For the first time in 30 years, while the Mauritshuis Museum is undergoing extensive renovation, several famous paintings are being displayed in 3 shows in America this year. One in San Francisco (March-May), a smaller one in Chicago, and an even smaller one in New York. Then the paintings — all protected by contract with the museum by bulletproof glass directly over the paintings — will be returned to the Netherlands. Probably for at least another 30 Years.
Because the Show was called “Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Other Dutch Masters,” I assumed there would be many of Vermeer’s works in the show, so I manically saved my money for the flight, hotel for 3 nights (despite its being only a 2-hour non-stop flight, I didn’t land till after 5 p.m., and the hotel was an hour away from the airport), and 2 days at the show (once in the show, you were guided by armed guards who frowned most emphatically if you wished to return to see the painting again rather than exit; once you exited, you were not permitted to re-enter: “crowd control,” I was told. But because I was staying 2 days at the hotel, I got 2 tickets. Because I went alone, I got to go on both Saturday and Sunday.)
I went early in the morning on both days, to beat the crowds, arriving before the museum opened. The lines were already long half an hour before opening time, and that Sunday was Easter Sunday, which is how a room — without a view — happened to be available at the hotel which had an arrangement with the museum: giving $50 show tickets, $35 museum tickets free with the room (and you had to pay both fees if you wanted to see the Vermeer & Dutch Masters show since, otherwise, you’d be seeing all the other art for free). It made the $300 room only $215 per night, technically, which, I suppose, is the best you can do in downtown San Francisco.
Upon entering the “Vermeer & Other Dutch Masters” show, I was surrounded by landscapes: farm-scapes, sea-scapes, tree-scapes, snow-scapes, cows-grazing-in-pastures-at-all-seasons-of-the-year-scapes — none of which interested me. The next room contained Still Lifes, and some of these were fascinating. Flower Still Lifes (Lives?) and Vanitas or Memento Mori and Banquet Scenes which showed painters’ skill with clear glasses prevailed at the show.
(Please note that some of these paintings were life-size, some miniature, some as large as my living room wall — yes, I live in a small house, but that’s still an awfully big painting: they’re scaled to fit into this post. The larger the painting in scale, the larger it was in real life.)
The Vanitas paintings were intended to remind you that life is transitory, so many of them had timepieces, which apparently, though relatively portable, had to be wound with a key, which was attached to the watch with a ribbon. Many such timepieces appeared in the paintings, even in the still lifes, such as Van Beyeren’s above. Here are a few of my favorites.
My favorite banquet scene became my favorite on the second day I went to see the exhibit. After I accidentally left the show the first day, turning into the bookstore, from which you could not re-enter the show (not even by begging on bended knee or by shedding copious amounts of tears, or by insisting that there should be posted warnings that once you turned the corner — thinking you were merely entering another roomful of paintings — you would actually be leaving the exhibit and not be permitted to return under any circumstances — unless you had a ticket for the next day, as I did, and returned the following day), I wandered around the Show’s store, hoping for a chance to slip back into the show. The museum guards were quite vigilant, so that never happened. I ended up purchasing a book about the paintings, reluctantly taking it back to the hotel to read about those I’d not had enough time with.
In the book, I learned quite a few things about some of the paintings that gave me a better appreciation of them the next day. This Van Beyeren still life, which is actually quite large, reveals the painter — blue velvet jacket and hat, lace collar, and goatee, standing in front of his easel painting the still life — reflected in the coffee urn on the table. I looked at it so long the second day that another visitor asked what I saw in it. I pointed out the reflection of the painter in the urn. He was amazed. I confessed I’d read it in the book about the show, having missed it the day before. He thanked me for pointing it out. We then both stood there, side by side, admiring the coffee urn, until someone came up and asked what the two of us were staring at so long. The gentleman explained, the third viewer was astounded, I left them beside each other and went on to the next group.
The next room had portraits, some of famous rich people, some with unnamed people in certain professions or doing something interesting, some just images of types of people (called Tronies, for whatever reason), some imaginary gatherings including the artists and members of their families in the group. Here are the ones I found most fascinating or attractive.
I simply loved the expression of The Violin Player. She was really very attractive, in vibrant colors that, unfortunately, don’t show up as well in this photograph. Judging by the amount of time many of the male viewers spent in front of this painting, I wasn’t the only one that found her pretty. The second one, by Steen, was the only painting there on a wood panel. Though the people in the far room were blurred and indistinct, the young Oyster Eater was so detailed, you could make out the salt on the oyster, the breadcrumbs on the table, the individual bits of fur on the trimming of her velvet jacket, and her eyelashes.
