Vermeer’s beguiling ‘Girl’ among Dutch masters at the de Young 

Of many bewitching female portraits in art, Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” remains one of the most luminous.

“Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis,” on view through June 2 at the de Young Museum, features 34 other paintings by 17th century Dutch masters, including Rembrandt, Pieter Claesz, Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch and Jacob van Ruisdael.

The exhibit is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, with loans from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis at The Hague, Netherlands, which is closed for renovations. It will go to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in the summer and The Frick Collection in New York in October.

Vermeer works are precious due to his small oeuvre: just 36 confirmed paintings (with one stolen and still missing), all on the East Coast or in Europe.

While the model for “Girl,” painted around 1665, is unknown, Vermeer is also a bit of a mystery.

Details on his life are sparse, but he was born in Delft in 1632 and died there in 1675. He married a Catholic woman, sired 15 children (11 survived), lived in poverty under his mother-in-law’s roof, used the most expensive pigments available and died destitute.

While a recently authenticated Vermeer sold in 2004 for more than $24 million, in his day, a successful baker could buy his work.

Many scholars believe he used a camera obscura to obtain his signature detail and perspective.

Like his contemporaries, Vermeer painted many domestic portraits – women reading letters, playing instruments, pouring milk – but “Girl” is different: closely cropped, with a dark, solid background.

Click on the photo to see more pieces from the exhibit.

Only “Study of a Young Woman” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (also dated 1665-7), compares compositionally, but the latter’s visage is infantile, overexposed and eerie.

By contrast “Girl,” is all feminine softness. No line delineates the right side of her nose, her eyebrows only hinted at. Her skin is downy, her lips are plush and parted, and her attention is yours. She shimmers. Vermeer’s thin paint layers render her liquid and slightly metallic, a mercurial madonna. Her expression is at turns intimate, knowing and even dismissive – her key to seduction.

The show has every Dutch trend from the 17th and 18th centuries: robust, almost photographic floral and food still lifes, landscapes, seascapes and formal portraits, and a classic Claesz skull study typical for the artist.

“Simeon’s Song of Praise,” with its concentrated light on a dark canvas, virtually sings Rembrandt.

The master’s other biblical work on view, “Susanna,” radiates vulnerability, its subject a startled lone nude, without the lecherous elders from the Book of Daniel story. Dated 1636, the modest “Susanna” was perhaps a practice run for the later, and larger, 1647 “Susanna and the Elders” in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie.

Created more than 30 years apart, two Rembrandt portraits hang side by side. “‘Tronie’ of a Man in a Feathered Beret,” circa 1635, looks like other self-portraits he painted in his 30s. It has his slightly dimpled chin, fluffy hair and mustache, bulbous nose and world-weary eyes.

“Portrait of an Elderly Man” from 1667 sees the old master’s impressionistic side – with broad brushstrokes and almost savage scrapings, and the sitter somewhat agitated, his hands gripping his chair, mid-harrumph.

What one might expect to see more of in the show – women in domestic settings – is exemplified in Gerard ter Borch’s “Woman Writing a Letter.” A pale woman sits with quill to paper, the requisite oriental rug on view, and a single pearl earring dangling from her ear.

lgallagher@sfexaminer.com

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Lauren Gallagher

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