“Girl with a Pearl” at the Frick!

* Some theories and studies suggest that the girl was Vermeer´s own daughter.

Oct. 18, 2013 11:32 p.m. ET
A beautiful Dutch girl whom I’ve had a crush on for years has finally come to New York. The way she turns her head and casts her gaze across a room could melt even the chilliest of hearts. Her playful sense of style—she always wears a pair of blue and yellow scarves wrapped around her head in an improvised turban, and she is never without her signature pearl earring—suggests a world of pleasant possibilities from which the most romantic of daydreams could easily take flight.

Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis, The Hague

Such is the magical effect that her creator, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), surely intended the “Girl With a Pearl Earring” (c. 1665) to have when he painted her in his Delft studio, some 31/2 centuries ago. And beginning next week you can see this indisputable masterpiece of Dutch art for yourself at the Frick Collection, where it will remain on display until Jan. 19, 2014, as part of a loan exhibition of outstanding paintings—including works by Rembrandt, Carel Fabritius and Frans Hals —from the Mauritshuis, the Royal Picture Gallery of the Netherlands, while that diminutive jewel of a museum undergoes a soon-to-be-completed expansion and renovation.

“Girl With a Pearl Earring” is by far Vermeer’s most famous and popular work—it has been reproduced on innumerable posters, book jackets and museum souvenirs; it even inspired a film starring Scarlett Johansson. Yet many people fail to appreciate a crucial factor behind the painting’s appeal: This familiar image is not a portrait (documentary likeness of a specific individual) but an altogether different sort of picture known in Dutch as a tronie. This term encompasses close-up images of established character types—the jolly fisherman, the saucy servant girl—as well as faces displaying strong emotion or otherwise lost in thought, including well-known examples of the genre by Rembrandt and Jan Lievens. The Flemish artist Michael Sweerts (1618-1664) specialized in tronies of young male or female sitters with faraway expressions, posed against dark backgrounds, and given that “Girl with a Pearl Earring” takes more or less the same approach, it seems likely that Vermeer knew Sweerts’s work. (Sweerts lived for a time in Amsterdam.)

In English we tend to call such pictures character studies, but there’s more to a good tronie than mere personality. “Girl With a Pearl Earring” employs subtle cues of expression, pose and costume to suggest a situation or narrative back story concerning the mysterious figure portrayed. Creating an indelible sense of poignancy and longing, Vermeer takes exquisite care to observe the optical details of those parted lips and big liquid eyes, picking out every nuance of light and form with small touches of paint—a whispered trace of pink defining the soft corner of the mouth, a pinpoint of white evoking moisture. Our heroine wears such fanciful finery that one wonders if she might be a performer preparing for a role on stage or perhaps a sweet, dreamy girl playing dress-up for the benefit of herself or an admirer.

Zeroing in on this aura of make-believe brought to life, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Walter Liedtke has described Vermeer’s tronies as “an artists’ kind of theater in which almost any sort of character seemed real.” Other examples of Vermeer’s work in this line include “Girl With the Red Hat” (c. 1665/1666) and “Girl With a Flute” (probably 1665/1670), both in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Seen as a group, these pictures have an effect not unlike that of the famed “Untitled Film Stills” (1978-1980) of contemporary photographer Cindy Sherman, in which the artist exploits the conventions of motion-picture imagery to present herself in the assorted guises of a stereotypical Hollywood sex kitten, a lonely runaway, an innocent career girl in the big city, and so on.

But whereas Ms. Sherman, a postmodern artist, concerns herself with the constructed and indeterminate nature of personal identity, Vermeer’s penchant for props and stagecraft probably hints at an idea more typical of his own era—namely, that all the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players who must sooner or later make their exit. In art, this theme of life’s evanescent pleasures is generally called by the Latin name vanitas, and Dutch Golden Age painting abounds in vanitas motifs, ranging from the luscious but soon-to-decay delicacies depicted in table or pantry still lifes by Willem Kalf to the aristocratic pleasure seekers who stroll through lush gardens in the pioneering fêtes galantes of David Vinckboons. (The artistic genre of the fête galante ultimately attained its highest state of development in 18th-century France, especially in the oeuvre of Jean-Antoine Watteau, hence the French name for this category of picture.)

Art historians—we are, alas, a somewhat dour lot—tend to focus on the moralizing aspect of the vanitas theme. Earthly delights are fleeting and therefore insignificant, this line of thinking goes, and saving your eternal soul is really what counts in the long run. A quite commendable sentiment in many ways, to be sure. But it doesn’t seem to be what “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” or the art of Kalf or Vinckboons, for that matter, is truly driving at.

Sometimes we flatter ourselves into thinking that people of previous centuries were far squarer and less sophisticated than we are about matters of sex and morality, but the cautionary component of the vanitas theme has an equally significant, and considerably more daring, flip side—the carpe diem impulse, famously captured by the English poet Andrew Marvell writing to his coy mistress: “Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, Lady, were no crime.” Or put more bluntly, we aren’t getting any younger, dear, so let’s make hay.

Vermeer and the lovely young woman who posed with the pearl earring (perhaps his daughter, perhaps a maidservant, perhaps a professional model) have long since passed from this earth, and yet traces of both miraculously endure for us to behold. In Vermeer’s theater of appearances, light, love and beauty come together in seemingly stolen, flickering moments of perception that become eternal through the power of the painter’s brush. Surely, this is the ultimate triumph of art, and I for one don’t intend to waste another moment, as I’ve got a date with my dream girl at the Frick.

—Mr. Lopez is editor at large of Art & Antiques.


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