The next two were wealthy patrons who had their portraits done one year after they were married. The portraits were life-sized. I so wished these had not had bullet-proof glass over them because the glare of the lights on the glass made it difficult to see some of the paintings’ fine details, like the velvet in his jacket, the intricate lace in their wrist-cuffs and ruffs — each of which had a different pattern — and the gold “beading” on her bodice, which was so expertly done, I would have sworn the painter had glued real gold beads onto the canvas. (Other viewers expressed their dismay over the glare, too, so I wasn’t the only one that had to practically put my nose against the glass to see the paintings’ details.)
Jan Steen, who painted the Oyster Eater above, was apparently very popular during his lifetime, and was well represented at the show. In the next group portrait, which is making a commentary on how wealthy families corrupt their younger members, Steen and his wife appear. This painting would cover my entire living room wall. The one with the windows. It’s that gigantic for a painting.
I missed this next painting entirely the first day, and only found it Sunday after I’d read about it in the book I’d bought. It’s small, and I think it’s only interesting because of the difference between the two versions: before and after its restoration (which mainly involved removing the original, yellowed varnish; revealing completely different colors beneath). (So sorry for the shadow on the photo: it was the best I could do.)
And finally, the painting I travelled to San Francisco to see, one of the paintings I’ve loved all my life, the one I spent most of my time standing and admiring. (On the second day, the guards around it asked, “Weren’t you here most of the day yesterday, in front of her?” No, only an hour. Remember, I accidentally exited the show.) On Sunday, I did not make that mistake, and spent as long as I wanted in front of her. I’d expected the yellowed, cracked version that I’d always seen in books, but she’d been restored. She also had bullet-proof glass directly over the painting, a double-paned bullet-proof-glass wall about three feet in front of the painting (from floor to ceiling), then a 5-foot barrier in front of that, so it was a good thing I had my driving glasses — for distance — with me, or I wouldn’t have been able to see her.
At first, the look of Girl with a Pearl Earring startled me, having gotten so used to the cracked, yellowed version of her gorgeous face. The documentation claimed there were strokes of dark green in the black background, but I couldn’t see them. Of course, when you’re standing so far away, separated by bullet-proof glass with spotlights glaring on it, it’s pretty difficult to see variations in the black background. Her face, however, was smooth and without any cracks whatsoever. I could see that perfectly clearly even through the layers of glass. How did that happen?
Apparently, after the original, yellowed varnish was removed, and a new, clear varnish applied, the art-restorers painted in the cracks. Over the new varnish, it was explained, so as not to “alter the original painting.” And that is why she doesn’t look like all the photos I’ve seen of her over the years. They matched the color of the paint — not the original paint, mind you, which would have been made of ground lapis, malachite, and other gem-stones — and painted over every single crack that was in the original painting. On top of the new coat of varnish.
This is how they think the painting looked when Vermeer originally painted it. I hope they’re right.
Though from some angles, she looks like this now:
Quite a difference, depending on where you’re standing when you look at her.
I was, I admit, a little disappointed. I understand restoration of art to make it look like it was originally, and I appreciate it intellectually. But I was hoping to see the Girl with a Pearl Earring that I’d known and loved my whole life, “imperfect” as they may have considered her.
I guess I will always love her: restored or not. I stood there so long, and went back so often on that second day, that the guards eventually asked my name, and nodded to me each time I returned.
Despite the novel of the same name, and the subsequent film adaptation, no one knows who the Girl with the Pearl Earring is, but it is, no doubt, entirely fiction that she was a servant in his own household. Vermeer was famous in his own lifetime, and an important personage in the Dutch art world. His wife’s mother was a wealthy and well-known land-owner. She lived with her daughter, her son-in-law Vermeer, and their incredibly large brood of children. If the identity of the Girl with a Pearl Earring was known when Vermeer died — at a young age — bankrupt, and his widow, with almost a dozen children to support, had to auction off his canvases, we would know her identity, too, since it is through that sale, and subsequent ones, that we know the history of this most famous Dutch masterpiece.
The paintings may never leave the Mauritshuis Museum — originally a palace of a wealthy art patron — or the Netherlands again, but I’m almost certain they won’t in my lifetime. The bullet-proof glass over all the paintings demonstrate that the Dutch are wary and hyper-protective, especially of Vermeer’s most famous painting, considered the Dutch Mona Lisa, his Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Was it worth the more than $1800 I spent on plane fare, 3 nights at a hotel whose room was as big as my own bedroom, and two days — well, one morning and one day — in the show, and two days traveling — most of that time spent waiting in the airports for the mere 2-hour-flight to get from NM to San Francisco?
If only to see Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, oh, yes. Yes, it was.