The Girl with the Wine Glass

In the following lines you can find the presentation I did on Vermeer’s ‘The Girl with the Wine Glass’.  First, I will show you the technical details and then I will try to reconstruct the essence of this particular painting.

  • Title: The Girl with the Wine Glass  
    By: Jan Vermeer (1632 – 1675)
    Year: 1659
  • Original Size: 66 x 77 cm
    Medium: Oil on Canvas
    Location: Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum,
    Brunswick, Germany 
  • Signature: Inscribed lower right window pane: IVMeer

Vermeer’s paintings belong to a genre of domestic scenes in mid 17th-century inHolland. Many of these scenes focus on relationships and man’s inability to resist his sexual appetite particularly under the influence of wine and tobacco. And briefly speaking, that is the story of this painting. Here we can see a scene of seduction where an elegant young man encourages a young woman to enjoy a glass of wine. However, the smile on her face as she turns to the viewer indicates that he, rather than she, is the one being seduced.

Now, let’s focus on some details. One of the most remarkable features is the portrait that Vermeer includes since this was the only time when Vermeer drew a picture-within-a-picture in one of his works. According to Vermeer expert Arthur Wheelock, the rigid pose and the elegant clothes of the man in the portrait as well as the careful placing of the upright portrait between the two male figures focus on the artist’s concerns for the lack of moral constraint in contemporary life.

 Another important feature of the painting is this coloured stained-glass window. In this zoomed picture we can see how Vermeer portrays a lady in the glass window. The female figure holding bridle is said to personify Temperance. The bridle would symbolize emotional control. Thus, again it is very probable that, together with the portrait on wall, this window may represent moderation due to the protagonists’ lack of self restraint.

 The young woman’s expressive face is not typical in Vermeer; he usually hides the emotions of the characters. One  early Vermeer expert has suspected that her staring eyes and awkward smile were the result of overpainting. In any case, the woman, rather than exchanging glances with her suitor, turns towards the viewer, separating herself from him. Arthur Wheelock believes that the woman’s smiling is a knowing one, indicating not only that she is aware of the situation, but also that she is in control. Thus, it is he rather than she the one that is being seduced.

Although Vermeer’s paintings are primarily known for its lemon yellow and deep blue colour harmony, in this case the artist experimented with strong reds in his early days as a painter. In this way we can see erotic overtones such as red and yellow in the woman’s dress that may actually suggest desire. The fiery red of this dress may denote the hidden passions of the young woman who seems to be accepting the advances of the gentleman.

 The suitor in the foreground carefully accompanies the woman’s hand which holds the wineglass in a delicate way. His intentions have been interpreted in a number of ways by Vermeer specialists, stating that he is a comic man, a seducer or the seduced. The truth is that his posture and expression is so formalized that he fails to unlock the precise narrative meaning of the painting.

 Among all Vermeer’s paintings, it is the only painting other than the Concert to include three figures, but where the Concert shows two women and a man making music together, in this painting the third figure is apart from the couple in the background resting his head on his hand in a melancholy attitude. The obvious explanation is that, as his pose suggests, he is a suitor for the young woman too but he has been rejected. It is therefore understandable that his position is uncomfortable since he clearly does not fit in this situation.

Finally, it is important to point out that the two lemons, pipe, silver plate, wine and the sheet of paper possibly containing tobacco may be seen as a connotation of luxury, consumption and seduction. In many scenes of ritual courtship lemons are commonly set along side oysters served up on a silver plate and although we cannot clearly see oysters in this plate they may be. Moreover, lemons were also used to sweeten and soften the wine, in this respect once more they serve symbolically to indicate the importance of moderating one’s behaviour.