensions of the officer and the girl. As a photographer, Pennell knew this kind of distortion was imposed by a camera on objects closest to its lens. Pennell suggested that Vermeer had used some sort of optical device as an aid to his painting. This aid, called the camera obscura, was widely known in Vermeer's time. The "objective" picture that it creates may have appealed to artists of the age of observation. Other than offering a unique way to study the behavior of light, its image could, at least in theory, be traced thereby offering a shortcut to perspective construction.

Since the camera obscura leaves no physical trace, it has been a matter of speculation whether it was indeed employed by Vermeer. The fact that no camera obscura was listed in the inventory of movable goods made after the artist's death cannot prove he did not have one. Once the camera was taken apart, the only recognizable component would have been its lens, so small that it could be easily overlooked by the inventory clerk.

However, even the most staunch detractors admit that in Vermeer's paintings we do find clear traces of phenomena that are typical of the camera's image.

The fact that no historical evidence has ever surfaced regarding Vermeer's use of the camera obscura should not be considered an anomaly. The 17th century has handed down numerous mentions of the camera's marvelous workings but none that unequivocally testifies that any Dutch painter actually employed it for painting. And it is not out of the question that linking one's art to the camera was looked down upon. The only tie between a know individual painter and camera obscura seems to suggest just that. While Constantijn Huygens had enthusiastically recommended the camera to Dutch painters, he raccounts that Johannes Torretius, a rare, enigmatic Dutch painter, had feigned ignorance on the camera obscura which Huygens had suspected was the source of the "convincing quality" of his art.

If Vermeer did use the camera it cannot be ruled out that he preferred not to be associated with it.

Gerrit van Honthorst: Vermeer's inspiration?

The Procuress, Gerrit van Honthorst

The Procuress
Gerrit van Honthorst
Oil on panel, 71 x 104 cm.
Centraal Museum, Utrecht

One of the two Dutch paintings most often associated with Vermeer's Officer with a Laughing Girl is Gerrit van Honthorst's Procuress. Van Honthorst was a successful artist from Utrecht and in his own time his reputation rivaled and perhaps surpassed both those of Rembrandt and Frans Hals. The figural arrangement of the composition, which represents a bordello scene, is very similar to Vermeer's. A young soldier dressed in red with his back to the viewer sits on the left-hand side of the picture emerged in shadow. A young woman looks at him directly with an unguarded smile across a table covered with a green cloth.

It is hard to believe that Vermeer was not inspired by Van Honthorst's canvas. However, while Van Honthorst explores the sensual potentials of artificial candlelight, Vermeer registers with almost scientific objectivity the cool morning light as it plays gaily upon the scene. Gone is the lute, which in the context of Van Honthorst's scene would have certainly had an erotic undertone. And gone is the elderly procuress who calls attention to the purse gripped by the soldier's hand. Vermeer's ability to invest new and more universal meaning to hackneyed themes was a characteristic of his genius.

The white walls in Vermeer's paintings

The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius

The Goldfinch
Carel Fabritius
Oil on panel, 33.5 x 22.8 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Perhaps the single most overlooked feature of Vermeer's compositions is the superb rendering of the stark, white-washed walls, which are always set parallel to the picture plane. It is impossible for the non-painter to grasp the skill necessary to evoke both their flatness and subdued luminosity with nothing more than shades of drab gray paint. The painter must not only describe the slight irregularities that give each wall its own character and naturalness; he must also be able to capture the gradual weakening of light as it flows from left to right. Moreover, he must give the proper color to the shadows projected by the larger props and architectural features.

Even the walls of the best Dutch interior painters seem drab and lifeless compared to the nuanced liveliness of Vermeer's walls. Many experts have been quick to connect Carl Fabrius' Goldfinch as a possible starting point for the walls of Vermeer's interiors, but only Pieter de Hooch and the obscure Jacobus Vrel seemed so enthralled by the optical presence of a mundane white wall.

In the present painting, the observer can almost feel the sting of the chilly morning air as it enters through the wide-open window. Many who for the first time see Vermeer's paintings from life are surprised that they are much cooler in tone than those of his colleagues, a fact which is rarely apparent in reproductions.

