A note from Fresh Air contributor Lloyd Schwartz:
After my Fresh Air piece on Vermeer and the exhibit of paintings from The Hague visiting New York’s Frick Collection (December 5), several people asked me about my choice of the title Officer and Smiling Girl for the Vermeer painting usually called Officer and Laughing Girl—the title it has at home at the Frick. Vermeer’s titles were mainly not his own and over the centuries have never been written in stone. The Frick’s title derived from a 1696 sale in Amsterdam where it was simply listed, without a title, as “a soldier with a laughing girl, very beautiful.” In a series of poems I wrote about Vermeer, I myself used the more traditional title. In some older Vermeer books, the painting is called A Soldier with a Laughing Girl. But neither of these titles seem truly accurate. In his landmark Study of Vermeer, art historian (and Rilke translator) Edward Snow refers to the painting as Soldier and Young Girl Smiling, which is a far more descriptive of what the painting looks like. The expression on the young girl’s face is so poignant precisely because it’s so ambiguous—her smile, tender and loving, is also a little forced, even fearful. That soldier looming opposite her, silhouetted with his back to the viewer, is clearly about to go out into the world—there’s an open window next to him and a map on the wall behind the girl. She seems (at least to me) to not to want him to leave, maybe even desperate for him to stay. Definitely not laughing.
Practically every scholar writing about Vermeer gives one of the Frick’s other Vermeers—the one the Frick calls Mistress and Maid—a different title. One of the great Vermeers in the National Gallery in Washington used to be called Woman Weighing Pearls, then Woman Weighing Gold, and is now, probably most correctly, just Woman with a Balance. And for years, before the book and movie inspired by the iconic Vermeer from The Hague that’s the centerpiece of the current loan exhibit, that painting was not called Girl with the Pearl Earring but, blandly, Head of a Young Girl. Vermeer himself, evidently, didn’t seem to care what his paintings were called.
image: Officer and a Laughing Girl by Johannes Vermeer