Learning History through Skype

This activity is designed for an English History class in Spain.

The aim of the project is to connect students with a History scholar through skype. That way the students will have the opportunity to practice not only their English skills but also their History knowledge. Before the meeting, the students would have studied the area of the talk. For example, imagine that the students are learning the French Revolution during two weeks. At the end of the lesson they would have a videoconference with the scholar. Before the videoconference, students prepare a list of questions they are going to ask the professor. The day of the talk, the students listen and take notes. They will also have time to ask the questions they have prepared. For homework, they will have to edit several posts in their personal blogs about the talk and also do some homework that the teacher would prepare based on the talk.

This is only a brief description of the project. The following posts will establish the profile of the group, the language skills and evaluation criteria etc. I will also clarify the tasks to be performed by the students, the integration in the syllabus etc. Please, go to Footprints in the sand for more information.

*This is part of The Master en Formación del Profesorado de la UNED.


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      How Languages are learned?

Everyday, people wonder at the easiness and speed with which children acquire their first language. These facility and rapidity usually contrast with the long way adults need to cover when they are learning a second language. Therefore, we can assume that there are several differences between first language and second language acquisition. In this essay, I intend to focus on how languages are learned by focusing on statements from Lightbown and Spada (2006).

First of all, we are going to consider the following statement ‘Languages are learned mainly through imitation‘. In order to comment this statement we need to differenciate between first and second language acquisition. While it is true that the exposure to language receive is crucial, Chomsky (1959,1981, 1988, 1994) refered to what is known as the ‘poverty of the stimulus’ or ‘the logical problem of language acquisition’ which means that there is a gap between the input children receive and their output. While the input is often fragmented, incomplete and finate, their output normally is structured, complete and finate. If we consider another statement: ‘Parents usually correct young children when they make a grammatical mistake‘, this is often not true, parents tend not to correct      their children’s grammar and when they do, children often ignore the correction. Chomsky explains this gap between the poor input children receive and their richer output whith the Universal Grammar which is an innate capacity to acquire language. Children are born with this language facility. If we concentrate now on adult language acquisition, it works differently because this innate capacity to learn languages finishes with the beginning of puberty. This is known as the Critical Period and it has been proved by studies as Johnson and Newport (1989). How do adults learn a second language? Imitation is important but crucially for second language acquisition is interaction Hatch (1992), Pica (1994) or Long (1983) to name a few.

We are now going to consider now individual differences and how they affect the learning process, specifically we are going to focus on ‘people with high IQ’s are good language learners’ and ‘the most important factor in SLA success is motivation’. First of all, we need to mention that although second language learning often follows the same stages, learners learn at a different rate and moreover, not all of them are going to reach the same level of proficiency. Learners are different because they have individual differences. Although research in this area of individual differences is problematic, it is now widely accepted that intelligence is not an important role on communication and interpretation in the classroom but it is important when it comes to rule learning. On the other hand, motivation is a much complex difference to consider and according to Lightbown and Spada (2006), ‘research cannot indicate precicesely how motivation is related to learning’ (56).

Turning now to ‘the earlier a second language is introduced (…) the greater (…)’ as we have said before it is true, because there are more chances to obtain full proficiency in one language if it is introduced before puberty (Critical Period Hypothesis). However, there are more variables to consider, if nativeness is not the main goal of instruction, it does not need to start as soon as possible.

It has been mentioned above that SLA follows the same developmental stages even if the learners have different language backgrounds. Therefore the following statement is true ‘teachers should present grammatical rules one at a time (…)’. The developmental sequences of the SLA makes me reflect on how and what we teach our students. It is not reasonable to expect that not very advanced learners know them and yet it is one of the first things that we teach and test. This also answers the following statement ‘teacher should only teach simple language structures before complex ones’. However, it is important to mention that learners may not acquire certain structures if they are not ready, but that does not mean that they cannot be exposed to them.

Turnig now to the error and mistakes, we are going to consider two statements, ‘most mistakes (…) are due to interference’ and ‘Learner’s errors should be corrected as soon as they are made (…)’. It is consider that errors are part of the learning process and can be made because of different reasons such as transfer or overgeneraliations. Therefore, transfer is a source of errors in SLA but not the main or most important one. On the other hand, studies have shown that correction of errors do not mean that the learner is going to learn the correction. We have consider the developmental stages of language acquisition so we know that there are structures the learners are not ready for and therefore, we should not expect that they are going to correct it. Considering speaking exercises the correction of errors is more problematic. Studies have shown that sometimes correction can discourage the students. On the other hand, in content based classrooms recasts are a good way to correct students as long as they are aware that they are being corrected. Finally, I do not agree with the following statement ‘When learners are allowed to interact freely (…), they learn each other mistakes’, Lightbown and Spada (2006) explain that studies have proved that this is not the case. On the contrary, interaction and group work can be very valauble to cause SLA. However, it is important to plan the tasks and activities very well. It is not so much to let them talk freely but let them do so with a goal, for example, discover more about the second language.