Painters, including Vermeer, used Dutch lead white as the principal component of the gray mixtures for the walls. Various combinations of black and dull brown earth colors, principally raw umber, were used to tone down the white and create shadows of varying depth and hue. The introduction of ultramarine blue pigment into the wall's deep shadows in the Officer and Laughing Girl produces a sense of sparkling morning light that has no precedent in European painting.

Dutch "guardroom" paintings: military life

A Bordello Scene, Jacob Duck

A Bordello Scene (detail)
Jacob Duck
c. 1600–1667
Oil on panel, 41.3 x 54 cm.
Private collection

Whatever the true narrative of the present work may be, there can be no doubt that the looming male figure with his sash and swagger represents a military officer, perhaps of the Delft Civic Guard.

Like almost every one of his compositions, in the Officer and Laughing Girl Vermeer relied heavily on pictorial precedents. However, he always filtered his borrowings through his own personality and artistic vision, producing works of surprising uniqueness. The present picture draws from one of the most popular and commercialized genres in Dutch painting, the kortegaard, or guardroom scene, pioneered by Willem Duyster and Pieter Codde in the 1620s, some fifty years before Vermeer addressed the motif.

Military life was a topical theme in the Dutch Republic in the first half of the 17th century, especially after 1621 when the Twelve-Year Truce with Spain expired and hostilities were renewed. Although much of the actual fighting in these years was confined to the southern border and the eastern provinces, all of Holland's major cities housed garrisons of troops. Dutch soldiers were associated with an assortment of unwholesome activities. Prostitutes were among the most frequent habitués of painted guardroom scenes just as they had been in real life when they trailed behind traveling armies in times of war.

Even though the Dutch faced the specter of warfare for much of its existence, surprisingly scarce attention was paid to armed conflict in painting. Violence, bloodshed or pictorial remembrances of victory or military defeat were exceptionally rare. Curiously, in Dutch 17th-century painting we find thousands upon thousands of paintings of soldiers' non-military activities. They depict soldiers in taverns, stables or tents, often attended by tavern hostesses, prostitutes or camp followers. Some show figures fighting over plunder, perusing their booty or taking hostages, while others portray the quieter side of military life, with men merely smoking, drinking or playing a game of cards or tric-trac, a popular is a board game that was very in France and Holland .

Initially, these less than heroic military men were portrayed in realistic settings such as barns or environments which recall the spaces in which soldiers were garrisoned. Decades later their bad manners were spruced up and were pictured in well-appointed interiors, engaged in polite activities such as letter reading, letter writing or delicate encounters with attractive, well-to-do, women. Willem Duyster and Pieter Codde censored common foot soldiers and concentrated on fashionably dressed gentlemen who most likely were meant to represent officers (true military uniforms did not exist yet).

A Guardroom Interior with a Seated Woman Amongst Plunder
Jacob Duck
Oil on panel, 43 x 34 cm.
Private collection

Initially, these less than heroic military men were portrayed in realistic settings such as barns or environments which recall the spaces in which soldiers were garrisoned. Decades later their bad manners were spruced up and they found their way into well-appointed interiors politely engaged in letter reading, letter writing or delicate social interaction with attractive, well-to-do women. The particularity of the initial low-life scenes is that both Duyster and Codde censored common foot soldiers and concentrated on fashionably dressed gentlemen who most likely were meant to represent officers (true military uniforms did not exist yet). No doubt, other than the theme, one of the major calling cards of the guardroom scene was the amazing display of painterly technique applied to the soldiers' colorful garments and their armature and the wide variety of expressions and gestures that these pioneering artists had mastered.

In any case, Dutch soldiers were associated with an assortment of unwholesome activities. Prostitutes were among the most frequent habitués of painted guardroom scenes just as they had been in real life when they trailed behind traveling armies in times of war.

When Vermeer took on the theme, the guardroom genre had been largely domesticated, with Gerrit ter Borch raising it to hitherto unachievable heights of poetry and realism. Setting aside the typical foibles of the military men, he represented them as human beings, sounding the psychological realms of displacement and loneliness. No doubt, other than being fascinating subject matter, the guardroom scene offered painters amply opportunities to display their skills in rendering colorful garments. Metal armatures, as well, allowed them to demonstrate their prowess in the depiction of shiny metals, which was one of the points of attraction of the still life.

