Girl With a Red Hat by Jan Vermeer
Interpretation of Dutch Realist Portrait/Genre Painting

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Girl With a Red Hat
By Jan Vermeer, the leader of
the Delft Dutch Realist artists.
It is considered one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Girl With a Red Hat (c.1666)


Interpretation/Meaning of Girl With a Red Hat
Analysis of Other Works by Vermeer


Artist: Jan Vermeer (1632-75)
Medium: Oil on wood panel
Genre: Dutch Realist genre painting
Movement: 17th Century Dutch Painting
Location: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

For more masterpieces, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

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Interpretation of Girl With a Red Hat

Whether treated as genre painting - in keeping with his general oeuvre - or as portrait art, this small oil painting by the Delft artist Jan Vermeer, measuring a mere 9 x 7 inches, is often paired with Girl with a Flute (c.1666), which is also in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington. Both works are very small, both share certain stylistic similarities, and they are the only known panel paintings by the artist, whose other works are all painted on canvas. In addition, they appear to feature the same model. As far as provenance goes, their content is consistent with the description ("head in antique costume") of items 39 and 40 in the catalogue of the 1696 Vermeer sale, while their exceptionally low price (17 guilders) is suggestive of their small size. Girl with a Red Hat was subsequently purchased by Baron Louis Marie Atthalin (1784-1856) at the Hotel de Bouillon, in Paris, in 1822, being handed down through the family until it was sold by the New York art dealer Knoedler & Co to Andrew W. Mellon, who passed in on to the National Gallery of Art in 1937. Girl with a Flute was also disposed of by Knoedler & Co, who in addition sold Vermeer's Soldier and a Laughing Girl (c.1658) to the American collector H.C. Frick in 1911.




Largely because of the fact that it was painted on a wooden panel, rather than his usual canvas, art scholars have cast doubt on the authenticity of both Girl with a Red Hat, and Girl with a Flute. Some have even suggested they were painted by a French forger in the early 19th century. However, it is almost certain that Vermeer used panels as well as canvas in his work, at least towards the end of his life. The room by room inventory made of his house in 1676, shortly after his death, listed six panels and ten canvases along with two easels and three palettes. The nature of the listing makes it absolutely clear that these were painting materials. In any case, using a panel as ground, instead of canvas, makes perfect sense for a very small painting, where accuracy is vital. (For a slightly larger portrait on canvas by Vermeer, see Girl With a Pearl Earring (c.1664-6) Mauritshuis, The Hague.)

Dendrological Analysis

Furthermore, dendrological analysis into the age of the wood has determined conclusively that the panel used for Girl with a Flute dates from the middle of the Dutch Baroque period (c.1650). Given its close similarities to Girl with a Red Hat (as well as the above-mentioned consistency with items 39 and 40 in the important Vermeer auction of 1696), the latter would also appear to date from the same period. This view is supported by other factors: first, several specialists have examined the rendering of the tapestry in the background of Girl with a Red Hat and found that it compares favourably with known late sixteenth-century Flemish types; second, the model's pose, if not the chair, is similar to one used by Frans Hals in several of his portraits, including some during the 1660s - if this was deliberately 'copied' by a 19th century forger, for instance, why choose an odd medium like a panel?; third, Girl with a Red Hat was at least the third oil painting attributed to Vermeer, after Girl with a Flute and Soldier and a Laughing Girl, to pass through the hands of the New York art dealer Knoedler & Co - one would have thought they would know enough about the artist to form an accurate view of the picture's provenance.

Discrepancies Remain

On the other hand, some stylistic discrepancies remain, such as the fact that the lion-head finials on the chair face in the wrong direction, and that the work appears to have been painted over a Rembrandtesque portrait of a man. These factors have led some art historians to believe that - while there may be compelling stylistic reasons to place it close to Vermeer and probably within the master's own studio - Girl with a Red Hat may not have been painted wholly and exclusively by Vermeer himself. The problem is - if the painting is from Vermeer's workshop, but not entirely from his own hand, who did paint it? The question is a difficult one, not least because there is no record that Vermeer ever had an apprentice or pupil. On the contrary, his idiosyncratic working methods seem to preclude the proper training of students. The only possibility is that one of his children was being trained first to assist and then to follow his father in his profession. When Vermeer died in 1675 Vermeer left eight minor children and three who had reached their majority. It is possible that the person who painted (or completed) this picture came from the former group since there is no record of another Vermeer completing his training and entering the Delft artist's guild. In any event, the painting is a stunning example of Dutch Realism of the 17th century.


Despite its size, Girl with a Red Hat has immense visual impact, powerful colouring and boldness. Placed in the foreground of the picture, the subject is exotically dressed with slightly parted lips. Her extravagant, feathery hat and luxuriant blue wrap are unusually flamboyant for Vermeer's normal gallery of subjects, and their rich colour scheme is carefully contrasted with a muted background which serves to emphasize the overall theatrical feeling of the work. Her hat is painted in a dense hue of purple, overlaid with added brushstrokes of semi-transparent vermilion for the light-catching feathers. A bright white kerchief is included to draw attention to her face, although the broad brim of the hat casts a shadow over most of her face, leaving only her left cheek illuminated, below her eye, to heighten our curiosity. The pattern of drapery folds have been rendered with the same sort of fluid brushwork as that in The Lacemaker (c.1669, Louvre, Paris), which also features a similar light source. Girl with a Red Hat repeats the overall position of the arm in Girl with a Flute, although the sitter is leaning on her right arm, instead of the left. The backrest of the chair is embellished with lions' heads and rings.

Camera Obscura

The Girl with a Red Hat is characterized by stunning yellow highlights along the ridges of the blue wrap, and dazzling pointillism of white dots on the nose, cheek and neckerchief, making it one of the greatest genre paintings of its size. The startling visual accuracy in this tiny painting has been assigned to Vermeer's use of the camera obscura, which also causes the foreground subject to loom unexpectedly large. Vermeer was friends with the scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), famous for his work with optical instruments, and it may well have been an interest in optics that brought them together. Van Leeuwenhoek later became executor of Vermeer's estate.



Analysis of Other Paintings by Vermeer

Little Street (1658) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
The Milkmaid (c.1658) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Young Woman with a Water Jug/Pitcher (c.1662) Metropolitan Museum NY
Woman Holding a Balance (c.1662) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Woman with a Pearl Necklace (c.1662-64)
The Art of Painting: An Allegory (The Artist in his Studio) (c.1666-1673)

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