Finally, we are going to comment: ‘Students learn only what they are taught’. Whereas it is true that learners can only learn what they are exposed to, it is also true that incidental learning happens. I think every language learner has learnt something from a book, reading or movie and research has proved that. In this sense second language learners are similar to first language learners in the sense that they can learn more than they are taught.


Lightbown, P., & Spada, N. M. (2006). How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gass, S. M., & Selinker, L. (2000). Second language acquisition: An introductory course. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

This article comes from an exercise from Lightbown &  Spada (2006)

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Las ‘cajitas” de Rosa Montero en Te tratare como a una reina un estudio sobre su estructura narrativa.

‘Empecé a moverme por terrenos de mi misma que no conocía. Me había hecho, que nunca lo había hecho antes con una novela, una escaleta con los capítulos y todo, creo que tenía 16 capítulos, algo así, y cuando termine la novela no tenía nada que ver la novela no tenía nada que ver, ni tenia los mismos capítulos, tenía otros personajes.’ (Glenn 280). Es curioso el estilo narrativo de Rosa Montero en Te trataré como a una reina. Muchos críticos lo han identificado con el bolero (López), pero la verdad es que hay algo más. Tiene capítulos periodísticos y detectivescos, entre otros. En este trabajo, vamos a analizar estos diferentes géneros que se utilizan y cómo afectan a la composición y recepción de la novela por parte del lector. También, en la segunda parte, vamos a  relacionar esto con el canon literario y como encajaría Montero él. Como ella afirma, ‘qué codificadas estamos las mujeres y los hombres con respecto a la cultura masculina. Los mitos culturales de esa sociedad son mitos masculinos, que es ese además uno de los retos que tenemos las mujeres escritoras, las mujeres artistas, es crear nuestros propios mitos femeninos’ (Glenn 281).  ¿Lo consigue Montero en Te trataré como a una reina?


En primer lugar, vamos a describir brevemente la estructura de la novela. Rosa Montero dijo en una entrevista: ‘Antes de empezar la novela sabía como quería que fuera. Quería que fuera una novela de cajitas dentro de cajitas. Conseguir que la estructura funcionara de verdad. […] que al terminar de leer la pudieras pensar otra vez toda la novela y entonces entenderla de otro modo.’ (Monegal 10). Según Thomson-Casado, este juego de tonos y géneros es más importante que la propia novela. En mi opinión, ayuda a la novela a ser como es. Lo que es cierto es que el deseo de Montero de que la novela sea ‘cajitas dentro de cajitas’ afecta a la estructura y a la recepción por parte del lector de la novela.


Podemos decir que Te trataré como a una reina es una novela corta. Consta de veintiocho capítulos de aproximadamente catorce páginas, de ellos, dos son cartas que los propios personajes escriben. Además, la novela está precedida de un reportaje de una revista de crímenes que hablan de un evento que todavía no ha sucedido cuando comienza la auténtica historia. Además hay otras tres entrevistas más, entrelazadas entre los capítulos. Esta inserción es bastante compleja y ha sido analizada por diferentes autores como vamos a ver a continuación. Los primeros capítulos nos describen a los personajes y nos ayudan a conocerlos, los siguientes, nos introducen la trama y las conexiones entre ellos. La trama gira en torno al Desirée, un decadente bar-club del Madrid de los 80 y los personajes que lo visitan. Del exterior del club solo tenemos a Antonia y Damián, que no van al Desirée habitualmente.


Como hemos dicho, diferentes autores han conectado la novela con el bolero: Francisca López afirma en ‘Vivir en un bolero’ que Montero usa la técnica del bolero, para construir la novela. ‘Rosa Montero acude al texto cultural del bolero para construir la trama de su novela.’ (1). Se pueden encontrar argumentos de esto incluso en el título que forma parte de la canción que escribe Poco a Vanesa, un bolero, y sobre todo en los personajes de Poco y Bella que viven en un bolero, aunque el mundo de Madrid de los 80 es ‘un mundo en el que ya no se llevaban los boleros’ (Montero 33). Recordamos que el bolero es un género musical que canta a amores imposibles o prohibidos. Originarios y muy populares en Cuba, por eso la conexión con el Tropicana. Así, Poco vive un amor imposible y frustrado con Vanesa y Bella con Poco.


Sin embargo, en mi opinión, la novela no está construida alrededor del bolero, es verdad que el bolero está presente en la novela, pero no es esencial para la trama sino otro género que Montero usa para crear la historia de Te tratare como a una reina. Además la novela no se trata de un bolero propiamente dicho sino más bien de la paradoja del mismo, basta con ver a Poco y como acaba siendo víctima del bolero que el mismo escribe. Parte lo ridículo de Bella y Poco es que intenten vivir como en un bolero. Evidentemente la sociedad madrileña de la época, no sólo no lo permite, sino que los expulsa de ella.  


