On the Narrative Implication of Vermeer’s Works

Images can only tell as much as the meaning gets frozen in the medium. Paintings serve as a capture of a specific moment and second, and painters who interpret a real object into a painting are tasked to integrate as much meaning as they can on one canvass and a set of images. The works of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer can be easily described as a collection of paintings with people as subjects; other than a few works on landscapes such as View of Delft and The Little Street, Vermeer’s works can be observed to mostly feature people.

Although he can be considered as a portraitist, his approach on portraits show a different interpretation about the subject. His paintings are always dynamic, and that the portrait in itself, in a way, is not just about the subject but also the aspects that further tell a story about the subject. This therefore brings to the implied narrative in Vermeer’s works. As Vermeer produced images, the narrative in his works can be seen in the technique he would use with the utilization of colors, light and shade, to the composition of the subject.

There is a prevailing observation in most of Vermeer’s works, and that is his subjects are always doing something or that the captured image, through his painting, depicts a moment of interruption or even a personal moment which people rarely expose to their interpreters. In Vermeer’s work Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, the subject is a woman wearing a white headdress and wearing a blue and white bodice with a blue full skirt. She seems to be in the middle of closing or opening the window while her other hand is holding a water pitcher.

Judging from the light falling on the figure, the event seems to take place in the morning, and that the preparations can imply a preparation for a morning ritual like a bath. Based on this painting, it is evident that Vermeer’s painting has an implied narrative; in describing the painting itself, it shows that there is something going on with the subject. The painting is therefore not just about the woman with the pitcher but also the implied action and incident taking place as the image was “taken”.

Hence, based on the different elements in the painting, from the morning light streaming through the window, the interior of the room, the pitcher, the map on the wall, and the woman closing or opening the window and getting ready with the pitcher, the implied narrative of this painting is that the woman is preparing for the day, possibly a bath. It is quite difficult to know whether the subject is closing or opening the window; as the event takes place in the morning, it can be assumed that the woman is opening the window to let the morning light in.

However, it is also possible that the woman is closing the window because someone is about to take a bath, and there is a cold draft entering the room. Based on a first look on the image, Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher seems to merely convey a slice-of-life scenario. What makes this painting engaging is that the painting itself is a window; this is to say that Vermeer has managed to catch a moment of personal space, and there is a voyeuristic quality as to how he framed the scene.

Overall, the implied narrative in the painting presents a certain sense of paradox; the painting is a simple scene of a woman in room holding a pitcher, yet at the same time, this subjects the painting to a closer scrutiny especially in the details pertaining to the scene itself. Hence, the engaging part about this painting is that it engages the viewer to take part in a private moment while the woman is not looking, but the sense of privacy is not in the act of preparation but more on the moment in which the woman seems to think she is not being watched. Such can be also observed to be applicable examining Vermeer’s A Maid Asleep.

In this painting, the degree of personal space and private moment is taken further as this painting shows a maid in the middle of a slumber. In the painting the maid, dressed in rich red, is shown sleeping behind a table, her elbow propped on the table’s surface while her head rests on her hand. She seems to be in a kitchen as the table covered with a red runner also has a fruit tray and jug on top. Based on the lighting, it seems that this takes in the afternoon if not, during late in the daytime; it appears that the made is sneaking in some sleep in the middle of the day while she finds herself with nothing to do.

However, seeing that she sleeps while sitting down and in the territory of her work, it seems that she is merely taking a nap and she is ready for any chore should she is suddenly called by her master or mistress. What draws the viewer into this painting is that, again, the painting manages to be beyond being just a painting of a woman asleep. The positioning of the woman at the corner of the room and off the center of the painting creates a line that draws in the viewer into that portion of the painting. The arrangement of the composition makes the painting less of a portrait and more of a slice-of-life.

What also makes this painting interesting is how Vermeer positioned the woman: behind the table. With the table in the foreground with its rich colors due to the patterned red table runner and the folded cloth with the red and yellow trimming, it seems as though that the focal point of the painting is not the woman; however, Vermeer managed to direct the attention to her because of the light which is maximized on the woman. Generally, the painting can be considered dark with little light getting into the room, but the woman glows in the painting with her pale skin set against her red dress and the red cloth on the table.

