Here we see Vermeer's style changing from Biblical and mythological scenes to interior, genre paintings. The richly colored rug and strewn coat provide the stage behind which the principle characters are lined up to show their message. The composition is recognizable from Vermeer's mature period, the viewer firmly separated from the subjects, but there is little spatial quality, and the the pitcher at the right seems to be about to fall over.
These brothel scenes, or Bordeeltje, were popular at the time as a response to an increasingly prudish, puritan ethos. The original derivation is a depiction of the Prodigal Son, frittering away his money on whores, with the contrast being the mercy and forgiveness of the loving father. The fascinating theme of the brothel quickly evolved to be an independent genre.
A painting by Dirck van Baburen, The Procuress hung in the house of Vermeer's mother-in-law, and may have been the inspiration for the subject, if not the composition. The Baburen appears in the background of two later Vermeer's: The Concert and Lady Seated at the Virginals.
The theme is that the evils of money and alcohol have combined. In addition to the woman's bright yellow jacket, the wine has brought color to the her cheeks. She nestles contentedly into the arm of the red-jacketed soldier who is offering a coin, but also seems to be ready to flip the coin or to hide it in his hand. The woman, the soldier, and the brilliant rug are center-stage, but also, at the right, are two dark, ambiguous figures, with the dark draped jacket below. Lubricating the transaction is the androgenous onlooker in black, the procuress.
The figure at the left has the self-conciousness of a self-portrait. If so, this the only picture of Vermeer in existence. This grinning figure is perhaps toasting with us, ready to celebrate the fun.