This painting isn’t a portrait, but a so-called tronie: a depiction of a particular character or type. A young woman turns in her chair and looks out at us over her shoulder.
Her arm leans on the backrest, which is decorated with carved wooden lions’ heads.
Together with Girl with the Flute, this work belongs to the smallest paintings in Vermeer’s oeuvre. They are also his only two works on panel, and both depict a young woman wearing a distinctive hat, sitting on the same chair and with a tapestry in the background.
Owing to these likenesses and their similar painting style it has been suggested on more than one occasion that these two paintings belong together. However, they are not the same size, making it unlikely.
An extravagant hat
The young woman’s deep red hat immediately catches the eye. However, it is difficult to define its material. In Vermeer’s day, hats could be made from felted beaver fur or velvet. However, this one looks like it was made from a lush material with feathers.
Its wide brims casts a shadow on the upper part of the woman’s face. Only the tip of her nose catches the light.
The girl’s lips also reflect the light. They are slightly parted, offering a glimpse of her teeth. The white highlights on her bottom lip make it appear moist and as if it is slightly extended.
From beneath the hat’s shadow, her eyes shine out at us thanks to the same white highlights. These small touches enliven the painting, as also in Girl with the Pearl Earring.
The pearl earrings are typical of Vermeer’s work. As was quite often the case, he painted this girl’s earrings at an improbably large scale. They may have been imitation pearls, which at that time were made from painted glass or metal. But, as a painter, Vermeer could of course give his imagination free rein and depict the pearls as large as he wanted.
Vermeer produced the folds in the young woman’s blue outfit by using a contrasting yellow paint.
In the sleeve it is just about possible to make out a pattern. For Vermeer, the fabric’s lustrous qualities were clearly far more interesting than its details.
Vermeer’s focus on the reflection of light can also be seen in the carved wooden lions’ heads at either end of the chair’s backrest.
These ornaments match those on the chair in Girl with a Flute, but here their depiction is more detailed.
Because considerable attention has been paid to the reflection of light and the entire image seems hazy and out-of-focus, some experts have speculated that Vermeer used an optical instrument to create it. Using the lens of a so-called camera obscura, a painter could project an illuminated image of a composition on a flat surface, like a panel or canvas.
The luminous parts of the painting are accentuated by the matt tapestry in the background.
In this wall hanging, two large figures can be detected.
The decoration scheme seems to correlate with tapestries made at the end of the sixteenth century in the Southern Netherlands. Vermeer often depicted tapestries from this period.
Vermeer incorporated his monogram into the tapestry’s pattern. The letters ‘IVM’ can be seen in the top left-hand corner of the painting.
Girl with the Red Hat by Johannes VermeerNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.