Muy interesante también son los fragmentos escritos por el periodista Paco Mancebo. Aparecen antes del primer capítulo, el cuarto, el veintitrés y el veintisiete. Estos documentos son extractos de artículos publicados en la revista ‘El Criminal.’ Diferentes ideas se pueden extraer de estos documentos: En primer lugar, es un ejemplo de periodismo, profesión que la propia Montero profesa, pero es un tipo de periodismo que podemos categorizar como ‘sensacionalista’ o ‘amarillo’. Este tipo de prensa, muy popular en España, se centra en sucesos y catástrofes con información detallada o multitud de fotografías de los detalles más escabrosos. Aunque en la novela, no se muestren las preguntas que Mancebo hace, éstas se pueden percibir en las respuestas de los entrevistados y se puede ver que buscan los detalles más escabrosos o personales, que van bastante más allá de la mera información sobre un suceso.  Es interesante preguntarse cuál es la función de estos capítulos en la novela. En mi opinión, Montero los utiliza para alejarse de las voces de la historia y para contar los hechos desde una voz ‘objetiva’ y digo objetiva entre comillas porque en realidad no es así. Como señala Glenn, estos cuatro capítulos son muy importantes porque son presentados desde la visión de hombre, el periodista es hombre, al igual que los entrevistados como Menéndez o Vicente.  Estas opiniones masculinas sin ninguna duda distorsionan la realidad y presentan una imagen de los personajes o los hechos cuanto menos subjetiva por no decir falsa. Por ejemplo, Don Antonio es presentado como una víctima y Bella como una loca. Puede que esto sea verdad, pero no completamente: Antonio no es un respetable ciudadano que iba a casarse con la honrada Vanesa y Bella no es una loca desdichada.


Luis Suñer critica que Montero ‘debería prescindir de apoyaturas digamos objetivas, como son los fragmentos de reportajes –lo más débil de la novela- y darles a los personajes, a la acción misma, la posibilidad de que ellos mismas expliquen también eso.’ (Gleen 197) Sin embargo, este argumento se puede desmontar muy fácilmente ya que en ningún momento son ‘objetivas’, como hemos visto y porque también nos presenta otra ‘realidad’, aunque claramente distorsionada.  No creo que una explicación por parte de los personajes ayude tanto al mensaje que quiere transmitir Montero en la novela. Como señala Glenn ‘Montero appears to accept tradition by making many of her male characters writers, but in an act of literacy subversion she shows how they exercise illegitimately and for their own purposes the power of the written and of the spoken word.’ (197) y yo creo que acierta plenamente. Tanto la descripción de Antonio como de Bella están estereotipadas, Antonio como víctima y Bella como una ‘castrating bitch.’ (Glenn 197) Por eso, solo los lectores atentos serán capaces de leer entrelineas y desmotar la subversión de Montero según se va leyendo la historia.


Sin embargo, es importante resaltar que varios autores han criticado la novela porque solamente ofrece la perspectiva desde el punto de vista de los hombres. No obstante, esa es la paradoja de la novela, algunos lo ven como una crítica al feminismo, como Ahumada-Peña, la propia Bella afirma en la novela que por mucho que las feministas digan, el mundo no está hecho para mujeres solas. Sin embargo, yo no creo que sea así. El hecho de que Montero solamente nos muestre la perspectiva del hombre y presente al hombre como víctima, en el papel de Antonio, no hace más que reforzar lo ridículo de la historia. En primer lugar porque Antonio no es una víctima, prohíbe a su hermana tener relaciones con Damián cuando él está haciendo lo mismo con Vanesa, y no sólo eso sino que su  pasatiempo es conquistar a mujeres casadas de clase alta y abandonarlas cuando ellas deciden dejar a sus maridos. Por lo tanto, no se puede categorizar como víctima, al igual que las opiniones presentadas en el periódico se deben tomar con cautela, la opinión que Menéndez pueda tener de Bella, el lector sabe que no es real, Menéndez, el dueño del club, que lee novelas pornográficas detrás de la barra no puede ser una fuente de autoridad para dar opiniones. Por lo tanto me reafirmo en la idea de que la voz dominante del hombre no es sino otro aspecto de la paradoja que Montero construye en la estructura de su novela.


Hasta tal punto Montero da el poder a la voz masculina, que, casi, la única forma de escritura femenina viene de las manos de Antonia, en las cartas que escribe a su madre. En la carta, podemos ver errores gramaticales, faltas de ortografía y lenguaje muy simple, lo que apoya que las mujeres no tienen identidad en la novela. Sin embargo, sabemos que Antonia si sabe muy bien lo que quiere que es estar con Damián, de hecho a lo largo de la novela, va formando su identidad.