Such details in the painting evidently tell a certain story. Vermeer’s painting seems to invade his subject’s privacy but at the same time, he managed to keep a certain distance, thereby making his painting more interesting. By having the woman behind the table in a darkened room, the viewer gets drawn to the woman in a position that is generally, not expected from a maid, especially while there is still daylight. This therefore brings up, as a viewer, the lives of maids during Vermeer’s time. Having the maid asleep in the day in such position conveys that she is always on call, and they can only sneak in some sleep when they are not working.

In any case, the painting conveys a time of secret leisure for the maid who gets to have a nap in the middle of the day, most likely taking a break from exhaustion. The painting engages because the implied narrative in this piece also brings about a sense of curiosity about the maid; the piece combines visual technique in directing the attention to the maid and the state of the maid which leads to the painting telling a story as to why the maid is sleeping or even, whether the maid’s allowed to take naps between tasks.

The invasion of privacy implied in this painting also highlights Vermeer’s ability to capture strongly personal moments. In similar fashion, his work Woman with a Lute puts the subject behind a barrier but the focal point of painting goes directly to the subject. In this painting, the subject is sitting by the window in-front of a table; she seems to be in the middle of playing the lute, but at the same time, her attention is outside the window.

The room is bathed in daylight with a huge map on the wall. On the floor are pieces of paper and a viola. In front the girl is a chair as if waiting for company. In this painting, the girl is caught in a moment of recreation while her attention seems to be also caught by something outside the window at that very moment. The expression on the woman’s face seems that of amusement and surprise by what she just saw outside the window, and this leads the viewer to wonder what she is looking at.

The activity on the table and below her feet also makes the viewer wonder if the woman is practicing the lute or if she’s preparing for a performance; moreover, with the presence of a viola on the floor, the viewer can also assume whether she also plays that instrument or she is waiting for someone who plays that instrument. These details can therefore lead the viewer to interpret the “story” presented in the painting; from the scene, the story is simple, similar to A Maid Asleep: a woman is playing the loon, and she is looking outside the window.

However, with the additional details in the painting, in upon close examination of the woman’s expression, the mess on the floor and the waiting chair, it seems that the implied narrative of the painting is just a part of a series of events that took place or about to take place. The details inside the room show that the woman may not be alone or she’s waiting for someone to come play with her; this person may be the one who caught her attention as she practices inside the room. Another important point about this painting is how Vermeer framed the scene.

The scene takes place inside the bedroom, with the woman positioned quite off-center; the rest of the room is therefore left to the imagination of the viewer, especially as the mess on the floor, with the scattering of paper, seems to trail outside the frame, thereby also implying that the rest of the room may be littered with music pieces. From this example what makes the painting engaging is that the painting itself shows that the subject is not just the woman but also the point of that event in which she seems to be waiting or at least, having that private moment looking outside the window.

Hence, Woman with a Lute gives enough detail to convey substantial information about the woman yet at the same time, the scene depicts a portion of a narrative which engages the viewer because the painting itself invites the viewer to interpret the story of the image such as what happens before that moment of capture, and what may happen after. From the examples Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, A Maid Asleep and Woman with a Lute, the implied narratives in these paintings go beyond the subjects themselves although they serve as important focal points.

The implied narratives of these subjects can be seen in the actions in which they are portrayed; Vermeer seems to have his subjects in these paintings, and in many others, doing something instead of merely sitting and posing for the painter. His choice of actions or poses thereby makes the subjects engaged in something thereby making the final work dynamic. Such actions also further subject the paintings into interpretations in the context of a narrative, which is why the audience becomes engaged because there is something substantial beyond the visual imagery that Vermeer conveyed in his paintings.

In addition to the actions of the subjects, there are also the details in the painting that further add element to the story; usually, Vermeer’s paintings are interiors such as parts of the house. Hence, what strongly complements the action of the subjects are the details of the room, from the map that is hanging on the wall thereby implying which part of the house the scene takes place in, to the details on the table, the floor, and even the choice of clothing of his subjects. These elements, albeit considered secondary, are critical to the formation of the implied narrative in Vermeer’s work.

