REVIEW: Girl with a Pearl Earring: Mauritshuis Masterworks at The High Museum Atlanta

Guest post by Karen Nurenberg Rothstein

Recently I had the pleasure of attending the Press Review for the exhibition: Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis at the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, running through September 29, 2013

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This exhibit included Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece “Girl with a Pearl Earring” along with 35 selected paintings by other 17th Century Dutch Masters such as: Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Steen, Carel Fabritius and Frans Hals to mention a few. It is an extraordinary exhibit, and is the first time the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” has been viewed in the United States in 17 years. She has never before been exhibited in the Southeast.

Emilie Gordenker is director of the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands. She traveled here with the exhibit and gave us a perspicuous idea of what it took to move these masterpieces and told of the renovation taking place at the Mauritshuis. This caused its closure until mid 2014, making it possible to lend such a large number of masterpieces at one time. When the presentation was over, all attending went up to view these prestiges works of art.

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Entering the exhibition you first see the Girl with the Pearl on a full panel wall as if to announce her presence inside, but before gazing into her eyes you’ll travel through four different genre of 17th century masterpieces: Landscapes, Still Lifes, Genre Scenes (scenes of everyday life), and Portraits. Each category will be a memorable one.

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Jacob van Ruisdael’s painting, “View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds” (oil on canvas ca. 1670–1675) was a most interesting painting because it revealed the historical techniques of bleaching linen, a major industry for Dutch Haarlem. The painting, which is viewed from atop the dunes, presents a scene looking down onto the fields, where strips of linen are spread out and basking in the sun after being soaked with buttermilk, a product that acted as bleach. Ruisdael excelled in Dutch landscapes, and it shows in his execution of light and dark tones which take your eyes where he wants to lead you. This artist has truly mastered the use of clouds, and it’s interesting that most landscapes of the time were done as sketches and then taken back to artists studios for painting. So getting these clouds to look as they do was truly a feat. Ruisdael leads the viewer’s eye from the fields of linen with workers, to the buildings where the fabric was soaked, onward to another field and upward to the city and the famed church of Saint Bavo with it’s steeple taking you up into the fabulous clouds of Heaven. Because Holland is a very low lying country, you’ll find that the sky took up 2/3 of most landscapes, giving clouds great importance. Take a bit of time to see how the clouds part, sending sunlight onto the canvas in the proper places. Today this patch of land, once covered with strips of linen, has been replaced by stripes of tulips.

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Pieter Claesz’s painting “Vanitas Still Life” (oil on panel 1630), shows a scene which includes a turned over glass, a burned out candle with an ever so delicate stream of fading smoke, a timepiece, and a pile of books with a scull and quill pen atop. The pictured items are all symbolic of time passing and would have carried an important and obvious moral message to the 17th century viewer. They would have seen this as a clear message: Don’t let vanity prevent you from leading a virtuous life. Claesz was a master at what he did, making each object he painted look so real, as if you could pick it right out of the painting. He was among the first to use muted colors, including shades of grey, brown, and yellow to achieve such a realistic effect. “Vanitas,” meaning “vanity” in Latin, was a genre of 17th century still-life painting portraying different collections of items which all held important moral symbolism. Each emphasized the transience of life and passing of time leading to inevitable death. There are several other examples of Vanitas in this exhibit. Many of the same objects appear in each of them, even though they are by different artists. This may seem strange, until one realizes the symbolism behind them.

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The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius is a well known masterpiece and was conceived as a trompe l’oeil, meaning “deceives the eye.” This technique uses optical illusion to portray realistic images in a three-dimensional manner. In this exhibit the painting is framed, but it was originally intended to be hung high on the wall, perhaps even in an indented area, flush with the wall, appearing as a real pet on its perch. The brush strokes in the bird’s feathers make this famed little fellow look as if he just landed and has not yet settled his feathers. The Goldfinch is one of only several existing works by Carel Fabritius, as he came to a tragic death while in his studio painting, while still quite young. His death was caused by the well know explosion of the Delft powder magazine which destroyed most of the city of Delft in 1654. Many of his finished paintings were destroyed at the same time.