Podemos mencionar también el importante papel que tiene el lector en la obra. Para empezar, la estructura no es lineal, empezamos con el  artículo de periódico titulado ‘El extraño caso de la asesina fumadora.’ Con lo cual desde el principio tenemos la información del crimen que ocurre al final de la novela, como ya hemos mencionado anteriormente. Además, como ya sabemos, los capítulos son independientes unos de otros, describiendo diferentes personajes o situaciones. El lector tiene que ir uniendo a todos esos personajes, algunos tienen lazos familiares, otros se conocen de antes… y formando un esquema de la decadente ‘pandilla’ del Desiré. Además aunque muchos aspectos terminen encajando y mencionándose como de donde viene el Poco, otros quedan a la libre interpretación del lector como por ejemplo la ‘locura’ de Bella, por que cometió el crimen, que no sólo pueden interpretarse libremente, sino también generarse con la colaboración justo lo que Montero pretendía como hemos dicho al principio. Aunque podemos tener ideas, no está explicado explícitamente en el texto. Como dice Umberto Eco en  The role of the reader, ‘La existencia misma de textos del destinatario (el texto ‘original’ constituye un tipo flexible del que pueden realizarse muchas actualizaciones’ (1)


Hasta tal punto, da un papel importante Montero al lector que, como ella ha explicado, la novela tiene más de una lectura. Por ejemplo, en la entrevista de Mancebo a Menéndez, este explica que el ataque se debe a los celos de Bella. Sin embargo, al final de la novela, descubrimos que no son los celos, aunque no sepamos a ciencia cierta cuál es la razón por la que Bella actúa contra Antonio, se puede afirmar los celos no es la razón, sino una mezcla de odio por lo que le ha hecho a Antonia y su odio hacia los hombres en general cuando descubre la muerte de Poco y la paliza que ha dado a Vanesa. No sabemos si se vuelve ‘loca’, si es consciente de lo que hace o cual de las razones anteriores tiene más peso para que tire a Antonio por la ventana, pero sabemos a ciencia cierta que los celos no están entre ellas. En realidad, solamente cuando el lector acaba la novela, puede tener una visión de la historia y buscar sus propias respuestas que no se encuentran en la obra.


En esta primera parte del trabajo de la obra, estamos discutiendo los diferentes géneros y estilos que Montero utiliza en Te tratare como a una reina, y viendo si hay alguno que predomina sobre otros, como algunos autores han defendido. Nos queda por analizar otro género importante que podemos encontrar en la obra, está relacionado con los artículos de la revista, pero en realidad lo podemos encontrar en casi la totalidad de los capítulos. Se trata de la novela negra o ficción criminal. Desde el capítulo inicial en el que Mancebo explica el ataque de Antonio, el motivo del ataque o del crimen, está presente en la obra, por lo tanto el tono criminal, o detectivesco se entrelaza a lo largo de toda la novela. Incluso podríamos llegar a decir que Te tratare como a una reina,  tiene parte de novela de misterio, ya que nos presenta un ataque en las primeras páginas y, aunque sabemos quién es la atacante, vamos descubriendo su relación y motivos a lo largo de la obra. Para Thomson-Casado, una parte muy importante de las novelas negras del postfranquismo es la crítica social y eso lo encontramos en Te tratare como a una reina.


En definitiva, y para cerrar esta parte del trabajo, la composición de la novela es muy interesante. Los capítulos independientes, a veces narrador omnisciente, a veces no, a veces ‘stream of consciousness’, a veces no, y los capítulos periodísticos

Lo que sí se puede afirmar, es que Montero no sigue solamente la tradición del bolero en esta novela como muchos autores han mencionado sino que la  subvierte, la convierte en una paradoja casi increíble. ‘Rosa Montero reserva la abierta periodización para los pasajes en que mimetiza el estilo truculento y los mensajes subliminales misóginos de la prensa sensacionalista que ella tan bien conoce.’ (Reisz 191) El complejo proceso de composición de la novela en capítulos independientes o ‘cajitas’ hace que al principio sea un poco abrupto el cambio de uno a otro, pero sin embargo, el lector comienza a hacer conexiones muy rápidamente y a tomar un papel activo en la lectura de la obra. Estos diferentes tonos y géneros literarios y la estructura peculiar hacen que la novela sea como es y que el lector tenga un papel tan activo.


Para responder a la segunda pregunta de este trabajo, vamos a mencionar algunos aspectos del contexto sociocultural de la novela. Como dice Trongard, ‘Javier Escudero explica que la novela de Montero constituye ‘un lúcido testimonio de la problemática social y vital que enmarca los anos de la transición.’ (150). Además de los cambios políticos, desde una dictadura hasta una democracia, la transición también da lugar a una liberalización creciente de actitudes sociales en cuanto a los roles tradicionales del género y la libertad sexual.’ (2).  En este contexto de la transición y la movida madrileña escribe Montero esta novela, que también coincide con lo que se conoce como el ‘boom femenino hispánico de los ochenta.’


Siguiendo a Susana Reisz cuando habla de las escritoras que se hicieron famosas en las décadas de los setenta y ochenta: ‘el estilo de casi todas ellas se pueden leer, si uno quiere, como ‘copia’ de otros estilos literarios cultos o populares.’ (193). En su artículo menciona tanto el bolero, el tango o la telenovela como autores como García Márquez. Sin embargo, ella nota que hay algo especial u otras voces, en el caso de Montero un ‘pot-pourri de géneros’, por lo tanto hay algo innovador en la técnica. Pero también en el contenido, como vamos a ver a continuación.


