First of all, before I discuss the de Young Museum’s new exhibit, Girl with a Pearl Earring, in detail, I would like to take a moment to appreciate what a privilege it is to see these exquisite Dutch paintings in the United States. All of the works in Girl with a Pearl Earring are normally stored in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, in the Netherlands. Due to renovations, the Mauritshuis has lent out its pictures to the United States, Japan and a fellow Art Museum in the Netherlands. San Francisco’s de Young Museum is the first stop on the exhibit’s USA tour—the paintings will also travel to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, as well as The Frick Collection in New York.
Girl with a Pearl Earring runs from Jan 26th-June 2nd 2013, at the de Young Museum along with its companion exhibit, Rembrandt’s Century, a collection of works on paper by Rembrandt and others. A note of caution to all visitors: the exhibits are situated so that it is easy to pass through Girl with a Pearl Earring and sadly miss four or five rooms of beautiful etchings and drawings. Do not make this mistake! Both exhibits are worth seeing and together give the viewer a nice overview of art during the Golden Age as well as a relaxing way to spend an afternoon.
Walking into Girl with a Pearl Earring feels rather like walking into a different world. This is in part because the first room of the exhibit is a set of lush landscapes. Depictions of Dutch pastures, peasants, and nature whisk the viewer into a world of light and tranquility. In addition, the de Young has done an excellent job showcasing its pictures. The lighting is soft. The walls vary color amongst dark and muted tones—deep purples and maroons, dark greys and blues. The subdued backgrounds provide a perfect contrast to the warm colors of the Golden Age paintings. As one meanders through still lives, portraits, and landscapes, the overall effect is peaceful and relaxed.
Taken as a whole, this exhibition highlights the link between prosperity and culture. During the 17th century, the Dutch Republic enjoyed political, economic, technological and cultural accomplishments that resulted in a high quality of life throughout all strata of its society. With little to worry about and a thriving economy, the Dutch Republic experienced a widespread flourish in the arts and culture. This is evidenced by the brilliant works within the de Young. Paintings such as The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Elderly Man, Adriaen Coorte's Still Life with Five Apricots, and the unbelievably precise Vase of Flowers by Rachel Ruysch, display not only technical expertise and individual genius, together they dwell on the peaceful aspects of everyday life within the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic.
Despite all of these fabulous paintings none quite match the virtuoso of Vermeer’s classic, Girl with a Pearl Earring. A quiet hush pervades the gray-walled room in which her picture hangs. The room is rather dim; spotlights guide the viewer towards the center of it. There, tucked inside her frame, Girl with a Pearl Earring seems to hold the light of the golden era in which she was created.
Often called “ the Dutch Mona Lisa,” little is known about the girl who wears the earring, yet her vulnerable gaze has inspired a blockbuster movie, a novel by Tracy Chevalier, and countless theories and writing contests. Each grasps for an explanation behind the unknowable look in the girl’s face, each strives to illuminate the dark patches in her history.
The date of the painting’s completion is unknown as is Vermeer’s relation to the subject. Questions abound. What were his intentions for the work? Was it commissioned, as some suggest? Or simply a study of light, or the human face? Pearls were very expensive in the Dutch Republic during the 1600’s. Was the girl’s pearl real, or did Vemeer render its luminous design from his imagination? Who was the girl? Why arrange her in an exotic turban and pearl in the first place?
Standing in front of her I, like everyone, scrutinized her and her lasting allure. She is no doubt beautiful, and Vermeer’s painting techniques are notable. Girl with a Pearl Earring is recognized as a tronie, a study of a fictional character or type. To paint her, Vermeer used an array of techniques: soft brush strokes for her face, expressive rougher strokes for her turban and clothing and tight precise strokes where detailed reflections of light hit the girl’s eyes, her lower lip and the corner of her mouth.
I had the eerie feeling as I gazed at Girl with a Pearl Earring that she belonged in time and space with me. She looked over her shoulder, embodying rich and poor, tired and alert, beautiful and simple, old and young. A perfectly balanced canvass. A timeless, nameless face.
I also felt as if I was looking at her wrong, as if everyone else understood her importance and I didn’t fully understand it, the girl, the hype, the fascination. She was, after all, a simple painting.
Where am I going with this? I guess I wonder how others respond to Girl with a Pearl Earring. I doubt I am the only one who both loved the painting and wondered why this specific painting was so famous. Then again, perhaps that is where her appeal lies. Girl with a Pearl Earring inspires dialogue and questions. By doing so she brings people together.
A few highlights to mention in addition to the Girl with a Pearl Earring Exhibit. The de Young building was redone recently, finished in 2005. It has a brand new café with an impressive array of choices and a patio covered by a tent of clear plastic, so that one can eat and enjoy the sunshine. The new design also thoughtfully integrates the de Young into Golden Gate Park. Renovations include an orchard of trees between the de Young Museum and its neighbor, the California Academy of Arts and Science. An exciting attraction is the de Young’s nine story tower, with a 360-degree view of San Francisco.
In addition to Girl with a Pearl Earring and Rembrandt’s Century, the de Young Museum also has countless other exhibits to view, everything from contemporary art and sculpture, to costumes from the life of Rudolf Nureyev. All of them are beautiful.
My last remark about the de Young is this: as a friend and I ate lunch, I noted the incredible appreciation I felt for the number of etchings Rembrandt had produced, and their precision. What an achievement to make so many beautiful things, I said. Her reply was simple. It was a different time then.
I realized as she made this comment that to enter the Girl with a Pearl Earring and Rembrandt’s Century, is to feel, for an afternoon, the slowness of looking. It is to spend an afternoon examining light and dark and ruminating on the way they interact to create things. This, in our fast paced era, is a lovely rarity.
M. H. de Young Memorial Museum
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 9:30-5:15 pm
Address: 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118
Phone: (415) 750-3600