Problems in interpretations: what does the map signify?

The analysis of Vermeer's scenes should be approached with caution since we cannot be certain to what extent he intended to incorporate in them hidden symbolic or moralizing content.

Faced with a lack of hard evidence, art historians have attempted to explain the relationship between the map of Holland and the quiet drama which unfolds before it. Speculating that the young woman is a tidied-up courtesan, Leonard Slatkes proposed that the map refers to her "worldly" nature. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. advanced another hypothesis, more or less opposite. "The carefully integrated relationship between the figures and the map in this sunlit interior expresses not only an unmistakable pride in the land but also the communion between the people who live there and enjoy the fruits of peace. Indeed, the girl, so visually bound to the map of Holland, guarded, as it were, by a lion peering over her back and protected by a strong military presence, might be seen as a distant reflection of the Dutch Maiden, the allegorical symbol of the Netherlands. "

Officer and Laughing Girl (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Nor is it out of the question that the scene represents a low-key, ritualized courtship. Consequentially, the connection between the map and the intimate tête-à-tête would be that the progress of love requires no less strategic battle planning than did wars waged between armies. This interpretation would also account for the looming presence of the officer and the somewhat aggressive air he projects.

In fact, even if the elaborately illustrated map in this picture was made for interior decoration, one of the original functions of cartography maps was to plan battles more effectively. As with their dominance in the field of map making, the Dutch were justly proud of their military prowess having been able to wage the successful war of independence with Spain, one of the most powerful nations in Europe.

Officer and Laughing Girl (detail), Johannes Vermeer

In any case, any Dutchman of the time would have associated the map of Holland map with the vast commercial reach of its growing maritime empire. According to historian Timothy Brook, the officer's felt hat (commonly made of beaver hair) is indirectly connected to Samuel Champlain and his efforts by alliance and conquest to control the beaver pelt trade in the New World. Since Delft was one of the Dutch East India Company headquarters, Vermeer must have been aware of the global expanse of his country through the constant influx of exotic products from all over the globe.

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The myth of Dutch light

The Mill at Wijk-bij-Duurstede, Jacob van Ruisdael

The Mill at Wijk-bij-Duurstede
Jacob van Ruisdael
c. 1670
Oil on canvas, 83 x 101 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Even though the great part of the surface of the Officer and Laughing Girl is painted with dark tones, in no other interior has Vermeer captured the character of the mythical Dutch light.

What is Dutch light? Is it different from light anywhere else in the world? Has it really had a significant impact on art and science? Many often argue that the actual quality of the light in the Netherlands differs enormously from that found in other parts of the world. They claim it increases the luminescence of the landscapes and that 17th-century Dutch landscape painters responded to it more than the topographical features of the countryside itself. The notion ultimately became so prevalent and so widespread that it served as the foundation for an entire Dutch aesthetic movement, dubbed The Culture of Observation.

The myth itself began circulating in the 19th century. In the 1850s, the Netherlands became popular with painters and writers. Monet, Manet, Liebermann, Whistler, Boudin, Fromentin, Mirbeau and the Goncourt brothers all came to see Holland's famous 17th-century paintings and the typical Dutch countryside for themselves. From the diaries and journals of American, German, French and British writers, painters and photographers it seems almost as if the Dutch countryside was discovered through 17th-century paintings, as if the landscapes and the light were the inventions of artists.

The German painter Max Liebermann wrote that "the mists that rise from the water and shroud the world in a translucent veil give that country its extraordinarily picturesque quality ... everything is bathed in light and air." The Goncourt brothers described Holland in their famous journal as "a country lying at anchor," where light shimmers as if it were filtered through "a carafe of salt water." and in the sky, the constant presence of "Ruisdael's swollen, leaden clouds." The contemporary German artist Joseph Beuys suggested that the Dutch light lost its extraordinary radiance after the reclamation of large parts of the Zyder Zee in the mid-1950s, bringing to an end a unique visual culture.

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