Una de las ideas que planteamos en la introducción a este trabajo es que Montero alenta a las autoras femeninas a ‘crear propios mitos femeninos’. Si estudiamos ‘como la mujer retrata a la mujer’, en Te tratare como a una reina, Montero no sale muy bien parada, los personajes femeninos son un poco estereotipados: Antonia como una mojigata de pueblo que está dominada por su educación católica, Bella es una cantante fracasada que no ha conseguido nada de lo que quería en la vida y Vanesa es una aspirante a cantante que friega suelos de oficinas. Podemos afirmar que ninguna se va a convertir en un ‘mito femenino’. Sin embargo, es verdad que las tres consiguen liberarse en distintos puntos de la novela. Vanesa consigue un hombre que la ama de verdad y quiere casarse con ella, hay que mencionar que ella estaba acostumbrada a hombres o chicos que se aprovechasen sexualmente de ella, Antonia consigue encontrar el amor con Damián y se libera de su hermano Antonio y de la fuerza de su educación conservadora con esa aventura sexual que tiene con Damián y además con el accidente de su hermano, que le permite ser una mujer libre, por lo que toma el tren para comenzar una nueva vida. En el caso de Bella, podemos decir que su ataque a Antonio es una venganza a todos los hombres que la han hecho daño a ella y otras mujeres, no olvidemos que una de las razones del ataque es que Antonio prohibiera la relación de Antonia y Damián. Por lo tanto, por una parte sí que hay algo de ‘liberación’ algo que nos puede llevar a crear un mito, pero Montero nos deja un sabor agridulce, Vanesa muere asesinada por una paliza de Poco y Antonia termina yendo en el mismo tren en el que iba siempre a ver a su madre. Así podemos afirmar que aunque Montero cree que las escritoras femeninas deben romper con la tradición masculina y sus mitos y crear mitos femeninos, ella no predica con el  ejemplo en Te tratare como a una reina.


En resumen, en este trabajo hemos investigado dos preguntas. En primer lugar, los diferentes géneros de Te tratare como a una reina y como la estructura afecta a la novela y concluimos diciendo que la novela tiene un popurrí de géneros literarios, ninguno en particular más saliente, sino que es el uso de esa mezcla de géneros y tonos como Montero manipula y sorprende al lector con esta novela de diferentes lecturas. Por eso también resaltamos el papel activo del lector. En la segunda parte, hablamos más de la contextualización de Montero y de esta novela en particular en un canon literario  principalmente masculino y con mitos literarios masculinos también. Concluimos esa parte diciendo que aunque Rosa Montero tiene algo de escritora única que consigue alejarse de la escritura tradicionalmente masculina, no consigue crear un mito femenino o romper con esa codificación masculino-femenina de la sociedad actual.


En conclusión, podemos decir que Te trataré como a una reina es una novela innovadora en la técnica y en el contenido. Para la técnica utiliza una mezcla de géneros muy variopinta y una estructura, como hemos explicado, de ‘cajitas en cajitas.’ En cuanto al contenido, la voz masculina dominante se subvierte para darnos a conocer el poder que tenían las mujeres en el Madrid de los 80, aunque no tuvieran voz.


Ahumada-Pena Haydee. Poder y genero en la narrativa de Rosa Montero. Madrid: Editorial Pliegos, 1999. Print.

Amell, Alma. Rosa Montero’s Odyssey.Lanham,Md: University Press ofAmerica, 1994. Print.

ECOU.The Role of the Reader. Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts,Bloomington,IndianaUniversity Press, 1995. web.

Escudero, Rodríguez J. La narrativa de Rosa Montero: Hacia una etica de la esperanza.    Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 2006. Print.

Harges, Mary C. Synergy and subversion in the second stage novels of Rosa Montero.New York: P. Lang, 2000. Print.

Gleen Kathleen M. “Victimized by misreading: Rosa Montero’s Te tratare como a una reina.Anales de la literatura española contemporánea. 12:12 (1987): 191-201. Web.


Gleen Kathleen M. “Conversacion con Rosa Montero” Anales de la literatura española contemporánea.  15:1-3 (1990): 275-283. Web.


Lopez Francisca. “Vivir en un bolero. ‘Te tratare como a una reina’” Especulo. Revista de estudios literarios. 23 (2003)


Montero Rosa. Te tratare como a una reina. Madrid: Barral (1988). Print.

Reisz, Susana. “Tropical como en el Tropico. Rosa Montero y el ‘boom’ femenino hispanico De Los 80.” Revista Hispanica Moderna 48.1 (1995): 189-204. Web.


Thomson-Casado Kathleen. The novels of Rosa Montero. TesinaOhioStateUniversity, 1994. Web.

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‘Officer and laughing girl’- An story inspired in Vermeer’s painting

Vermeer probably painted ‘The Milkmaid,’ ‘Officer and laughing girl’ and  ‘Girl reading a letter by an open window’ between 1657 and 1660. Studies have proved that he used a common setting for the three paintings that does not seem to reappear in the artist’s later works. This suggests that this Room was in Mechelen, the family’s inn where Vermeer lived during the early years of his marriage.[1]

This story is placed in that small hotel where Vermeer lived. These are the characters…

The Officer
The laughing girl

Hope you enjoy it.



