Jan Vermeer

Jan Vermeer, or Johannes van der Meer, was a painter who lived in the golden age of Dutch painting. He specialised in painting everyday life in the city of Delft, Netherlands. Not much is known of Vermeer, whose paintings are extremely rare. However, he is widely considered to be a highly gifted painter, especially in the area of interior paintings.

Vermeer was the son of a silk worker, whose hobby was in the trading of art pieces. He was born in Delft and lived and worked there all this life. Not much is known of Vermeer’s art apprenticeship and the net research did not provide me with any conclusive teachers.

The one painting of Vermeer which I liked a lot is the one titles ‘ Soldier and a laughing girl’ or ‘Officer and laughing girl’ as it’s alternatively known. This is a painting which I will attempt to explain in whatever detail I can.

Officer and laughing girl

Location: Frick Collection, New York
Oil on Canvas – 20″ x 18″ (50.5 x 46 cm)
Year: 1658 – 1660

The painting is about a girl sitting on a chair apparently deep in some fun-filled but discomforting conversation with a gentleman. Some sources believe the girl to be a prostitute chatting with one of her clients, but this has never been proven.

Like all artists, Vermeer used hidden symbols, allegories and attributes to pass some message in his paintings. Like all artists, this was his way of telling taking the audience into his mind and giving them a glimpse of what he associates with the painting; of what significance is it to him; and what he wants to achieve in painting it.

A lot of knowledge on how paintings were carried out during Vermeer’s time is lost and art historians painfully try to recreate it. Thus, all said and done, the meanings which we think an artists is trying to portray is only as true as what we think; they can never be verified as artists do not have a tendency to document their paintings and no matter how much research historians conduct, the final result will still just be a speculation, though with a relative certainty.

The whole painting draws attention to the two people at the center. Vermeer accomplishes this by using a tool called the ‘Camera Obscura’: an empty box fronted by a lens. This tool results in the objects at the foreground being blurred and misshapen, thus drawing attention to the much more clearer and detailed picture at the background.

The Girl

The painting gives am impression of intimacy. It gives the viewer a feeling of intruding into a private conversation. Notice how the officer’s gaze is directed solely on the girl giving an impression of deep concentration among the parties involved. Notice how the light falls on the girl’s smiling face, giving us the impression of happiness. The girl is also not looking directly at the officer, but is slightly glanced away, making her look demure, as if she is unsure of what to say to the officer.

Open Hand

However, the girl’s hands are open, inviting conversation and her countenance is frank and honest, showing no shrewdness. All this gives an impression of the girl answering a question of a very personal nature.

The Officer

The officer on the other hand, seems to be completely in control of the situation, imposing a psychological presence. He is looking straight at the girl. Notice how his hands are bent ending them at his hips. It makes us think that he is awaiting some answer from the girl and is all prepared to argue if the answer is not what he expected. Vermeer, as many Dutch painters of the time, employed the officer as a device called repoussoir: the placement of a large figure (objects, such as the curtains, were also commonly used) in the immediate foreground. Repoussoir dramatically increases the illusion of depth in the rest of the picture.

The Map of Holland

Vermeer’s paintings are also characterised by it’s emphasise on details especially in backgrounds. Notice the tapestry background. It’s a map of Holland as was known in his day. Notice how detailed it is even including a Latin title. Notice the detail to the embroidery and colours. The map gives an appearance of being old and worn out, with one of the seams coming apart.

The Seams coming apart

This map was originally designed by Balthasar Florisz. van Berckenrode in 1620. An example of the map exists in the West Fries Museum in Hoorn and confirms the precision of Vermeer’s rendering


Notice the significance of the empty space between the girl and the officer

Vermeer also used another commonly known technique of that time, that of negative space: the empty around or between objects in the artist’s composition. Here, the large triangular area of white-washed wall divides the officer and laughing girl. This increases the psychological tension between the two figures giving as an impression of an easy going conversation on a discomforting topic.

The walls in the background are not pure white, but a slightly blue, giving an impression of the morning rays being reflected off the walls.

The Windows

Notice also the reflection on the glass window. It gives a distorted image of the tapestry, just like any modern day glass window would. Minute difference in colour variations and distortions in the glass are registered in great detail.

The Chair

This chair presents two finials with lion heads with rings through the muzzles. Vermeer took great care in their rendering as can be seen by comparing the chair with a real life one. Some examples of these chairs can be found in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Prisenhof Museum in Delft, Vermeer’s home town.

Close Up of the Chair

All of Vermeer’s arts radiate peacefulness, a sense of intimacy and serenity. In this way, it differs from Raphael’s paintings, which are usually flamboyant and carry a clear message for the masses. Vermeer’s seem to be very private and something we occurs in day-to-day life almost as an intrusion on the subjects.

The subjects in his paintings cry out, wanting to be recognised not as subjects but ad individual living and breathing human beings going about their work. They seem to demand emotion and recognition, just as a child demands for toys.

The beauty of Vermeer’s paintings is the circumstances under which they were painted. Vermeer lived during the last stages of the Thirty Year’s War, where Netherlands was being continuously threatened with some invasion and chaos or another. Europe was having a Bosnian-type of civil war and was tearing herself to pieces. There was civil and religious conflicts wherever one turned, making living to another day a miracle by itself. Unlike another artists, he tried to inculcate some feelings and emotions into the painting, looking at his paintings makes you feel as if you were in that time, in that situation, watching the scene first hand, being an onlooker.

Delft, in particular, suffered terrible devastation in 1654, when some eighty thousand pounds of gunpowder in the town’s arsenal accidentally exploded, killing hundreds, including Vermeer’s great contemporary the painter Carel Fabritius.

Vermeer became a bankrupt due to the fighting in Netherlands. He suffered a stroke and consequently died in 1627, at the age of forty two.


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