That Other "Girl"
Updated: Aug 26, 2021
Thoughts on the Exhibition now at The Frick Collection: Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis
“Portrait of a Lady” by Rogier Van der Weyden, circa 1460
Detail of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, the star of the traveling exhibition of Dutch paintings now at the The Frick Collection in New York.
The collecting philosophy behind “Life of Vertu” is about quality over quantity, which in the museum world always brings to my mind The Frick Collection. Henry Clay Frick’s mansion (on 5th Avenue along museum mile in New York City) is a living testament to this virtuous style of collecting. The house can be described as a jewel box encasing the finest gems of paintings, sculpture and decorative arts (with notable 18th-century works); its exhibitions are always fresh and engaging. The Frick’s current show “Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals: Masterpieces from the Mauritshuis” (I recently viewed at Atlanta’s High Museum) is worth a peek. The star of that exhibition (shown here at top) is known as a “mystery girl” by historians, as we possess so little real information about her. Her obvious allure led to a book and movie (the latter with that Dutch-looking actress who needs no mention), but I promise you…. neither the book nor the film can replace eying the real thing.
Vermeer’s masterpiece brought to my mind a similar, and no less compelling, anonymous sitter by the Flemish painter Rogier Van der Weyden. “Portrait of a Lady.” If you check the art books on this one, almost always she is noted a plain Jane for her time. More apparent to contemporaries was her grace and perhaps piety as she glances down. I was curious what experts in Dutch painting might think of the bejeweled lady by comparison. Was she too a plain Jane in her time? Via twitter I got my answer from the curators of the Mauritshuis via #lifeofvertu
Our ideas of beauty obviously change with time. Yet, if you compare these, I think it is clear which lady captures our modern eyes. The intimacy of Vermeer’s sitter is far superior. With a baroque pose of open mouth, she comes to life. This immediacy is most felt in her glance towards the viewer. We long to know the exact moment when she was captured. Did the artist especially admire her? Van der Weyden’s lady, once my favorite, seems stagnant by comparison.
There were other works in this exhibition that inspired me. Among these are the smaller still lifes (and what exhibition of Dutch paintings is complete without Dutch still lifes): “The Goldfinch” 1654 by Carel Fabritus; “Still Life with Five Apricots” by Adriaen Coorte (this one early 18th century) and the exquisite floral depiction, for which we admire Dutch painters, by Rachael Ruysch (c. 1700). The fleshy flowers of this one with its parrot tulip and roses produced a ghost perfume in the air. Maybe it was that elegant French woman who wandered by? I promise you, there is no better place to see this beautiful exhibition than at the Frick. Go, if you can.
Original Post October 22, 2013