Girl with a Pearl Earring
The Mauritshuis at the de Young

girl with a pearl earring

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like to a merchant seeking good pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went his way, and sold all that he had, and bought it. – Matthew 13:45

Kaart, kous en kan maken menig arm man. (Card [gambling], stocking [women] and jug [drinking] make many a man poor.) – Dutch Proverb

It may be winter in San Francisco, but, on February 7, I was still surprised to stumble upon a frigid scene in Golden Gate Park, where a humble waterside homestead stood, hemmed heavily with viscous white snow. The grayness surrounding it affirmed the season’s cold heart, making the warm colors of sun suffusing clouds overhead little more than a distant promise of warmer times to come. Standing at center, a solitary tree slumped under the weight of its frosty covering.

Of course, this wasn’t San Francisco itself, but the scene of a small winter landscape painting by Dutch artist Jacob van Ruisdael, the first work I encountered in the special exhibition space of the de Young Museum. It’s currently host to a pair of nested shows of seventeenth century art: Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis Museum of Art, and Rembrandt’s Century, both on view from January 26th to June 7th.


The first of these exhibitions comprises 35 paintings – including the titular masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) – on loan from the Mauritshuis Royal Portrait Gallery, a Baroque-era palace recently acquired by the Dutch state and currently undergoing renovation. A hallway connecting galleries in the de Young details the Mauritshuis’ expansion plans, including a wall-sized photo of the canal where the Gallery perches in The Hague. Like so many great works of art in today’s museum culture, Vermeer’s Girl gets to travel only when her own digs are under construction.

In fact, this is the first time in three decades that a collection of Dutch masterworks has left its home for so long, spending last summer and fall in Japan and the next two years in the United States. The show moves next to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta before concluding its American tour at the Frick Collection in New York in January 2014.

Rare trips by Vermeer’s bewitching Girl, who last visited this country for a Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1995, flash light on historical and modern issues that cloak this exhibition. Taking a step back from the paintings themselves pushes the viewer towards both the broadest and most needling of questions: Why do we value creative originality? Why do we pour so much money into beautiful things? Who’s that girl?

Although art historians confidently attribute only 37 extant paintings to Vermeer, these works of art frame perhaps the most important artistic legacy of the Dutch master, a contribution that is philosophical rather than material in kind. Let me pause to put that number in perspective. While it may seem like quite a few masterpieces for someone to paint in a lifetime, Vermeer worked during the Dutch Golden Age, a century when the seven united provinces of the Netherlands experienced unprecedented mercantile wealth and expansion. An average home in a prosperous city like Haarlem, Antwerp or Leiden often boasted several hundred paintings on its own. Walls were sometimes hardly visible.

Amidst this surge of artwork, it might not be surprising, then, that history forgot Vermeer for nearly two hundred years. When his calming and luminous talents were rediscovered in the late nineteenth century, an appetite for more work grew. Han van Meegeren, an adequate and respectable Dutch painter born in 1889, recognized this demand for the Golden Age painters that he had emulated during the course of his career. He then quietly forged paintings so similar in subject and substance to original Vermeers that he was able to launder and sell them for immense sums (up to $4 million by today’s standards) to discerning collectors ranging from American industrialist Andrew Mellon to Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.

Van Meegeren’s fraud remains a defining trauma for art in the modern age, and many entertaining accounts of this scandal pose the crucial questions it raised. If a work of art possesses enough brilliance to convince experts that it’s “original,” why should a “copy” cost only a fraction of the price, and earn less than a fraction of the admiration? Why are covers of great songs subject to laws of copyright and intellectual property if imitation is, as we’re told, the greatest form of flattery?

Obvious answers to these questions might be branded “economic,” and another painting on display in the exhibition further reveals how markets molded the Dutch Republic. While a painting of a teeming merchant fleet might provide a convincing image of its thriving economy, a vase of flowers is a better vessel for both the literal and symbolic orders of beauty that inspired art in the Golden Age.

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), one of three key female masters of this era, painted her Vase of Flowers around the turn of 1700. Like so many other intricate studies of flowers she produced during her long career (during which she also found time to have ten children), the detail of this painting is jaw-dropping. One could spend all day exploring its vivid complexity.

