The High Museum of Art in Atlanta has brought Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” to the Southeast for the first time. The painting has become a cultural icon thanks to Tracy Chevalier’s book and the 2003 movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.
The work is part of a major exhibition of Dutch masterworks from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague.
At a preview earlier this week Barbara Mellon said she came all the way from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “First of all, I love the Girl with a Pearl Earring, so I couldn’t resist. But secondly, I write a column for Renaissance Magazine about exhibits related to the Renaissance, and this is one that definitely had to be included. I’m just thrilled to have the opportunity to see it.”
The Mauritshuis has one of the best collections in the world of Dutch and Flemish paintings. The Gallery is undergoing a major renovation to double its space. Since the paintings needed to be moved out for construction, the Mauritshuis sent Vermeer’s 1665 iconic masterwork and 34 other paintings on a world tour.
“These are some of the most important Dutch paintings that were ever made. From a museum that never lends its works of art," said Julia Forbes, head of Museum Interpretation at the High. "So this is a very unique opportunity and they’ve never been here before. The Girl with a Pearl Earring has been to the United States twice that I am aware of, and this will be the third time. And this will probably be the only time she’ll ever come to this part of the world.”
Inside the gallery, museum interpreter Nicole Cromartie describes e a still life painted by Abraham van Beyeren in 1665. “I mean it’s just so well-rendered. You can tell that it’s velvet. Which is just incredible. And its sort of like a gold thread embroidery. It’s really beautiful.”
A banquet table, draped in lush brown velvet and white silk, is overflowing with half-eaten food, a huge silver wine jug and a gold pocket watch, meant to remind the viewer of the transience of life.
The exhibition also includes four paintings by Rembrandt. Two are historical scenes painted early in his career. There's also a self portrait and a wonderful portrait of an elderly man. He’s a portly gentleman leaning back in his chair, his collar open, black hat askew, and a bemused look on his face as if he’d just eaten too much.
Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis, says the 17th century was a golden age for Dutch painting, in part due to the rise of the middle class.
“People were building houses, they wanted to decorate their houses. What you also see is an influx of very talented artists. And you put those two things together and you got a real explosion in art. There were more paintings produced in this period in Holland than at any other time in history.”
And one of the most iconic paintings is Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” It’s not a large painting but it packs a punch.
“It shows the head and shoulders of a young girl," explains Gordenker. "She’s wearing a beautiful yellow and blue turban and she’s set against a very simple, dark background. And it’s that simplicity that really grabs your eye. And a very striking gesture, she looks likes she’s just turning around to talk to you, mouth slightly open, eyes sparkling.”
In Tracy Chevalier’s novel, the girl is Vermeer’s maid. But Gordenker says the turban around her head is not what girls of the time would have worn. Gordenker says that suggests this was not supposed to be a portrait.
“It was clearly intended at that time to be seen as a painting of a girl, but a girl from history, a girl from the past, a fantasy character. Someone must have posed for it. We don’t know who. And Tracy Chavalier, who wrote the book, just picked up the ball and ran with it. And she made up a wonderful story.”
Gordenker says Chavalier told her she had a poster of the Girl with a Pearl Earring in her dorm room, and always wondered what the back story was. So she made one up.
The will be on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta starting Sunday through September 29th.