In Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” a young woman turns back to the viewer with a vaguely startled look, as if a noise has cracked her reverie. A cool, pale light washes over her forehead and catches the bauble hanging from her lobe. Beyond is the blackness into which her thoughts have fled. That painting, now at The Frick Collection for its first New York visit since 1984, belongs to an exclusive club of works that are revered beyond reason. It’s a lovely picture, a masterpiece, even, which inspired a bestselling novel and a film starring Scarlett Johansson. It’s also a study in the illusion of artlessness. Vermeer laboured for days – perhaps weeks – to enshrine one of those luminescent moments when the ordinary fuses with the sublime.
But it’s not better than, say, the Frick’s own Bronzino, which blinkered crowds now gallop past as they rush to the star of Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis. The show is rich and the permanent collection richer, yet the girl presides alone in a big oval room, receiving her swooning fans. Why her?
Only a few other images share her celebrity: Munch’s “The Scream”, Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa”, Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam”, Rodin’s “The Thinker”, Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”, Andy Warhol’s “Gold Marilyn”. These are not necessarily the greatest or most pivotal entries in the art-historical canon. But they have currency – a recognisable brand that a political candidate or Hollywood star would envy. An icon’s impact is immediate, direct. It absorbs, then reflects, viewers’ emotions and associations, so all sorts of people can concur that it’s profound, even if they can’t articulate its meaning. As the art historian Kenneth Silver once commented: “Anyone can relate ‘The Scream’ to anything, from suicidal feelings to a bad hair day.”
The same is true of Vermeer’s pensive girl, who has become iconic not because of her pearl earring but because of her pearlescent eyes, which flick back over her shoulder in a distracted glance. She appears not to be posing at all, but caught in mid-turn, illuminated by a flare of insight. Her parted lips offer a moist glimpse of tongue and tooth. You have no idea what she’s thinking, yet her look invites you to imagine.
The exhibition’s other 14 paintings, all from a museum under renovation in The Hague, help explain where the “Girl” comes from. Though Vermeer was Catholic, he was steeped in a Protestant Dutch culture that remarked the presence of God in every particle of dust or fold of silk. That materialistic animism infuses the show. Five apricots glisten on a brick ledge in Adriaen Coorte’s succulent still life, their fuzzy flesh enshrined for all eternity. Nicolas Maes’s subject is ostensibly “The Old Lacemaker”, though he devotes far more scrutiny to the glint on the earthenware pots and the spotlit basket of neat white eggs. Jan Steen is less interested in his “Oyster Eater” than in the oyster about to be eaten. Vermeer distilled this reverence for the inanimate object in his treatment of the earring’s glow.
These painters also lingered on casual gestures and flickering routines. Writing a letter, nursing a baby, tucking into a meal of shellfish and grapes – artists observed all these mundane activities with profound absorption, flooding them with an ordinary yet somehow wondrous light. They could build a picture around a half-completed thought.
The rise of the urban merchant class produced the 17th century’s seamless fusion of the humdrum and the divine. In Holland, daily practices, rather than the exploits of princes, became the painter’s stock-in-trade. Now it was businessmen not potentates who bought paintings and sat for portraits and whose wives starred in subtle interior dramas. In an era of relative social mobility, painters chronicled the customs of the poor and offered the promise of domestic luxuries to come.
Affluent consumers bought landscapes such as Jacob van Ruisdael’s “View of Haarlem With Bleaching Grounds”, which is really a portrait of the sky. Clouds effervesce above flat fields striped with bands of white linen and dotted with humble farms. Only the tower of St Bravo’s juts above the low horizon. This is productive terrain, not sublime nature. Bleaching was a key industry in Haarlem, and Ruisdael offers a harmonious vision of the land, cultivated by hard-working people and suffused with a celestial gleam
Every once in a while a new icon is anointed, at least for a while, and this show’s upstart is a portrait by Carel Fabritius of a little bird chained to a perch. Donna Tartt’s blissfully reviewed new novel The Goldfinch tells the story of the painting’s fictional theft, and in the book she describes the bird as “a direct and matter-of-fact little creature, with nothing sentimental about it … a dark-capped finch with steady eyes.” It’s a work of exquisite straightforwardness.
Vermeer was a master of that mode. He imbued everyday life with sanctity, halting time and preserving it as an arrangement of crystallised details, a blaze of vibrant tranquillity. The Frick has gathered its own trio of Vermeers as companions for the earring girl. Women – flirting, writing, playing music – occupy the still centre of all three. Vermeer, whose 11 children must have kept the females in his life perpetually harried, offers an alternate world of serene domestic spaces, where all is quiet and pristinely grown-up. Children don’t exist, and mothers don’t clean, shop, cook, darn, spin or rock their babies to sleep. They have time to think.
That fantastical simplicity is irresistible. Vermeer and his cohort ennobled a middle-class life whose rhythms and demands we recognise, even if in our day they are faster, noisier and more insistent. That’s why a girl’s glance remains so magnetic after 350 years: because it gives each person who meets it the same consoling message: I know you.
Until January 19, frick.org