She is often referred to as the Dutch Mona Lisa. I am speaking, of course, of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665). In an exhibition at the Frick Collection, The Girl is given star status as the sole resident in the elegant Oval Room.
By Mary Brennan Gerster
She is often referred to as the Dutch Mona Lisa. I am speaking, of course, of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665). In an exhibition at the Frick Collection, The Girl is given star status as the sole resident in the elegant Oval Room. She is part of an exhibition of 15 works on loan from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague. While that museum, built as a private home between 1633 and 1644, is being renovated, works are on a short world tour, returning home for a grand reopening in 2014.
The Girl has been the subject of a beautifully written book by Tracy Chevalier followed by a movie of the same name. As a result, it is as familiar to the public as Monet’s Haystacks or Van Gogh’s Starry Night. There are only 36 known surviving Vermeers, 12 of which are in the United States. (There were 37 until 1990, when one was stolen in a heist from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.) Three of those 12 are in the Frick’s collection and are in this exhibition side-by-side. Such a wealth of Vermeer’s work vividly demonstrates his mastery of light and handling of paint.
Along with The Girl are portraits by Frans Hals, genre scenes by Jan Steen, Nicolaes Maes, and Gerard Ter Borch, as well as an iconic landscape of Haarlem by Jacob van Ruisdale. The subject of Donna Tartt’s brilliant new novel, “The Goldfinch,” is included here, a small gem by Carel Fabritius. And, of course, the star of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt Van Rijn, is represented with four works from the Mauritshuis and several from the Frick Collection.
Henry Clay Frick spent three weeks in The Hague in 1896. According to her diary, his daughter Helen visited the Mauritshuis in 1932. The Frick’s three Vermeers are genre paintings, which became more popular during the Dutch Golden Age. During the 17th century, Dutch wealth abounded thanks in part to their naval prowess. This financial success led to opportunities for artists and the opening up of the old hierarchy of what was “acceptable” as a painting subject. In the past, historical topics or portraits of royalty dominated, whereas portraits, still life, and landscape paintings now were collectible.
Girl is thought to be a “Tronie,” a work in which an artist uses an idealized subject or composite of features for figure paintings. Pearls appear in eight Vermeer works, including the Frick’s. The pearl here is most likely painted glass, as its size seems impossible. During conservation work highlights were revealed on the pearl and the corner of the subject’s mouth. It was also discovered that the background had originally been green not the black that it appears as today. Her open mouth glistens as her eyes gently beckon us. She is irresistible.
Another grand gift here is Rembrandt’s Simeon’s Song of Praise (1631), which was painted when the artist was just 25. The depiction of the Holy Family is so tender that I was drawn back to it multiple times. Simeon is holding the Christ child as Mary and Joseph look on. There is a glow from within Simeon’s robes and surrounding the swaddled baby. Simeon said he could not die before beholding the Messiah and behold Him he does.
If that isn’t enough to have you racing to Henry Clay Frick’s former home at 1 East 70th Street, there is a fascinating nod to the digital age, too. Husband-and-wife team Rob and Nick Carter have created a digital artwork, Transforming Still Life Painting, inspired by Ambrosius Bosschaert The Elder’s Vase of Flowers in a Window (1618), a painting too frail to travel. In an alcove at the Frick the Carter’s work transforms itself ever so slowly and subtly as flower petals drop, snails move, and the clouds change — but all over a three-hour period. You need to stand in front of it for only a few minutes to catch the changes. The artists told me that the average viewer looks at a work of art for a mere 46 seconds. Nature Morte, French for Still Life or literally Dead Nature, is definitely challenged here.
You need timed tickets to view this exhibition. Visit www.frick.org or call Telecharge at 212-239-6200. The exhibition is at the Frick through January 19. The Frick is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Children under 10 are not admitted.
While in Tokyo, the exhibition was visited by a record 10,500 people per day. Don’t miss it while it’s at the Frick.