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Jan Steen, “As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young”
Oil on canvas ca. 1668-1670
Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis

Jan Steen’s “As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young,” is a wonderfully executed oil on canvas ca. 1668-1670. This masterpiece shows again, much of the symbolism which so often appeared in the paintings of the 17th century. When you first look upon this you might think it is just a merry family gathering, but looking closer one can see what the title implies, a family indeed showing bad judgement in their behavior. The objects and actions rendered by Steen tell us through the use of historic symbolism, that excessive drinking, smoking and a show of ones’ wealth, are not ways to lead a virtuous life, and sets a poor example for children. The grandmother falls right in alignment with the theme, for she is singing, and the words on the page are “zoo voer gesongen, soo na gepepen” which is a Dutch proverb meaning “what the parents do, the children will follow.” This painting takes a while to absorb, the artist has quite accurately shown why he is called a master in his field. Every item is minutely correct down to the luscious folds in the satin skirt and the softness of the velvet jacket worn by the mother wears. It is thought that this is the image of Steen’s wife. You can even see the coals in the foot warmer under her feet, and the little dog, who’s face is wonderfully filled with expression. The detail and color in this work is remarkable.

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Rembrandt Van Rijn – “Tronie” of a Man with a Feathered Beret
Oil on panel, ca. 1635-1640
Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis

Rembrandt van Rijn is represented in the exhibit by four works. The “Tronie” of a Man with a Feathered Beret, (oil on panel, ca. 1635–1640), shows a fine example of what a tronie is meant to be, a study that highlights facial expression and, if including a bust, most likely wears an exotic costume. Rembrandt made this type of work popular and in doing so, helped other artists of that period earn extra money by painting “tronies” when not working on a commissioned piece. This work is quite luxurious and shows that the artist was at times quite self-indulgent, for often he would use his own face for inspiration. The rich black of his cloak shows off the fabulous embroidered Gorget, which is a piece of armor originally worn in battle to protect ones neck, but here portrays wealth and distinction, as does the gold earring and fine feathered beret. Rembrandt also painted many self portraits and had them all over his studio. Many collectors bought exclusively portraits, while others liked having portraits of their favorite artists. There were so many because as he grew older he would have to keep them updated. There are more than 600 paintings, plus a multitude of sketches and drawings accredited to him. Along with his masterful brush technique, he expressed his feelings in his artwork and it shows. Rembrandt had a tragic life, the dark and depressing colors appeared in his paintings during the worst times. He was also known to be slightly sarcastic at times, in this painting the gentleman’s expression shows a bit of that feeling. Every stroke is placed with a precise eye for texture and detail.

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Vermeer – “Girl with a Pearl Earring”
Click photo to view a quality gallery image.

The “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (oil on canvas ca. 1665) is the most famous painting by this masterful artist, Johannes Vermeer. It is most likely what will bring viewers in hordes to this exhibit and it does captivate. When first seeing her, it’s the eyes that draw you in. Approach closer and you think she is looking directly at you. Then your attention is caught by the few illuminated strokes highlighting her eyes and lips and those that depict the legendary pearl. Those highlights are enhanced by Vermeer’s mastered effect of casting shadows. She can’t help but make you wonder who she might have been, for there is definitely a mystique about her. Her attire, from a different time period, is reminiscent of Vermeer’s early works, which were often biblical. She exhibits Vermeer’s technical talent, excessive use of paint and his fondness for cornflower blue and yellow pigments. There are only 36 paintings that can be definitively identified as genuine Vermeers. Only a few of those can be called a “tronie,” which in seventeenth century Dutch meant “face.” A tronie was not meant to be of any person in particular and usually sold on the open market. In 1881 art collector, Des Tombe bought the Girl for two guilder and 32 cents which today is about $1.50. He suspected it to be Vermeer’s work but couldn’t see a signature until after it was restored. What a purchase!

If you ever find yourself questioning why the paintings of the Dutch Masters have enjoyed almost 400 years of popularity, all you have to do is visit this exhibit. It will run through September 29, 2013.
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all text and images with “Labeauratoire” logo by Karen Nurenberg Rothstein  ©LABEAURATOIRE 2013

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About lance aram rothstein

Photographer • Artist • Journalist • Archivist • Vandal View all posts by lance aram rothstein

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