This picture was painted by Vermeer, a Dutch painter from the baroque era. It is not very clear the year in which this work was painted, but, since the costume of the girl in the painting and the techniques used are similar to those of the Girl Reading a Letter by an open window, this painting is generally dated about 1658, shortly after the other. The technique used is oil on canvas, and the size of the painting is 19 7/8 x 18 1/8 in. (50.5 x46 cm.). Nowadays, this painting is part of the Frick Collection, inNew York.
Vermeer seem to have adopted his subject matter from Pieter De hooch. This painter painted a number of interior genre scenes of soldiers and women at tables. Furthermore, in some of these paintings, he tended to situate the soldier so that the viewer looked over his shoulder; this viewpoint gives an informal appearance to the scene.
However, the conception of the scene is different from that of the Hooch since Vermeer brought his figures extremely close to the picture plane. He heightened the contrast of scale between the two characters (as we can see the officer looms large and the girl diminutive, almost remote) and intensified contrasts of light and colour. The effect is comparable to that seen in a wide angle lens or convex mirror. And it is one of the characteristics of Vermeer’s compositions that had led art historians to argue that he used a camera obscura.
Regarding the girl of the painting, some experts said that it is possible that the girl was Vermeer’s wife, Catherine Bolnes, although there is no proof. Her luminous face, her unabashed smile and glittering yellow satin bodice neutralize the austere presence of the cavalier. The gesture of her open hand, palm up, seems to extend her openness and desire for communication. The yellow bodice with black braiding that she wears appears in other Vermeer’s including The Music Lesson and the Girl at Reading a Letter at an Open Window. As we can see in this x-ray photograph, Vermeer originally painted her with a large white collar over her shoulders obscuring much of the brilliant yellow dress.
The red colour of military uniforms, such as the one worn by Vermeer’s soldier, had a practical function. In times of war the regulation of the colours and signs was essential to survival as each soldier could be more easily identified and avoid an attack his own troops in the tangle of a battle.
The black sash which hangs around the young man’s shoulder tells us that he is probably an officer. But more than his social identity, the viewer’s imagination is caught by his arresting visual and psychological presence. Vermeer, as many Dutch painters of the time, employed his officer as a device called repoussoir: the placement of a large figure (objects, such as curtains, were also commonly used) in the immediate foreground to dramatically increases the illusion of depth in the rest of the picture.
Vermeer frequently places contrasting forms, colours and textures of the motifs in his pictures to strengthen the picture’s narrative. In this work, we can almost feel a spark of uncertainty between the soldier and the seated young girl.
It is difficult to gauge his thoughts because he turns his back towards us. His whole figure is immersed in deep shadow and we can only see part of his face which does not tell us anything about his character.
On the other hand, it is impossible to ignore the young girl’s radiant optimism. Her expression is so positively charged that even the officer’s reticence is effectively dissimulated.
This painting contains one of the first examples of Vermeer’s precise sense of realism: the map on the back wall. Wall maps, which were popular forms of decoration in Vermeer’s day, are frequently found in his paintings, that is the case of, the art of painting (1666). This map of Holland and West Friesland was designed by Balthasar Florizs van Berckenrode in 1620. Fortunately one example of the map still exists, and it confirms the precision of Vermeer’s rendering.