Saturday, January 26, 2013

‘Girl With a Pearl Earring: Paintings from the Mauritshuis’ at the de Young

 Abraham van Beyeren, 'Banquet Still Life.' after 1656

John Buchanan, the late and much-missed director of the de Young, had a psychic sense of what museums were going to be closed for renovation. That's how San Francisco’s de Young Museum got two impressionist shows and that's how the de Young is graced with this jewel of a show from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.

While the museum is closed for renovation, the Mauritshuis has sent thirty-five masterpieces of Dutch art on a tour of the United States. San Francisco is their first stop. These works reflect the culture of artistic, economic, and technological innovation that allowed the Netherlands to prosper in the 17th century.

This is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The de Young has never exhibited so many great paintings in one place at one time. The show has five paintings by Rembrandt, still lifes by Willem Heda, Adriaen Coote and Rachel Ruysch, a landscape by Jacob van Ruisdael, a delicate luminous goldfinch by Carl Fabritius. Jan Steen is well-represented as is Franz Hals by two magnificent full-length portraits along with genre paintings by a number of lesser known artists.

These are the kinds of paintings that you want to live with, to soak in, to meditate on. Most are small, intimate and really need time to fully appreciate. All are well set off by gallery walls, painted in rich tones of Venetian red, grape, dark gray and olive green

Jan Vermeer left no more than 36 paintings and the Mauritshuis has sent us one of the crown jewels of European painting, “The Girl with a Pearl Earring.” The painting inspired a novel and a movie and neither do justice to the work.

For art lovers, this is the Holy Grail, the World Series, the Oscar, and the Nobel Prize all rolled into one. Small, 17-by-15 inches, she is the only painting by Vermeer on the West Coast.

Her image is almost photographic. Vermeer’s possible use of the camera obscura is controversial but shouldn’t be. Seventeenth century Holland was at the forefront of the scientific revolution. Vermeer may have learned about photography from Delft scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the first man to observe bacteria with a magnifying lens, and the executor of Vermeer's estate.

Her mesmerizing gaze goes far beyond the possibilities of photography of any era.

Installed in her own room so as to be above the crowd, the lighting emphasizes her creamy skin, the light on her lips and the pearl, the beauty of her face emerging from the masses of expensive lapis lazuli pigment. She gazes at the viewer with a melancholy reserve, inviting questions but never giving an answer.

When these artists were painting the images that we see as resonating with calm and peaceful affluence, Europe was erupting with vicious wars.

These 17th century painters were born during the Thirty Years’ War, which destroyed Germany and nearly destroyed the Netherlands as well. These were years of terrible religious conflict and economic devastation. Vermeer was ruined by these wars and had to declare bankruptcy. It is possible that this was a contributing factor to his early death at the age of 42. His great contemporary, the painter Carel Fabritus, died at the age of 36 in a massive gunpowder explosion that killed hundred of people in Delft.

Jacob van Ruisdael. View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds. 1670-1675.

It is then all the more extraordinary that the Dutch showed an enviable religious tolerance while under constant military threat. Their economy prospered while developing a society and culture that was the first to be truly modern and secular. A market developed for art among the emerging mercantile class but even the modest shopkeeper wanted a etching or two to pin up in his walls.

The painters in the show did not allow the external turmoil to enter their work. There are no epic bellicose battle pieces in the show. The still lifes show an awareness of life’s poignant moments – Claesz’s painting of skulls in “Vanitas Still Life,” Rachel Ruysch’s bugs and dying flowers, as well as flowers out of season in her “Vase of Flowers.”

Watches show up to mark the passage of time. Surely no observant viewer can miss the meaning of the overturned glass in Heda’s “Still Life with a Roemer and Watch,” or the smoking candle in the second of the two paintings by Claesz in the show?

Rembrandt’s five pieces span his lifetime, from a fairly early portrait, probably painted by a student, of him with a gorget (military breast piece) painted in 1629 to a possible self-portrait of him as an elderly man in 1667.

The slicker brush of his early work has been replaced by a thicker impasto, crusting the face with the signs of age and worry. No other painter has looked at himself so honestly, without ego or vanity. How is it even possible that such a small work should hold such power, of the ravages of age portrayed with a sad wisdom devoid of malice?

Viewers of Rembrandt's “Susanna and the Elders” will have to forgo the current hatred of full-figured women with rolls of fleshly plenitude to appreciate Susanna’s rounded body and her pearly, shimmering skin. The painting has been recently cleaned and reframed to reflect what the curators believe was its original size. Look closely to see the leering face of one of the elders, hidden in the sparkling foliage.

There are a number of paintings of everyday life, showing the Dutch love of food, drink and merriment. Gerrit van Honthorst’s “The Violin Player,” is all exuberant cheer wearing a red and gold draped mantle that exposes quite a bit of skin.

Jan Steen’s “The Oyster Eater” is very tiny but there is no stinting in the lavish domestic details. The young woman looks at the viewer with a half-smile; is she inviting us to join her in eating oysters – the food of seduction?

It is a truism that great works of art can evoke a multitude of reactions. However you define it, this show offers a sufficiency of grace.

Girl With a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings From the Mauritshuis: Opens Saturday. Through June 2. De Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, S.F. (415) 750-3600.

All images courtesy of the FAMSF

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