Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Girl with a Pearl Earring: Who's that girl?

Girl with a Pearl Earring 

If life is best shared through story, as it's been said, then, art is the medium through which we illustrate these stories.

One such story that has been wonderfully illustrated is Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. This renowned and beloved masterpiece, labeled the Dutch Mona Lisais one of the most beautiful and artistically important paintings in the world.

Currently, the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park is hosting Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis. The show, which opened on January 26 to much fanfare, continues its residency in The City through June 2. It is drawing tremendous crowds and much attention, too.

Last Friday, I visited the exhibition, which is on loan from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, and came away impressed by the many outstanding paintings from the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age. Both portraits and still lifes, which give Dutch art a visually and intellectually appealing resonance, were well represented among the 35 paintings. Among them were: A Hunting Party near the Hofvijver in The Hague, Seen from the Plaats (ca. 1690) by Gerrit Berckheyde and The Goldfinch (1654) by Carel Fabritius. Other masterstroke artists represented included: Salomon van Ruysdael, Abraham van Beyeren and Rachel Ruysch.

And, of course, the special exhibition wouldn't be complete without giving due props to the most famous Dutch master of them all, Rembrandt. In fact, a separate exhibition gallery featuring 60 etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn, entitled Rembrandt's Century, is also on display and included in the admission price for Girl.

However, the centerpiece of the Dutch Golden Age exhibition remained the iconic Girl with a Pearl Earring. It was the one spectacular painting that garnered everyone's attention, the one everyone wanted to see. And I must say this: The showstopper, which had its very own gallery room, was quite the jewel.

Johannes Vermeer painted the timeless portrait of Girl with a Pearl Earring using oils on canvas, circa 1665. While it's been a popular painting for several centuries, its celebrity and superstar status was enhanced only recently, in both literature and on film. In 1999, Tracy Chevallier's best-selling, historical novel fictionalized the circumstances of the creation of the painting. In turn, the novel inspired a 2003 dramatic movie starring Colin Firth as Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as the wide-eyed girl, Griet. Hired by Vermeer as an assistant, she sits for him as a painting model while wearing one of his wife's pearl earrings dangling from her left earlobe. The book and the film brought the radiant painting to life and helped introduce it to a wide-reaching audience.

On this particular morning, I took my time in absorbing the atmosphere of the spacious gallery room as I approached Girl with a Pearl Earring. I wanted to take full advantage of this rare opportunity to see the most famous of Vermeer's 36 paintings and, arguably, the second most famous painting in the world.

First, I stood to the right of the hauntingly beautiful, softly-lit masterpiece. Then, I stood in front of it. Finally, I shifted to the painting's left side. I wanted to see this lovely portrait set against a dark, neutral background from a variety of angles. In each instance, there were different aspects of the painting, which was restored in 1994, that I focused upon: the girl's beautiful wide eyes, her parted lips, her blue turban-like headscarf with its yellow veil, her yellowish-brown jacket with the shining white collar, the intimacy of her gaze towards me. And, of course, the focal point: the most famous pearl earring ever painted.

Soon, I left the exhibition and headed out into a lovely, sunlit San Francisco afternoon impressed by Girl with a Pearl Earring. Yet, after seeing this magical face full of much drama and conflict, I couldn't help but think that there were many questions about this masterpiece in search of answers. I pondered some of them while walking across the park on my way to eat lunch.

  • What is the girl thinking as she stares at us? 
  • Do her eyes and half-smile convey a sense of innocence or are they meant to be seductive? 
  • And, centrally, why is the girl wearing a pearl earring?

I'm sure others are asking the same questions as me.

Indeed, who's that girl?

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