Soldier and a Laughing Girl by Jan Vermeer
Interpretation of Dutch Realist Genre Painting

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Soldier and a Laughing Girl by Jan Vermeer
Soldier and a Laughing Girl
By Jan Vermeer.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Soldier and a Laughing Girl (c.1657-8)


Evaluation of The Soldier and a Laughing Girl
Other Paintings by Vermeer


Artist: Jan Vermeer (1632-75)
Medium: Oil painting
Type: Genre painting
Movement: Dutch Realism
Museum: Frick Collection, New York.

For more examples of 17th century Dutch painting, please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

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Evaluation & Interpretation

A simple but charming example of the unique Dutch Baroque style, this genre painting by Johannes (Jan) Vermeer is based on the theme of a girl entertaining her military suitor. They are seated at a table, close to an open window. In the left foreground of the picture, the officer sits with his back to the viewer, while in the middle ground to the right, the girl faces him as she smiles. She is cradling a glass in her hands. On the wall behind her is a large map of Holland, a decorative item which, along with the chairs, reappears frequently in the artist's subsequent works. The setting itself is relatively common to Dutch Realist genre painting, but Vermeer uses it to demonstrate his mastery of both light and space, as well as his genius for intimacy. Thus for instance, the dark somewhat overpowering silhouette of the soldier not only gives the painting added 'depth', but also helps to create a private more intimate space for the couple, into which the viewer is allowed to intrude. It is this sense of intimacy which distinguishes Vermeer's pictures from similarly themed works by other Dutch Realist artists. Rated as one of the greatest genre paintings of his youth, Soldier and a Laughing Girl goes some way towards justifying Vermeer's reputation as one of the best genre painters of the 17th century.



Spatial Device

In Soldier and a Laughing Girl, Vermeer has provided us with a rather shallow pictorial space in which the rear wall, rendered more active by the placement of the map of The Netherlands, seems to project the figures towards the viewer. This compositional device is related to that developed by Caravaggio in Italy and later popularized in Flanders and Holland by the Caravaggism of his Utrecht followers. Characteristically for Vermeer, items like the map have both a compositional and a symbolic role, seen here and in such pictures as Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (c.1662-1664, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Thus it is rendered in enough detail to be identifiable as the work of the eminent Dutch cartographer Balthasar Florisz van Berckenrode. Iconographically such hanging maps replaced the globes that earlier artists used as a symbol of worldly concerns. (For a contrasting blank wall background, used to focus attention on the subject, see Woman with a Pearl Necklace and the tiny masterpiece in the Louvre, The Lacemaker).

Handling of Light

The painting exemplifies Vermeer's skill as a luminist. The laughing girl is bathed in light, which pours in through the open window and is reflected in the cream-coloured background to which the artist has added a series of ultra-thin glazes of watery pink. The girl's face, is framed and further brightened by her head-scarf and the collar of her dress, all of which is contrasted with the dark sleeves of her yellow jacket, flecked with glittering highlights.

Influence of Gerard Terborch

Soldier and a Laughing Girl contains a number of elements which are quite new to Vermeer's repertoire, causing several scholars to speculate on who might have influenced the young Delft artist. Archival research linking Vermeer and the Zwolle-born portraitist and genre painter Gerard Terborch (1617-81) during the mid-1650s, seems to establish that the latter was an important influence on Vermeer's early development. During the late 1640s, for instance, Terborch executed a number of works that must have startled the younger artist by their magnificent technique as well as by their novel subject matter. Terborch, like Vermeer, was not only an admirer of the Flemish portraitist Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) but had actually visited England, where Van Dyck was active, in 1635. As a result, the subtle exploration of light effects on shiny fabrics and other surfaces, evident in the pointillism in Soldier and a Laughing Girl, as well as in other Vermeer pictures, may also owe something to Vermeer's early contact with Terborch. Even the subject of this important early work is closely related to Terborch's own Soldier and Girl (c.1650, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow).

Use of the Camera Obscura

Nonetheless, despite some obvious similarities with the work of Terborch, this Vermeer composition differs from those of his contemporaries in two important elements: the quality of space, and certain aspects of physical execution, including brushwork. It is possible that Vermeer was strongly influenced in these areas by the use of the camera obscura. This early optical device is basically the forerunner of the regular view camera, lacking only a light-sensitive film on which the image could be preserved. Ever since the Renaissance, artists had employed the camera obscura as an aid to perspective, and perhaps in other ways. Several earlier 17th century Dutch painters had also made use of the instrument, but Vermeer seems to be the only one who employed it to capture the unique and photographic quality of its image.

Exactly how he used it is still uncertain, and much debated. Even so, the small points or dots with which he applied his colours, and the delicate halos of light which sometimes outline his forms, imply that he viewed the projected image through something which may have used mirrors to correct the image and which may have had a ground-glass viewer very much like an old-fashioned view camera. Inherent in the use of an uncorrected camera obscura image, or any photographic image for that matter, is the exaggerated size of the foreground elements (witness the overpowering effect of the soldier's form), and the merging or blending of highlights (witness the hands and glass of the laughing girl). Vermeer's attempt to capture the visual aesthetics of the photographic image supplied by the camera obscura must, at least in part, account for the strikingly modern qualities of his work, while at the same time, it might explain also why 19th century critics often found his work so exotic. Nowadays, surrounded as we are by photographs, we have come to accept the spatial distortions of the camera as quite natural.

Vermeer's use of the camera obscura may (along with the fact that he earned much of his living by non-artistic activities) account also for his limited output, and the small scale of most of his pictures. The camera obscura, apparently used by the master for the first time in this work, may also be responsible for the dramatic shift in both his style and his approach to subject matter after about 1658. Despite stylistic differences with earlier works, the subject matter of this canvas can be related to Vermeer's earlier Procuress (1656, Alte Meister Gallerie, Dresden), and can even be seen as evidence of his continuing interest in the Utrecht Caravaggisti. The open-handed gesture of the laughing girl, and the glass, both of which invite someone to fill them, suggest that the real point of this work may be the Prodigal Son theme favoured by many 17th century Dutch artists. Certainly the prominent wall map indicates the worldly nature of the picture.

Message of the Painting

This early work of Vermeer's contains less symbolism than his later ones. Both the map and the open window are allusions to the outside world, hinting perhaps at the girl's exposure to adult influences - requiring extra care when alcohol is involved. For a work promoting chastity, see Girl with a Pearl Earring (Head of a Girl With a Turban) (1664-6, Mauritshuis, The Hague).


This work is undoubtedly the one listed in the important 1696 Amsterdam sale of Vermeer's paintings as "Soldier with a laughing girl, very beautiful, 44.10 Florins," although it reappeared in a London sale as late as 1861 as the work of Pieter de Hooch (1629-84), Vermeer's contemporary in Delft. This despite accurate attributions in 1858-9 by scholars like Theophile Thore (1807-69) and Gustav Friedrich Waagen (1794-1868). It wasn't until after 1881 that Vermeer was reinstated as the official creator of the work, following research by the New York art dealer Knoedler, who sold it to H.C. Frick in 1911.

Works by Vermeer

For evaluation of other genre paintings by the Delft painter Jan Vermeer, see:

- The Little Street (Street in Delft) (c.1658)
- The Milkmaid (c.1658)
- Young Woman with a Water Jug/Pitcher (c.1662)
- Woman Holding a Balance (1662-63)
- Girl with a Red Hat (c.1666)
- The Art of Painting: An Allegory (Artist in his Studio) (c.1666-1673)


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