Two particular passages of paint deserve an hour of gazing themselves: a tiger-striped tulip at left center and a diaphanous pink carnation that coyly turns away from us in the middle of the canvas. Stretching exuberantly, the tulip writhes and yawns in arcs that show its orange stripes to advantage. One petal almost seems to wave, calling you to look. Like so many other flowers on this canvas, the carnation is a triumph of trompe l’oeil illusionism – let us defy any painter today to do it so well! – but its weathering of all the years since Ruysch painted it makes it especially remarkable. The paint of an orange chrysanthemum beside it, though no less excellently rendered, has fared far worse, even after the conservation and cleaning the painting was treated to as part of its exhibition travels.

Setting this pair apart from the others evinces the ongoing critical tug-of-war that stretches seventeenth-century Dutch art between a pure “art of describing” and a densely layered iconography of symbolic meanings. For instance, are we meant to gape, as I did, at the virtuosic ruffles and contours of petals on the carnation, or should we remind ourselves that historically they symbolize betrothal within Flemish wedding customs? Are the carmine flares on the tulip intended as an exercise in description, simultaneously exalting nature, artistic craft, and aesthetic perception as the privileged pastimes of a financially thriving culture? Or do they bring a cultural wink to the canvas by resembling the infamous Semper Augustus, a white tulip with red splotches that Dutch flower fanatics of the period venerated as the most beautiful bloom of all time?

Green thumbs and Michael Pollan devotees often delight in citing the “Tulip Mania” that titillated Holland in the sixteen hundreds as capitalism’s first market bubble, long before frontier land speculation in antebellum America or more-recent sub-prime mortgage lending. The frenzy culminated with a flower dubbed “Semper Augustus” in 1637, which sold for the same price as townhouses on the Grand Canal in Amsterdam. In today’s currency, a single bulb from this flower would earn $15 million.

When you compare this impressive figure with the original auction price of Girl with a Pearl Earring, the confusion of aesthetic beauty with market forces draws you back into philosophical questions about the value of creativity and authorship. Vermeer’s name was not visible on the painting when it sold at auction in 1881 for the pittance of 2 guilders and 30 cents, but given his minor reputation in his native Delft during his lifetime, one can’t assume a signature would have made up the difference between the $150 its sale would garner by equivalency today and the priceless pride and admiration it brings.

The girl in that painting greets you, almost as an afterthought, as you enter the penultimate room of the exhibition. She’s on a dark sea-gray altar of sorts, with architectural molding. The lighting, or maybe the glass protecting the painting, makes her as pale but tonally brighter than I remember; she seems to glow. Seeing her see you – in person, I implore you, not through the static and distorted reproductions we see on screens – leaves little wonder how the painting recently inspired a novel and a predictably-romanticized Hollywood film. Wall text reprises a traditional comparison, that she’s “The Dutch Mona Lisa,” but that’s sort of like saying Brigitte Bardot is the French Marilyn Monroe, or that Harvard is the Stanford of the East. Some metaphors are made for their own sake rather than for the revealing alignment of facts or the elegant folding of meanings.


Her calm is smartly broken with a ruckus in the adjacent room, where a large genre painting – a so-called “scene of everyday life” – by Jan Steen (1626-1679) reminds us that Vermeer’s hushed and well-lit interiors could easily hold some drunken mischief.  Steen’s work is titled “As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young” (1668-1670) – and if you haven’t shared this review on social media, consider this your best chance (and worst pun) to do so.

Directly preceding the room holding Girl with a Pearl Earring, a deep umber wall compliments the dusky tones in a loosely-painted Portrait of an Elderly Man (1667) by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). One of the last works attributed to Rembrandt, the portrait shows a man with remarkable “facingness,” to borrow a term from one notable art historian. It is as if you’ve joined him in his dark, warm (possibly boozy) apartment, and he sits looking at you with a vaguely interrogative stare. “Well? What next?” he seems to ask.

The forthcoming review of the second and connected exhibition, Rembrandt’s Century, pursues that question.

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