December 14, 2013

"Girl with a Pearl Earring" @ The Frick

One of the "must see" museum shows this season is without a doubt the special touring exhibition of masterworks from the Mauritshuis in The Hague now on view at the Frick Collection on East 70th Street in New York.  The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, housed in the former residence of Johan Maurits (1604-1679) a governor of the Dutch colony in Brazil, is currently being renovated and expanded, and during the construction shipped some of their most important paintings on an international tour.  This generous act on the part of the museum's directors means that people in Tokyo, Kobe, San Francisco and Atlanta have had the chance to view some of their masterpieces of the Dutch Golden Age.

Until January 19th New Yorkers will have the rare opportunity to view fifteen treasures from the Mauritshuis collection before they travel on to Bologna, Italy, and finally back to The Hague for the grand re-opening in June 2014.  Important works by such Dutch and Flemish masters as Frans Hals and Rembrandt van Rijn are on view as well as exquisite paintings by lesser known artists such as Jan Steen and Carel Fabritius (see "The Goldfinch", 1654,  left).  But the undisputed star of the show is Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring".

I had heard that there was quite a queue to get in to see "Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis" but I had not anticipated the crowd that I found waiting in a snowstorm to get into the Frick on a Saturday morning!  Once inside, the normally serene museum was jammed with visitors and those who wanted to see the special exhibition were diverted to the Garden Court, then ushered into the Oval Room which held only one painting, the glorious "Girl with a Pearl Earring".

Painted in 1665, the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is not a portrait of an actual person.  Rather it is a form of portraiture known as a tronie, featuring an idealized face or an exaggerated expression with an exotic adornment such as the turban worn by the girl in this painting.  Vermeer depicts this lovely young woman with her head turned and her eyes fixed directly on the viewer while her lips are slightly parted as if she is speaking.  The eye-catching element of the massive pearl earring is curious as no pearl of this size has ever been recorded.  Perhaps this can be explained by Vermeer's apparent affinity for these gems - eight of his 36 paintings feature pearls - or it may actually portray a glass drop that resembles a pearl.  In any case, the "Dutch Mona Lisa" has captured the attention of museum goers for over a century when it was donated to the Mauritshuis by a collector who had purchased the painting at auction for two guilders and thirty cents!

The other fourteen paintings on loan can be viewed in the adjacent East Gallery and for the complete experience one can re-enter the Frick's permanent collection where their own three beautiful Vermeers are now grouped together for viewing in the museum's West Gallery.

The Frick Collection is one of my favorite small museums in the world and in the 30 years I have been going I have never seen it so full.  On my way out I spoke with a guard who concurred adding that they were welcoming an un-precedented 4,000 visitors a day to see this special show.  The Dutch Golden Age lives!

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