Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Girl With a Pearl Earring (and friends)

Some years ago, I saw Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance and Lady Writing at the National Gallery in Washington DC and was dazzled by them. I read a couple of books on Vermeer and his work but concluded that getting to Vienna for The Art of Painting or to The Hague for Girl With a Pearl Earring weren't likely to happen. When I read that the De Young museum in Golden Gate Park was going to have a show of Dutch Masters from the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague, including Girl With a Pearl Earring, I was determined to get there to see it.

Barbara and I have been trying to get to San Francisco for several years. We've half planned a trip several times and each time some damn thing or another came up and we abandoned the idea. This time we were not taking no for an answer. We did, in fact, have a quite pleasant road trip with detours to Santa Cruz to see friends and to Carmel for some gallery crawling but the first day in San Francisco - it was to the De Young. We intended to spend some time with their permanent collection but got no farther than the Dutch Masters show and its companion splendid show of etchings and engravings by Rembrandt and his contemporaries. These were all drawn from their own collection and those of other museums in the Bay area. (but I digress)

The Dutch masters show was a treasure trove -- Rembrandt's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (a studio copy made either by Rembrandt himself or one of his students) a pair of portraits, husband and wife, by Frans Hals, a Cuyp harborscape .... Nearly every painting in the show was one that you see in the art history books. That said, by far the hit of the show was Girl With a Pearl Earring.

It is even more beautiful than I expected it to be. I was stunned. I was dazzled. I was mesmerized. I stood there and stared at it for about twenty minutes then had to come back later for a second helping. It was restored fairly recently so it probably looks today much like it did the day Vermeer finished it. (By the way, I cannot imagine the state of mind of the restorerers who working on it. How could you summon up the courage to begin removing the old, yellowed varnish from the surface of one of the greatest paintings of western art?) In the process of restoration, they found that when Vermeer painted the blue cloth wrapped around her head he laid the medium down on the canvas and then worked the pigment into the surface of the wet medium. That not only allowed him to use a bare minimum of the precious pigment but it lent a bit of surface texture to the cloth.

The painting was protected by a low barrier that kept the viewers a couple of feet from the surface. I looked at it from every practical angle from far left to far right. When I moved far enough to the right that I was looking straight into her eyes -- my knees literally went weak and I had cold chills. From that angle the lines of her nose and her right cheek are perfect! I expected her to blink. I am absolutely convinced that Vermeer painted it from that viewpoint. I excitedly hustled several other viewers (and one mildly puzzled museum guard) into that sight line. They all agreed with me -- perhaps fearing that I was dangerous.

David Hockney and an optical physicist, Charles Falco, recently proposed that Vermeer and many of the other painting masters used optical devices to help them with their works. I had the good fortune to hear a lecture by Charles Falco a couple of years ago and he makes a very good case. The notion that Vermeer and many others back to Van Eyck "cheated" (not Hockney or Falco's term) by using lenses or concave mirrors did not go over well -- in fact it generated a flood of invective from the purists. Hockney hotly denies that his theories represent any criticism of the heroes of western art; instead only an exploration of their methods. Personally, I don't care if Vermeer used a camera obscura, witchcraft, or black magic. The fact that he could paint like that is all that matters to me.

That said, going back to standing to the right of Girl With a Pearl Earring -- her left (near) eye and the earring are Leica-sharp, her right (far) eye is painted ever-so-slightly less sharp, and her left shoulder (much nearer the viewer) is painted less sharp. In fact, the information posted next to the painting notes that the shoulder is done with "looser" brush work. Looks like depth of field to me. Presume for a moment that Vermeer was using a camera obscura and noticed how pleasing that effect was. He was painting -- he could have chosen to paint every inch of the canvas Leica-sharp. (but I digress again)

There are only a handful of artworks that effect me as strongly as Girl With a Pearl Earring -- offhand: Gustave Caillibotte's Paris Street, Rainy Day, Marc Chagall's The Praying Jew, Lawrence Fink's Moses Soyer's Studio, Eugene Smith's Waiting for Survivors of the Andrea Doria, Willy Ronis' Rue Rambeteau and Nu Provence, Robert Doisneau's Lillies of the Valley -- but this may be the queen. For several days after seeing it this painting popped into my head every time my brain went into idle. I literally dreamed about it. I love it when this happens.

I would go a very long way to see something like that again.

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