I was living in Delft, which in those days was one of the most wonderful cities of Europe. It was rich, cultured, cosmopolitan, full of joy. In its port, there were always ships from all around the world with all types of loads and people that gave to my city a extraordinary air. I worked on a small hotel next to the city centre that was owned by my mistress Catharina, the wife of the famous painter of Delft Vermeer.

It was a nice small hotel which enjoyed quite a great prestige due to the fact that my master had been chosen trustee of the Saint Lucas Guild in 1662. This new title made that people that satayed in the hotel were people of money, culture and good manners. You may know the saying that you can catch anything but beauty, and as I was really pretty, I started to learn manners and culture. Due to my distinguished appearance and good manners, my mistress started to entrust me the hotel managing work and she started to leave to me the most important duties of the small hotel. That way, I met very important influential people and above all, I started to know my master Vermeer, because it was him the one I had to show the ledger at the end of the every month.

My master did not paint a lot, just about two works per year. People said that he lived on his wife and mother-in-law’s incomes, but I think that he was so perfectionist that he did not conclude a piece until he was not totally satisfied with it, that is what I saw. Little by little, my master came more frequently to the small hotel. He enjoyed the cosmopolitan atmosphere. He used to sit on the guests’ tables and they freely talked about human and divine subjects, but the most common topic was the imminent war against France. They talked about the king Louis 14th, that wanted the property of our lands.

It was 1672 when the war started and with it our decline. No more important men, no more precious loads on our ports, Delft was full of soldiers and peasants and noblemen that had lost their lands because they were inundated to stop the French army. War changes everything, but I was twenty three years old and I did not want to accept reality. The rooms and tables of the small hotel only had poor people and soldiers recruited for battle. My master Vermeer came to the small hotel but he did not talk any more he just lonely observed us from a corner. I kept doing my duties trying not to see what was changing around me, I was young and inexperienced.

One day, an officer entered, with his red jacket and his wide brim hat. He was handsome, his smart appearance caught my eye. He politely talked to me to ask for a room. He was responsible for the recruitment of more soldiers so he had to spend a couple of months here. It was not very common to see people with these manners in those days and he was the exception. It was love at first sight, it was Cupid, it was… The thing is that I felt at his feet.

Every time he went out or came in, every time he asked for a pint, every time he sat to eat, my heart missed a beat. I found every excuse to be near him, to talk to him, to waste time with him. I neglected the business, I did not care about other guests or the other servants in my charge. My master, who was still taciturn in his corner, noticed his presence and began to struck up a friendship with him. They sat and have a beer or just peacefully chat about war. Little by little, I started to appear in their conversations. My master started to talk about my great worth, my loyalty, my beauty, my culture and the interest in me of the young soldier grew. He paid more attention to me. He looked at me and smiled, he always had a polite flattering comment for me.

When all my chores where done, I liked to sit by the window with the sun’s lights filtered. Then, I would embroidered or sew or dreamed, that was my favourite place because I could see and control the inn and have a rest at the same time. The young officer started to sit next to me and we chatted. He told me his stories, his life around the world. He talked about far away countries, about extraordinary unknown cultures. He had a soft refined voice. He told stories wonderfully as the best narrator. He was handsome and made my imagination fly away. I have never left Delft and I fell in love with him, as a little girl.

One day, my master brought his painting tools. They usually were at his studio on the first floor. There, he had his table, colours and paintbrushes. But he brought everything to the small hotel and placed in his corner, he started to study the soldier and me very carefully. I just had eyes for him, I did not see the rest of the guests and I did not notice how he began to measure the room, he looked and looked, opened and closed the window, moved and removed the map of Holland and West Friesland that decorated the window.

Our romance went extremely well, or at least, that what I thought. As a normal couple we used to go for a walk, or to the theatre. This evening I am referring to, I had paid particular attention to my aspect, as you can see on the picture. My lover approached very gallantly and sat in our place. He  passionately looked at me and smiled, I was smiling and looking at him as well. It was the beginning of a wonderful night. But just then, my master shouted, ‘Don’t move! Like that! that is! Stop!’

We had a terrible fright and did not know what to do. Everybody was staring at us. I just asked, ‘What’s going on sir?’ He ran and came near us saying, ‘Smile and look at each other like you were doing. Smile! No, no! don’t look at me! don’t turn! Put your hands like that! just like before!!’  ‘But sir! It’s my free afternoon and we’ve got plans.’ ‘No, no no! we can’t waste this light! It has to be done now!’ the young officer did not know what to do, but my master’s look said everything and we obeyed. We stayed one hour, an another one, an another one until the sunset. Then he told us that the following day he would be expecting us with the same clothes because he had to paint us. The young soldier felt flattered and he said that he was honoured to be painted by Vermeer, he said that the painting would carry our names and that we will be immortal. I protested because I wanted to be with him alone and enjoy his company. I was aware of the time my master spent painting his works. I said that and my lover promised me that he would go to my room everyday when the painting session had finished  so we could talk about our future and life in common. I wanted to keep on protesting –I had many tasks to do in the small hotel and I could not spend that much time to pose- but my master said that other maids could do them for me.

