What may be the greatest painting in our hemisphere is on temporary loan from the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca. 1665) hasn’t been in the United States since 1996 and is unlikely ever to be here again. We owe this traveling show of Dutch masterpieces, centering on Johannes Vermeer’s best-loved work, to an ambitious Mauritshuis expansion project scheduled to be completed in mid-2014. With almost foolhardy daring, the priceless painting has voyaged to Manhattan by way of Japan, San Francisco, and Atlanta, and will make a final stop in Italy after its stay at the Frick ends next month.
In no other city will the Girl be so among friends: Manhattan has more Vermeers than any country in the world: The Met alone has five, which beats every country outside Holland. The Frick Collection, a comparatively small museum in a lovely townhouse on Fifth Avenue at 70th Street, owns three Vermeers. These, and an astonishing array of other Old World masters, were bought by Henry Clay Frick, a man of singular taste and generosity, who willed his collection and the $5 million (in 1913 dollars) house he built for their display to become a museum after his death. Piece for piece, it’s one of the greatest art collections in the world.
And it’s usually pretty quiet. But with the added distinction of Girl with a Pearl Earring, the line for this exhibition stretches for half a block. Inside, the elegant elliptical room at the far end of a long marble garden has been divested of its usual Whistlers and now contains only that one beguiling painting. The Frick strictly controls the number of people in the exhibit, which contributes to the long lines but also means that, once in, you’ll have a chance to stand almost nose to nose with the Girl if you want. And though many seem to come simply in hope of feeling a little closer to Scarlett Johansson (who portrayed Vermeer’s fictionalized model in the 2003 film Girl with a Pearl Earring), the profound beauty of this piece will move anyone who can be moved.
The composition is striking, but explains nothing: A bust-length portrait of a girl looking up at you over her left shoulder against a dark background is the exact same thing you’ll see in Vermeer’s Study of a Young Woman (ca. 1665-67) in the Met. But this is a great painting, and the one at the Met is not. This girl has an earring, of course—which is rather too much talked about. Suffice to say, it’s not a pearl; it’s probably a painted teardrop of glass. You can find the same earrings in at least five other Vermeers, including (most clearly) in the Frick’s very own Mistress and Maid (ca. 1666-67).
Depending on whose attributions you believe, between 34 and 36 Vermeers are known to exist today, and his favored props—the earrings among them—make frequent appearances: the yellow satin fur-trimmed jacket (5 paintings); the famous chairs with the lion’s head finials (13 paintings); the map copied so beautifully that its cartographer and date of publication have been identified (at least 2 paintings, with fragments in more).
Vermeer’s staggering technique makes his attention to detail seem even more painstaking than it is: In the Met’s greatest Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662), the reflection on the brass basin of the tapestry underneath is rendered with such convincing fluidity that I’ll bet you didn’t notice that it doesn’t match the tapestry it’s supposed to be reflecting. The translucent pearls in the necklace depicted in Mistress and Maid are suggested by shadow and highlight painted directly on the mistress’s skin.
In this Mauritshuis show, you’ll find pieces by contemporary inferior painters: the workmanlike Nicolaes Maes; the uninspiring Gerard ter Borch; and the fussy and generally awful Jan Steen. Of course, they didn’t have Vermeer’s technique. And, given a million years and the same exact subject matter (which they often had), they could not—and never did—approach Vermeer’s elegance in composition. Nor could they match the simple beauty of Vermeer’s palette. But the greatness of Girl with a Pearl Earring is elsewhere, beyond. In the final analysis, Vermeer is an artist, whereas Maes, ter Borch, and Steen are just photographers without cameras.
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.