Which is why even though these paintings can be seen as portraits, what Vermeer also showcases in the works is that the subject is not isolated from his or her environment and that this relationship with the surroundings further tell more about the subject. This therefore makes the paintings more engaging because in order for this to be effective, there is a strong voyeuristic approach in how Vermeer framed his subjects which thereby works with the actions of his subjects and the details of the space which the subject is currently in.

Although this may show that the implied narrative seems to only work in cases where the subjects are in a room, Vermeer’s other portraits which only showcase the subjects can be also observed to successfully convey an implied narrative. His works Study of a Young Woman and even the Girl with a Pearl Earring may seem like more proper portraits. Basically, these two paintings feature the subjects only; unlike in the two previously cited works where the subject is placed in a room with other visual details, these two paintings are of women against a plain background.

In the Study of a Young Woman, the subject is a young woman in a white dress; her hair is pulled up with a brown or dark bronze scarf, and she is looking at the viewer. She is also wearing a drop pearl earring. In Girl with a Pearl Earring, the subject is wearing a head dress of blue and yellow gold; her dress or robe is brown with a shirt peeking underneath around the neckline. The girl is also wearing a drop pearl earring, and her face is tilted towards the viewer; however, unlike in Study of a Young Woman, the Girl with the Pearl Earring looks at the viewer with a side-glance, as if surprised.

What makes these two portraits engaging is that this time, it is all about the subjects. The young woman is looking straight at the viewer with a smile on her face, and visually, she looks pale and pink against the dark background. What makes her portrait very interesting is that the subject herself was painted as an engaging character; her wide eyes convey that she is aware being looked at and she seems comfortable being in that position. The expression in her eyes also draws in the viewer because there is a sense of familiarity and comfort coming from the subject’s side.

In contrast, the Girl with the Pearl Earring is interpreted as someone who seems to be without expectations, a girl who unexpectedly turned and was caught. Her eyes on the painting show not only discomfort but a moment of being caught and then surrendering, like she was in the middle of doing something personal and then she stops and realize that someone is watching her. For such portrait with very few details, it is interesting to see that even with such simple composition Vermeer has managed to establish an implied narrative.

This can be attributed to his portrayal of the subjects in which, through their expressions, they also somehow communicate to the viewer. This communication is therefore subject to narrative; for instance, the girl with the pearl earring can be interpreted to have that expression and even her half-run position to the viewer as something that conveys she is hiding something. What makes this more interesting is that her facial feature is that of innocence; she conveys a sense of vulnerability yet at the same time, with the small exposure of her neck and her ears, the girl with the pearl earring also partly exposes.

This is the kind of painting that attracts the viewer to the subject and becomes curious as to who she was. As for the subject in Study of a Young Woman, it can be observed that there are some similarities between this work and Girl with the Pearl Earring mostly because of the positioning of the subject and the details, especially as both subjects seem to be wearing the same pearl earring. However, this painting has a different way of connecting to the viewer; the young woman seems to know her viewer, and she is connecting with the audience which is not like the girl with the pearl earring.

All in all, Vermeer’s ability to establish an implied narrative can be seen in his use of details as components that contribute to the story to the posing of the subjects which make them more dynamic than frozen in the painting. These engaging aspects are further highlighted by Vermeer’s techniques as a painter, from the effective use of chiaroscuro, especially when using light as an added element to the story, to the use of shadows to highlight the depth of the space and the objects surrounding the subject.

Such techniques are also further translated into how Vermeer would also paint the subjects, especially with the expressions on their faces and how the light would fall on their heads. Such therefore creates a relationship or channel of communication between the subject and the audience, and this makes the implied narrative more heightened and engaging for the viewers.

Vermeer also effectively uses effective framing which makes his works successfully art directed especially as his prevailing approach is to paint a captured moment; what goes with this captured moment is also a slice of the space of the subject. These make his paintings showcase subjects that are more real and relatable, thereby making them good objects of narratives.


Hale, Phillip, Coburn, Frederick, & Hale, Ralph. Vermeer. Bostong: Hale, Cushman & Flin, 1937.

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