So every evening, I dressed up and I repeated the love-look and then we went to my room and enjoyed our love. Morning found us talking about our future, our house and children when this dammed war ended. He would take me to his town and we would start a family. He loved me, that what he said when he made love to me. I devoted myself to him, he was everything to me.

My master was happy. He did not have to gave me orders. I just looked and him and smiled thinking of our future. He was not given orders either. He had a natural pose. One evening, another one and another… until the painting was almost finished. My master did not show it to us because he thought that it brought bad luck so he always had it under lock and key.

One afternoon, the sun shone specially and it came through the window. I almost could not see my lover. My master said, ‘I’m going to finish at last. This is the light I wanted. Now, I have everything. Tomorrow will be my last day.’ That night I told my young soldier that at last we could go out the small hotel. We planned that I will introduce him to my small family and my few friends. I would tell them that we were going to marry as soon as the war end.

The last afternoon posing was special. I dressed up and I felt extremely happy. I went to the room and waited for my lover to enter with his red jacket and broad brimmed hat. My master was also on a happy mood. He was about to finish his painting and he was proud of it. Today, he was going to let us see it for the first time. My lover and me painted for the eternity, as our love.

But I wait and wait and he did not show up. He had left his room that early morning without saying anything. He had just packed and left. My master showed me the painting showed me the painting. I wanted to destroy it. It was a lie. I could not allow that love-look I was having in  my eyes to be seen by everybody. My eyes were lying! I had to destroy it! I…

[1] ‘Reconstructing the Space in Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl’ in Anistoriton journal of History. Retrieved 21:29, April 20, 2010 from http://www.anistor.gr/english/enback/p043.htm

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‘Officer and laughing girl’ Another Vermeer painting.

The painting ‘Officer and laughing girl’ was done by Johannes Vermeer between 1655 and 1670. It presents a inside room bathed by the traditional golden light used by Vermeer. The composition portraits an official of the Dutch army with his red uniform and a big black hat in the foreground who is talking with a young woman in the background. Light, that comes from the mid open window, helps to contrast light and darkness creating a clear moment of intimacy in which the officer and the girl are mere objects to create a marvelous sense of light, space and perspective. The rosy woman, holding a glass of wine, is looking to the officer and laughing at some witticism. They are both seated on two chairs that constantly appear in Vermeer’s compositions as well as the map placed on the wall.

  • Provenance and general details of the painting:
  • As seen on the essential Vermeer webpage:(?) 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);
  • Henry Clay Frick, New York (d. 1911);
Type: Oil on canvas
Date: 1655-1670
Dimensions: 50.5 x 46 cm
Location: Frick Collection, New York.
  • Colour technique:Vermeer painted ‘Officer and laughing girl’ with a blush loaded with pigments with the technique of ‘pointillé‘ that is applying thick dabs. With the dabs Vermeer is able to distribute sparkling points of light throughout all the canvas. Regarding the use of colours, Vermeer mostly used yellowish and reddish tonalities. The brightness of these tonalities stood out by the use of light that we are going to comment now.
  • Use of light:Vermeer developed his mastery as a luminist. Maybe, one of the main features of this painting is Vermeer’s use of light. A heavy bright light that bathes the room and causes intense contrasts (As some of the paintings of the Italian artist Caravaggio.) between the light and dark zones. The light comes from the half open window at the left hand side of the painting and reflects itself on the cream-coloured background

    that is enhanced even with pink tonalities and above all the woman’s face who is bathed in this light. In contrast, the figure of the officer with a dark hat and red jacket is hardly a silhouette. The light helped Vermeer to create on the one hand, the atmosphere of the room and perspective on the other.

  • Officer:

As we have mentioned, the officer is turned round so we could barely see his face, moreover he is nor bathed by light as the lady is. The light and his position in the picture help to produce a feeling of uncertainty between the laughing girl and him and also the sense of space and perspective. The observer might feel difficult to decode his thoughts but we know that he is having a good time because the lady is laughing at his face. Critics have argued that the position of his hand indicated emotional withdrawal but this clearly contrast with the girl’s expression. His face is immersed in deep shadow and it does not tell anything from the character.

The colour red of his uniform was used by the Dutch Army in the 17th century. We know that he is an officer because he wears a black sash on his right shoulder. However, the observer in not thrilled by the rank of the officer but by his psychological presence in the painting. Vermeer uses him as a repoussoir that is in two dimension works, it is very common to place a big object in the left/right foreground to direct the viewer’s eye into the composition. Finally, as Arthur Wheelock has stated the vermillion of the 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 girl:

    As in most of Vermeer’s paintings, the woman of the picture has not been identified. Some critics claimed that she might be Vermeer’s wife. Her face is covered by light contrasting the obscure and austere presence of the officer. She wears a yellow garment that Dutch women wore it as a daily wear. Furthermore, although not seen in many reproductions, she is wearing an olive apron, which was very common in Dutch paintings. One possible explanation for this is that the officer has arrived while she was working in the house. Nonetheless, her expression and body language suggests that this presence is more than welcome.As can be seen in with an X-ray photograph, Vermeer painted the woman with a large cap that covered most of her yellow garment, but Vermeer decided to reduced it and now the cap frames her face and makes us focus on her expression.

