In this famour picture by Vermeer we can clearly distinguish four different characters. A whore, a procuress, a young man and anotherman drinking some spirits are the protagonists of the picture.
The whore is a young girl with fair features and clean clothes. She is ready to do her job with the young man in red who is touching her. She holds a glass of some spirits with which she intends to make her suitor go drunk. Whores were supposed to make their lovers go as drunk as possible at that time, and providing they got very drunk, sex was no longer an option for them. She seems to be posing very tranquil and she offers both the viewer and the young man a fair smile. She is presented as a sensitive young girl who is ready to make her job.
The young man in red is the suitor to the young whore in yellow. He is a young man -probably he is a soldier- that wants to have some sexual relationships with that girl. He is waring a red coat -maybe symbol of passion and sexual desire- and a large, black hat with which he is trying to cover the girl, as if he was willing to shelter her -probably meaning he wants to take on her in the bed. He also has his hand on her left breast, as though he was embracing her, and sexually possessing her -showing his clear intentions- at the same time.
The procuress is the woman in black. She is not easily recognised because she is not like most procuresses in other pictures. Her features are fair and she even looks like a man. She is paying heed to the economical transaction that is taking place in the picture. What is more, in early stages of the picture, she was receiving some money -this means she was more active- from the young suitor. Eventually, she is just lookign at him and making sure everything goes perfectly. However, the viewer should notice the malice in ehr eyes, meaning she is no fool and she knows how to deal with economical and sexual issues. In fact, the procuresses were frequently retired whores that had enoght money to lead their own business.
The man in black is much of a jester. He is a comical character that functions rather as the narrator of the story. As a matter of fact, he is looking at the viewer, as if he wanted to tell the story to whoever is examining it. He is aside the action and he wears black clothes so that he does not attract too much attention to himself. Many critics agree nowadays that he is a self-portrait of the very Vermeer. Actually, it was very common to find the painters of those “brothels” in their own pictures. Thus, Vermeer could be but following the current fashion.
Andrei Vázquez Latorre