A Girl Asleep, 1657 by Johannes Vermeer

A Girl Asleep, which is probably Vermeer's earliest genre scene, places a sleeping or inebriated woman in a restricted space between a heavily-laden table and a half-opened door leading to a distant light-filled room. The earth tones and deep reds of the palette, as well as the unusual spatial organization, are reminiscent of paintings by Nicolaes Maes, who influenced Vermeer at this stage of his career. However, unlike Maes, Vermeer neither explains the narrative nor provides a moralizing commentary about the woman's state of being.

Such, however, was not always the case. X-radiographs demonstrate that Vermeer initially included a dog in the doorway and a gentleman in the back room, compositional elements that, were thematically related to the woman's melancholic, or slothful, appearance. The artist, however, painted out these figures, leaving the viewer alone with the woman in a darkened and claustrophobic chamber, without any explanation for her weighty, and even despondent, mood. The elimination of these elements provides an important insight into Vermeer's thought process. They reveal that he sought a poetic image rather than explicit narrative, where the viewer, guided by the figure's melancholic pose, the evocative light effects, and the unusual spatial arrangement, is allowed great latitude in interpreting the scene.