  • Chairs and map:

The chair that appears in the painting is known as ‘Spanish chair’ and it also appears even in the same position in other paintings. The chair is characteristic because of the two finials with lion heads and rings through the muzzles. Furthermore, we have to pay attention to the map that hangs at the back. It is a map of Holland and West Frieseland designed by Balthazar Florisz Van Berckenrode in 1620. This same map also appears in ‘The love letter’ and ‘Woman in blue reading a letter’. In the former it appears in brown but in the latter it appears in colour. However, there are no copies of the map so we cannot know which one Vermeer had.

  • Camera Obscura in this paintingAccording to the BBC History webpage, there is no documentary evidence that Jan Vermeer used the camera obscura in his painting. However it is commonly believed that he did. Nowadays, the only sources of information are his paintings themselves. At the end of the 19th century, the American Joseph Pennell was the first to state that Vermeer might have used this device in paintings such us ‘Officer and laughing girl’. The officer and the girl sit very close in the painting however, the size of the officer’s head is twice as bigger as the size of the lady’s. Even though the perspective is correct in the geometrical sense, the problem is that the viewpoint is taken from the officer. This was then called ‘Photographic perspective.’ As explained in the BBC website, nowadays we are familiar to the fact that in pictures foreground objects appear bigger than those of the background. This is very unusual for Vermeer’s times, his contemporaries would have probably painted the officer and the girl in their actual size.

Another element that suggests that Vermeer might have used this device are the maps that hang on the walls of his paintings like in ‘Officer and laughing girl.’ The maps of the paintings are exact reproductions of the original. Vermeer might have copied them with the help of the camera obscura although he had other alternatives to do the copies so faithfully. All in all, in the book Vermeer and the camera obscura by Steadman, he concludes that Vermeer did use the device although there are still a portion of Vermeer scholars that do not agree.

  • Space and perspective in the painting

    Swillens claims that the same room used in ‘Officer and laughing girl’ is also used in other two paintings: ‘Girl reading a letter by an open window’ and ‘The Milkmaid.’ It is generally believed that Vermeer painted these three paintings between 1657-1660. The setting does not seem to appear again in other works of Vermeer. Thus, it is believed that the room was at Vermeer’s small hotel where he lived in the first ages of her marriage.

    For more information of space and perspective on ‘Officer and laughing girl’ click here.

  • Bibliography

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Vermeer and the camera obscura

Did Vermeer use the Camera Obscura?

According to the BBC History webpage, there is no documentary evidence that Jan Vermeer used the camera obscura in his paintings. Nevertheless, it is commonly believed that he did. Nowadays, the only sources of information we have are his paintings themselves. The camera obscura was the predecessor of the photographic camera and it was used by painters in the 18th century. However, did Vermeer use this technique in the 17th century?

At the end of the 19th century, the American Joseph Pennell was the first to state that Vermeer might have used this device in paintings such us ‘Officer and laughing girl’. The officer and the girl sit very close in the painting however, the size of the officer’s head is twice as bigger as the size of the lady’s. Even though the perspective is correct in the geometrical sense, the problem is that the viewpoint is taken from the officer. This was then called ‘Photographic perspective.’ As explained in the BBC website, nowadays we are familiar to the fact that, in pictures, foreground objects appear bigger than those of the background. This is very unusual for Vermeer’s times, his contemporaries would have probably painted the officer and the girl in their actual size.

Another element that suggests that Vermeer might have used this device are the maps that hang on the walls of his paintings like in ‘Officer and laughing girl.’ The maps of the paintings are exact reproductions of the original. Vermeer might have copied them with the help of the camera obscura although he had other alternatives to do the copies so faithfully. All in all, in the book Vermeer and the camera obscura by Steadman, he concludes that Vermeer did use the device although there are still a portion of Vermeer scholars that do not agree.

Have a look at another extract from the film ‘The girl with a pearl earring’ in which you can see Vermeer’s use of the device.

For more information and bibliography:

‘Vermeer and the camera obscura’ in BBC History in depth. Retrieved 13:05, March 31, 2010 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/vermeer_camera_01.shtml

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Vermeer’s colours

Critics say that there are no more than 20 different pigments in Vermeer’s paintings. However, he seems to use 10 of these pigments constantly. We have to take into account that he lived in Delft in the 17th century. In addition to that, each pigment had to bemade separately and they had dofferetn characteristics in terms of workability or drying time.

  • The Wooden Palette:

    The wooden palette is the one that appears on the photo and represents the seven pigments that Vermeer most used:

1. white lead
2. yellow ochre
3. vermillion
4. red madder
5. green earth
6. raw umber
7. ivory black

To conclude, have a look at this extract taken from the movie ‘The girl with a pearl earring’ in which you can see how Vermeer worked and made his pigments.

Bibliography and more information:

‘Vermeer’s Palette’ in Essential Vermeer (2001-2009). Retrieved 10:27, March 31, 2009 from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/palette/palette_vermeer%27_palette.html

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