A smile full of possibilities

Johannes Vermeer: 'Officer and Laughing Girl', c1655-1660, Frick Collection, New York

Vermeer painted clues and secrets. His work explores a picture's power to hint, but not to tell. In many of Vermeer's cryptic scenes, you find yourself wondering: what are they saying? What is she thinking? What's she about to say? It's not that you're meant to be sure of the answer, the pleasure is in the familiar everyday mystery: the way people, even when they're close to us, can remain opaque and mysterious.

In Officer and Laughing Girl, you are presented with a situation in which faces and gestures are likely to be scrutinised especially hard. A young man and a young woman meet over a table. Are they interested in each other? We're interested to know.

Vermeer has placed them in series of contrasts: near and far, in shade and in light, back turned and face turned. Seated on the other side of the table, the laughing girl appears around half the size of the officer. We see her from roughly his perspective, sitting beyond his shoulder and his jutting hat. She bears the weight of the picture's focus.

What feelings pass across that empty space of white wall between them? This is an encounter we can interpret only from the response of one person. So our guesswork revolves around her luminous smile. Is it tensely polite? Is it cunningly calculated? Is it genuinely excited? What do you think? What does he think? His body language is almost impossible to read. In the stillness, the silence and the limpid light, a drama is suspended.