Entertainment » Fine Arts

Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis

by Louise Adams
Monday Feb 25, 2013

A rare glimpse of Johannes Vermeer's command of chiaroscuro is on display at San Francisco's de Young Museum with the first North American presentation of "Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis."

The prestigious Dutch museum in Den Haag is housed in a 17th century palace, and it's currently undergoing a two-year renovation, allowing part of their collection to tour for the first time in 30 years. After completing a tour of Japan, the "Dutch Mona Lisa" and 34 other paintings from the Netherlands' Golden Age are now in Northern California through June 2, before heading to Atlanta then New York.

The enigmatic Vermeer, the "Sphinx of Delft," produced only 36 known paintings that almost never travel outside of Holland. He and his contemporaries' output capture the shift in artistic subject matter from wealthy to ordinary people, from ruling to middle class.

These works were synchronous with a flowering of Dutch prosperity and technology, including mastery of earth -- creating land (polder) out of the sea, protected by dikes -- and of water, redesigning ships to navigate the shallow waters surrounding the expanding nation.

Dutch naval prowess also grew around the world under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company, the VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), which gave the country its signature flower: the tulip was first imported from Turkey in the late 1500's to inspire floral paintings for the burgeoning art market.

Presented alongside "Rembrandt's Gallery," a collection of etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn and his contemporaries, the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" painting also reflects exotic inspiration, as Dutch girls didn't wear turbans as pictured, a cascading, fringed yellow-gold scarf over-wrapped in lush ultramarine cloth just above the signature ear decoration.

The painting -- a marvel of light and imperceptible brush strokes -- is not a traditional portrait, but a tronie, a head/bust study of expression or character where the sitter isn’t identified, a style popularized by Rembrandt.

The painting -- a marvel of light and imperceptible brush strokes -- is not a traditional portrait, but a tronie, a head/bust study of expression or character where the sitter isn't identified, a style popularized by Rembrandt, whose "Man with a Feathered Hat" is also in this exhibition.

This life-sized tronie, based on Rembrandt himself, showcases the master's intricacy with detail in the subject's gold, horn-shaped earring, embroidered cloak and military gorget, whimsically combined with an ostrich-plumed beret. Another noteworthy bird-of-a-feather is Carel Fabritius' "The Goldfinch," thought to have once been part of a trompe-l'oeil birdcage because it's painted on a panel with nail holes.

The exhibit also features seascapes and landscapes, including prolific Paulus Potter's ordinary cattle; Rembrandt's biblical history pieces "Simeon's Song of Praise" and "Susanna;" and genre paintings of everyday Dutch life.

Popular Golden Age painter Jan Steen delivers working-class humor, sass and sexuality in his work in this collection. His large-scale, likely commissioned "As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young" depicts a multi-generational family celebrating a child's baptism where the elders show their progeny how to smoke and drink.

The exquisitely detailed "The Sick Girl" is thought to be shown being treated for "love sickness," or wanting to get married to expedite consummation. "The Oyster Eater" also shows a lustful young lady, this one looking at the viewer while offering a sumptuous repast of aphrodisiacs including the titular oysters, over which she sprinkles a pinch of salt and a coy smile.

Enjoy this moveable feast during its brief stop in the Bay Area. It's an embarrassment of riches.

"Girl with a Pearl Earring" continues through June 2 at the de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA. For more information visit http://deyoung.famsf.org/

Louise Adams is a writer, actor, educator, yogini and nom de guerre. @MzzzAnthrope


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