December 2013

Vermeer's Girl

Don't let the long-winded title of the blockbuster exhibition now at the Frick Collection (through January 19, 2014) fool you. Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis is a wonderfully intimate show of just fifteen works on loan from Holland's Royal Picture Gallery, the Mauritshuis, in The Hague--which is temporarily closed for extensive renovations. Included among the masterpieces to be seen are superb portraits by Frans Hals (1580-1666) and several works by the greatest master of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt (1606-1669).

The Painting

But the uncontested star of the show is Vermeer's Girl with a Turban [more --click on image to enlarge]. Oops! Isn't its title Girl with a Pearl Earring? Well, yes and no. As its history reveals, the latter title just happens to be the one that is "in" these days. Girl with a Turban remains the one we prefer. Call it what you will, Girl is the principal reason why visitors from here and abroad are flocking to the Frick these days, before it (and the other works) are returned to the Mauritshuis next year.

Anticipating crowds, the Frick has safely cordoned off the painting as the sole occupant of its elegant Oval Room--no doubt, in part, at the insistence of the Mauritshuis. (A nearby guard at a special showing following a lecture one evening informed us that an unobtrusive camera allows Dutch security staff in The Hague to keep a constant eye on the treasured painting.) Visitors are thus prevented from viewing the fairly small work (about 18 x 15 in.) as close up as was possible when it was shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., in 2005 (where we had the good fortune to see it, before it had attained its present renown). Nonetheless, even at the imposed distance, Vermeer's Girl retains its ability to captivate--though we must confess that we prefer a number of Vermeer's other paintings, including the Frick's own Officer and Laughing Girl (on which see below).

A Startling Little Bird

The supporting star of the Frick exhibition is a little painting titled The Goldfinch (13.2 x 9 in.) [more ], by Carel Fabritius (1622-1654). Generally considered to have been Rembrandt's most gifted pupil, Fabritius may have even influenced Vermeer but died tragically young (in a massive explosion of the gunpowder magazine in Delft). The Goldfinch's simple subject and small size notwithstanding, it is an extraordinary work, which (like Vermeer's Girl) owes its recent fame in part to a novel featuring the painting. As it happens, that book--The Goldfinch, by award-winning novelist Donna Tartt, which had been a decade in the making--was published on October 22, the date of the Frick exhibition's opening.

A Baker's Dozen

The Goldfinch is joined in the Frick's East Gallery by thirteen other works on loan from the Mauritshuis, all of which can be sampled in a convenient online Visual Index [click on thumbnails to enlarge]. While each of these varied works truly merit praise, we found Rembrandt's emotion-charged evocation of two biblical episodes-- Simeon's Song of Praise [more] and Susanna [more] [more ]--to be particularly noteworthy. At the secular end of the Golden Age's broad spectrum of painting, As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young [more] by Jan Steen (1626-1679) is a lusty morality tale based on a popular proverb.

To complement the Mauritshuis exhibition, the three Vermeers owned by the Frick--Officer and Laughing Girl , Mistress and Maid, and Girl Interrupted at Her Music have been brought together in the Frick's West Gallery (immediately to the left of the Oval Room), for at least the duration of the show. The grandest of the spaces open to the public, the West Gallery is furnished much as it was when the mansion was home to Henry Clay Frick and his family. For a virtual tour of the gallery, see the Frick's interactive floor plan [click on the West Gallery and on artworks of interest within--including the great Rembrandt Self Portrait of 1658].

Avant-Garde Incursion

We would be remiss if we failed to report that this exhibition of stellar Dutch paintings is, sadly, accompanied by the first "truly contemporary work" ever exhibited at the Frick. Entitled Transforming Still Life Painting [more ], this "contemporary installation" consists of a three-hour, very slow-motion film transformation of an early-seventeenth-century still life painting in the Mauritshuis collection (but not on view at the Frick)--Vase of Flowers in a Window, by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621). According to the Frick, the film transforms the still-life genre by digitally animating it: "In the course of three hours, Bosschaert's image changes gradually before our eyes: flowers whither, insects devour the tender foliage, and darkness descends on the distant mountains and river"--presumably inviting us to reflect upon "the transient nature of earthly existence."

The trouble is that it all happens "at such a slow pace that you can't see it" in real time--as even an enthusiastic apologist for the piece observes (see the four-minute video account by the Head of Contemporary at The Fine Art Society in London). In our view, the installation is simply a bit of twenty-first-century technological gimmickry--not art, as the Frick attempts to persuade viewers. If you visit the exhibition, give the film (located in a small alcove not far from the Oval Room entrance) at least a few minutes and decide for yourself.

Girl: The Novel & the Movie

We have neither read the novel Girl With a Pearl Earring (1999), by Tracy Chevalier, nor seen the film (2003) based on it, and have no desire to do either. Based on the little we have sampled of the book--much of the first chapter and other excerpts at and Google Books--we would not be inclined to recommend it. We tend to agree with the views of the hundred or so readers (out of nearly 1,000!) who gave Chevalier's critically acclaimed novel one star or two and bemoaned its prosaic writing, such as this paragraph (p. 109): "I did not mind the cold so much when he was there. When he stood close to me I could feel the warmth of his body."

In her Foreword to the deluxe edition of the novel, Chevalier offers this fanciful interpretation of Vermeer's Girl : "[Her] expression [had always] seemed to me to be a mass of contradictions: innocent yet experienced, joyous yet fearful, full of longing and yet full of loss. . . . [In November 1997] for the first time I had a new thought: All of those feelings of hers were directed at the painter. What did Vermeer do to her, I thought, to make her look at him like that? Suddenly the painting became a portrait not of a girl but of a relationship."

In point of fact, Girl is probably not a "portrait" at all, much less one of a "relationship." More likely, as explained on the Essential Vermeer website, it is a tronie--a Dutch term referring to paintings that "were meant as studies of expression, type, physiognomy, or any kind of interesting character (an old man, a young woman, a 'Turk,' a 'dashing soldier' and so on)."

And the movie? Having viewed all too many YouTube film clips [see esp. #2 of 12], we think it seems faithful to Chevalier's conception. In any case, what we saw was enough to convince us that it is a pretentious, poorly conceived and realized film that we are happy to have missed.

Regrettably, many of those who see the painting are likely to view it in the light of these fictional distortions.

Visiting Information

Purchase timed tickets. See also Free Extended Hours on Fridays. If you want to avoid buying timed tickets online, on most days you can buy them at the museum for the same day (call first to check: 212-288-0700). Don't stand in line to do this, however. Inquire at the entrance.

Of Further Interest

* Review of the Frick exhibition by Holland Cotter, "That Head Turner's Back, With an Old-School Posse," New York Times, October 20, 2013.

* All Things Dutch: Frick Family Travels to the Netherlands and Acquisitions of Works by Rembrandt and Vermeer. A fascinating collection of documents and photographs from the Frick's archives related to the current exhibition. Look carefully at the images for details that make this so.

* For much more, see the truly indispensable Essential Vermeer [Facebook] website--in particular, its pages on Girl with a Pearl Earring and Fabritius and his Goldfinch. Created and maintained by Jonathan Janson, an American painter and art historian who lives and works in Rome, it is indeed essential for both scholars and ordinary art lovers especially interested in Vermeer's paintings. (See also Essential Vermeer Time, a weblog.)


We invite responses to our musings on Vermeer and his Girl, and all things related. See Letters to the Editors.

- The Editors