Girl with a Pearl Earring – Last week in de Young Museum, San Francisco

 We finally got to see this famous painting at de Young Museum today.  I have delayed this visit due to many reasons:  too busy at work and at home; had a vacation in april; waiting for our cousins to come so that we can all go together…

Like the Terracotta Warriors exhibition at Asian Art Museum, which will end tomorrow, May 27, this exhibition is ending this week next Sunday, June 2.  I told myself:  I cannot miss these two exhibitions.  I need to give some priorities to satisfy my interests in art.   Also,  the SFMOMA will  be closed for two years after June 2.  I can’t afford NOT to see this Girl with a Pearl Earring.  Since this is the closing week, there were many visitors.  The line to buy tickets was very long.  As a member, I already reserved the tickets, but still had to wait in a shorter line.


This is from the museum website  “The exhibition features 35 paintings representing the range of subject matter and technique characteristic of 17th-century painting in the Dutch Republic. Among the works traveling to the United States is the Mauritshius’ celebrated masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer and the enchanting The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. The painting Vase of Flowers by the gifted Rachel Ruysch, one of the few female painters of the Dutch Golden Age, is being restored especially for the American tour.”

I had actually seen most of the other paintings before but my primary interest today is to discuss the “Girl with a Pearl Earring”.  There are so many written reviews on this painting since the release of the Movie in 2003.  I still remember after the movie was released, I went to NYC for a short trip and visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has most of Vermeer’s paintings.  In one of the galleries where Vermeer’s paintings were housed, a big group of Japanese tourists took turns to take picture with a very small Vermeer’s painting.

According to a  New York Time post,  “The No. 1 question from visitors to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, according to Emilie Gordenker, is “Where is ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’?” “…this beloved Vermeer painting, the Dutch Mona Lisa, as it has been called, doesn’t reside at the national Rijksmuseum at all but some 30 miles down the road in the lesser-known Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, in The Hague.”  Although this “Dutch Mona Lisa” painting has been very popular for several paintings, it has rose to fame of a “superstar status” after the movie was released.

The novel and the movie are definitely sensational.  What is really behind this beautiful painting?  Who is this young lady?  There is no answer so far.  There is very limited information about Vermeer, and even less about the models.

According to the Guardian, “Exactly why the painting is the source of such fascination is difficult to explain, since very little is known about the painter and even less about his subject. Experts say the mystery is part of its allure. “Sometimes the questions are more intriguing because they can’t be answered,” Melissa Buron, assistant curator of the exhibition at the de Young museum told The Wall Street Journal. “Who was she? What was she thinking? What was her relationship with Vermeer? The mystery is part of its popularity.”

Let us leave the mystery behind for a while, and see if there are pieces of more interesting information about the painting itself.  I found this website very helpful.  I selected a few topics of my interest here.  The following are all extracted from:

Man in a Turban
Jan van Eyck
25,5 x 19 cm
National Gallery, London

The Turkish Turban in European painting:

“The appearance of the young girl’s turban within the context of Vermeer’s seemingly quintessential Dutch oeuvre should not come as a complete surprise. Other objects of “Turkish” origin may be associated with the painter. Some of the carpets which appear as table coverings in his interiors (contemporary painters rarely represented these precious imports lying on the ground) are of Turkish origin. They must have been appreciated for their evocative floral motifs and the large mass of warm red color which enlivened the otherwise geometrical and cold interiors.

However, we must not believe that anything called “Turkish” in contemporary accounts really came from that country. The term was loosely used to describe exotic imported objects which were much in vogue. In the inventory (29 February, 1676) taken shortly after the artist’s death we find listed among other things: “a Turkish mantle of the aforesaid Sr. Vermeer,” “a pair of Turkish trousers” and “a black Turkish mantle” all in the “great hallway” of his house. Some scholars have suggested that the two tronies in “Turkish dress” found in the kitchen could possibly have been by Vermeer’s hand.”

Who posed for the painting?

“A careful consideration of the Girl with Pearl Earring gives rise to the question of how far the painting is to be taken as a portrait. P. T. A. Swillens, who compiled the first exhaustive study of the artist’s life and work in 1950, believed that one of the most important characteristics of a 17th-century portrait was its likeness and although we can no longer judge of this anymore, the face would not be called a beauty in an aesthetic sense. Swillens writes that Vermeer made no attempt to idealize her.

Contemporary scholars are not in agreement on the subject. According to Arthur Wheelock the painting is an “idealized study” which reveals Vermeer’s “classical tendencies.”

Not a single sitter in Vermeer’s extant paintings has ever been identified, including the young girl in the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Many critics believe that she may have been Vermeer’s first daughter, Maria who would have been about 12 or 13 years old in 1665-1667, the dating scholars have assigned to the painting. However, this painting was certainly not a portrait in the 17th-century sense of the term, but rather a tronie. In any case, she resembles the model in Vermeer’s Art of Painting(see above).”

Inspired by an Italian painting?

Beatrice Cenci
attributed to Guido Reni
64,5 x 49 cm
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Roma

“Nonetheless, Vermeer scholars have proposed a wide variety of Dutch and foreign models including, traditionally, theBeatrice Cenci by the Italian painter Guido Reni.* While such a connection may appear far fetched, Vermeer certainly knew the Beatrice Cenci story which had captured Europe’s collective imagination. He could have easily seen one of the many copies of Reni’s original or engravings which circulated throughout Europe.

Beatrice, the daughter of the rich and powerful Francesco Cenci, suffered from her father’s mistreatment. Violent and dissolute, he imprisoned Beatrice and her stepmother in the Castle of Petrella Salto, near Rieti. With the blessing of her stepmother and two brothers, all of whom shared her exasperation at his continued abuse, Beatrice murdered her father in 1598. She was apprehended and, after a trial that riveted the attention of the citizens of Rome, condemned to death at the order of Pope Clement VIII, who may have been motivated by the hope of confiscating the assets of the family. In the presence of an enormous crowd, Beatrice was decapitated in the Ponte Sant’Angelo in September of 1599, instantly becoming a symbol of innocence oppressed.

It has been hypothesized that the great Italian painter Caravaggio was present at the decapitation and was inspired to paint his Judith Cutting off the Head ofHolofernes. The precise and realistic rendering of Caravaggio’s scene, anatomically and physiologically correct to the minutest details, presupposes the artist’s observation of a real decapitation.

The influential Vermeer writer Lawrence Gowing had proposed the influence of Jan Scorel’s female portraits. The Scorel and Reni influences have been largely set aside in favor of somewhat less exotic connections with the Dutch painter Michiel Sweerts.

* While the Beatrice Cenci is traditionally attributed to Reni, its poor quality in comparison to other works of the master has led many critics to reject it as an autograph work. Instead, it could be by a painter in the immediate circle of Reni, possibly Elisabetta Sirani, who is known for rendering the master’s models in abbreviated and reduced form.”

How big is this painting?

As this painting is so small, and there were too many visitors crowding round the painting, I only stayed in front of the painting for a while.  What did I see and what did I think about?  I think the lighting and shadows painted here have particularly highlighted the Girl’s eyes looking at the artist, and now at the viewers.  Her eyes and her lips which are sexually implied, are very different from other women’s look and behavior in Vermeer’s other paintings.

~Images  from Google~

The mystery will continue, and the painting “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” will continue to be a superstar.  Good luck to your guess and imagination!

 “Everything you can imagine is real.”
― Pablo Picasso


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