Of the 36 known Johannes Vermeer paintings, none is more spellbinding than The Girl with the Red Hat. In pure art history terms, it stands out in two ways:
its subject gazes directly at the viewer - in most Vermeer paintings, his figure or figures are isolated; and
it's the only Vermeer painting on panel that survives.
I'll add a third: The Girl with the Red Hat is one of the most famous works of art... in an art museum overflowing with famous art, the National Gallery of Art.
Johann Vermeer. The Girl with The Red Hat, ca. 1665-1666. Oil on panel. Painted surface 9 by 7 1/16"; framed 15 7/8 x 14 x 1 3/4". Andrew W. Mellon Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Tronie or portrait, this Vermeer painting is, inch per inch, one of the most dazzling in European art history.
At 9 by 7 1/8 inches, The Girl with the Red Hat is curiously small; its size reflects the response of Dutch painters to decorating trends in 17th century middle-class Flemish and Dutch homes. These families often had specific rooms for exhibiting small paintings, called kabinetstukken (or cabinet pieces). Dutch painters like Vermeer (and Pieter de Hooch) were commissioned to create small scale paintings for these spaces, so that these citizens significantly shaped the development of painting and collecting in 17th century Netherlands, especially in Amsterdam and Antwerp.
Art historians generally concur that Vermeer used a camera obscura, a pre-photography device used to project images. This device turns small reflections of light into tiny pinpoints or highlights; these are seen on the girl's earrings, the tip of her nose, in her eyes, and on the chair's lion-head finials (as well as in numerous other Vermeer paintings like Woman Holding a Balance, right).
The Girl looks momentarily startled, as if she'd just turned toward the viewer and gasped. Her surprise leaves you with questions of her. And conjecture.
As in most Vermeer paintings, the viewer isn't allowed beyond the immediacy of the scene presented. Frederick Hartt makes a marvelous generalization about Vermeer paintings:
No matter what Vermeer may suggest or summarize of the outer world or invite the spectator to imagine, wisdom begins and ends in the room, conceived as a cube of shining space in which the figures and their transitory actions seem forever suspended in light. (1)
Imagine what you will, but wisdom begins and ends in any rooms painted by Vermeer, now accepted, along with Rembrandt, as one of the most influential Dutch painters. It's hard to fathom that when Vermeer died in 1675, his wife declared bankruptcy to support herself and their (gulp) eleven children, and sold many Vermeer paintings for a song.
Oh, to time travel!
Johann Vermeer. Woman Holding a Balance, ca. 1664. Oil on canvas, painted surface 15 5/8 x 14"; framed 24 3/4 x 23 x 3. Widener Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
1. Frederick Hartt, Art: A History of Paintings, Sculpture, Architecture, 4th ed., 2 vols. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993), p. 829.
Interested in reading about more Vermeer paintings? Explore The Allegory of Painting.
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