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Dutch Masters

The greatest of whom is much in evidence here.

Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By DANIEL GELERNTER
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The art of the one-frame, super-short-story masterpiece by Vermeer—or by Velázquez, Homer, or Hopper—is truth. It was said of the great 1650 Velázquez portrait Juan de Pareja (ordinarily the greatest painting in our hemisphere) that it was truth itself. In the Frick exhibition, look at As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young (ca. 1665) by Jan Steen: There are 10 figures in that painting and not a single real, true human. Then look into the eyes of Vermeer’s girl. She has a mind; she thinks. There is a wish on the tip of her tongue. You wish that you could talk to her and you know that, if you could, she’d have something to say to you.

That makes a great painting. I think it’s what people mean when they say something “really speaks to” them. Gerard ter Borch’s painting doesn’t speak—or if it did, it would sound like a village idiot.

Rembrandt is the other great Dutch master featured at the Frick. (Frans Hals is there too, but his portraits are about as sublime as rodeo clowns.) Rembrandt speaks most powerfully not through his famous earlier paintings in the show—Simeon’s Song of Praise (1631) and Susanna (1636)but through his own eyes in the extraordinary late self-portrait that is a part of the Frick’s permanent collection. It hangs in the main gallery next to his renowned and problematic Polish Rider (1655). Vladimir Nabokov—with typical linguistic genius and a grain of truth—compared Rembrandt to Remembrance: “Dark but festive.” It took 50 years and a dramatic fall from art-stardom to total bankruptcy for the real Rembrandt to emerge from the festive nature and dandy clothes of his earlier days. Here, too, is human truth in the sad majesty of his late work.

But I’d rather look at Girl with a Pearl Earring than Rembrandt, and I’d rather look at the live girl standing next to me than at the Vermeer. Because the central axis of human truth around which art and the surrounding world turns is, and always will be, female beauty.

Bill Gates has been very nearly kicked enough for his recent silly statement on museums versus medicine (see “The Blindness of Bill Gates,” The Weekly Standard, Dec. 9, 2013), so I won’t belabor the point. In the 1980s, Walter Mondale used a similar argument against the manned space program: There are sick and starving on earth, we don’t have our spending priorities straight. That may be. But I’m glad we went to the moon, and I’m glad that there are people like Henry Clay Frick who wasted time and money on art. I can envisage a world in which the human race spends all its energy on being healthy: There’s nothing to life except not dying, and nothing on the walls but an occasional surgeon general’s warning. 

Daniel Gelernter is an artist and CEO of a tech startup. 

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