She has captivated viewers for years with her exotic headdress, pictorial elegance and penetrating eyes, and now Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is finally accessible to an American audience with her first North American stop at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. The exhibit, “Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis,” is a carefully selected group of 17th century Dutch paintings originally from the Netherlands’s Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, which is currently undergoing a major renovation.
Known as the “Dutch Mona Lisa,” “Girl with a Pearl Earring” has seen much popularity in the last couple decades. Author Tracy Chevalier based her 1999 novel “Girl with a Pearl Earring” on the famous Vermeer portrait, while a movie of the same title starring Scarlett Johansson was released in 2003.
These references have perhaps strengthened the recognition of the painting and developed Vermeer as a famous personality of Western art. In truth, little is known about Vermeer or the model of the world-renowned portrait. What is known is that Vermeer’s reputation as the master of light holds true for “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” The subtle flashes of light on the earring and in the eyes give the painting a mysterious effect of capturing a moment in time.
What sets this portrait apart from others is the compelling expression of the girl. Her eyes immediately silence you — something that is apparent only in her presence. The gallery space before the “Girl” is loud and boisterous, but as museum-goers enter the last room to see her, they are quiet, as if in a divine trance. She is small, but she is captivating; the aura of tranquility surrounding the portrait can be felt.
Something important to note is how splendidly preserved the painting is. Recent renovations have been applied to it including varnishing and retouching to remove cracks in the paint. The result is a brilliant revealing of the original incandescent palette: bright blues and rich yellows.
Surprisingly, it is easy to view the celebrated portrait up close. Do not conjure up images of massive hordes of people shoving their way to get a treasured snapshot of the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre. In fact, photography at the de Young exhibit is not permitted.
Though “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is certainly a good reason to make a trip to the de Young Museum in the coming weeks, other pieces should not be missed. An impressive collection of Rembrandt van Rijn’s portraits, sketches and etchings can be viewed in “Rembrandt’s Century,” a display that one can gain entry to with a ticket for the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” exhibition.
Vermeer’s portrait traveled across the Atlantic with a stylish group of paintings. Highlights include Pieter Claesz’s “Still Life with a Lighted Candle” and Jacques Linard’s “Still Life of Exotic Shells,” along with a series of Jacob van Ruisdael’s portraits of the natural world and William Heda’s vanitas paintings. These works of art paint the Netherlands in a luxurious light. The display of exotic seashells, blooming bouquets and rich still life scenes reflects the opulent taste and wealth of the Dutch Golden Age of painting. Still, like most Dutch art, hints of a moralizing message shine through. William Heda’s vanitas works depict half-eaten meals, broken glassware and glittering timepieces — a shocking reminder that grandiose worldly pleasures are fleeting.
Fortunately, the beauty of the majestic, turbaned woman is not temporary. With the beautiful refurbishing she will certainly draw crowds this spring. She will transport us to a world of yore — where beauty lay in invisible brushstrokes and piercing eyes.