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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
Vermeer.
The laughing girl

Hope you enjoy it.

Best,

Alba.

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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The size of Vermeer paintings


Not everybody knows that Vermeer paintings are indeed very small. If you have just seen them on the Internet or books, you may be amazed to discover their actual size. In this picture you can see the painting ‘Officer and laughing girl’ on scale. Its dimensions are 50.5 cm long by 46 cm wide. Moreover, if you want to see all Vermeer’s paintings in scale just click here.

Resources:

‘Officer and laughing girl’ (2001-2009). In Essential Vermeer. Retrieved 17:24, March 30, 2010 from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/officer_and_laughing_girl.html

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Officer and laughing girl

    ‘Officer and laughing girl’ is a painting done by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer between 1655-1670. It represents a laughing woman, with a glass of wine in his hand, who is looking to an officer whose face is not completely seen. Behind them, there is a map of The Netherlands and the light comes through an open window at the right. 

     On the following posts, I’ll be adding more info on specifics parts of the painting, the connection with the artist, his style etc.

Look at the following table for specific details about the painting:

Type:

Oil on canvas

Date:

1655-1670

Dimensions:

50.5 x 46 cm

Location:

Frick Collection, New York.

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