What international art exhibit attracted the most visitors in 2012?
According to The Art Newspaper, it was the kickoff of the magical world tour of “Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis” in Tokyo and Kobe, Japan, which drew almost 1.2 million people.
After a stop in San Francisco, this blockbuster starring the Dutch “Mona Lisa” has opened at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It will stay through Sept. 29, before traveling to New York and Bologna, Italy.
And she’s not alone.
“‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ hasn’t been in the United States for 17 years and has never been in the Southeast. And now she’s here with 34 of her best friends,” says High Director Michael Shapiro.
Some of “Girl’s” posse from the Dutch Golden Age (which roughly spans the 17th century) include four paintings by Rembrandt, three Jan Steens, two fine portraits by Frans Hals and a unique bird work by Carel Fabritius.
Painted by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer in 1665, “Girl” has inspired two recent creations which share the painting’s title: Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel and the subsequent Academy Award-nominated movie from 2003, starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson.
Emilie Gordenker, director of the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in the Hague, Netherlands, thinks these productions gave Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” a huge boost in name recognition.
Although Vermeer was wellrespected as an artist in his lifetime, his oeuvre consists of few paintings. The latest certified Vermeer (No. 36) will be displayed with others this summer at the “Vermeer and Music” exhibit at London’s National Gallery of Art.
Living in Delft and selling mainly to a few wealthy clients, Vermeer and his artwork flew below the radar for about 300 years. Then when the “Girl” went up for auction, two art collectors recognized her value. One purchased her in 1881 for two guilders and a 30-cent fee. According to Dutchancestrycoach.com, that’s just under $150 today.
Sotheby auctioned the No. 36 Vermeer — not considered his best work — in 2004 for somewhere between $30 to $40 million (accounts of the sale differ).
At one time, Rembrandt was acclaimed by many as the most eminent artist of the 17th century. While crowned heads and the church ruled the art world in the rest of Europe, the Golden Age in the Netherlands fostered a mercantile gentry who favored paintings of commonplace activities, emotions and objects. Religious art gave way to secular. Paintings became smaller, portable, more appropriate for homes and businesses.
The exhibit’s masterworks reflect the era’s culture, national pride in scientific breakthroughs, wit, domestic life and morality.
Look at Rembrandt’s wonderfully pompous “Tronie of a Man with a Feathered Beret.” You can easily see why Gordenker says “Girl” also fits that classification. Tronies were unique headshots, usually of subjects wearing unconventional garb.
In viewing the timeless “Girl,” notice Vermeer’s impressive grasp of perspective which compliments his mastery of the rich colors of her exotic turban. He deftly focuses the light, producing its luminous reflection on her face and that famous oversize earring. A clue that this wasn’t a portrait? No Dutch maiden would have ever left home in that attire.
Rembrandt’s savvy use of light immediately focuses you on an intimate scene in his history painting: the powerful “Simeon’s Song of Praise.” Based on Luke 2:21-38, the elderly man in the temple recognizes the infant Jesus as the promised messiah.
Dutch still lifes are elaborate presentations of food, flowers, objects, often revealing signs of the transience of life. The daughter of a botanist, Rachel Ruysch was an era anomaly — a successful female artist.
A student of Rembrandt, Carel Fabritius painted even fewer works than Vermeer, but he had an excuse. In 1654, when the building storing gunpowder in the city of Delft exploded, Fabritius and his studio were annihilated. Note his small exquisite painting “The Goldfinch.” Almost minimalist, the work is such a joy and its audio is charming.
Jan Steen’s genre paintings are audience favorites. The debauchery of his oversized “As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young” is fun to experience. In the rowdy family scene, the children’s drunken elders are not modeling proper behavior. His “The Oyster Eater,” the exhibit’s smallest painting, is ripe with sexual overtones. Salting her oyster, the attractive young woman looks suggestively at you.
With only 35 paintings to see, you can visit the “Girl” at the High Museum and then check out the works in its rich collection.