There is much more to this exhibition than a chance to view Vermeer’s masterpiece Girl With a Pearl Earring as it is accompanied by thirty-four other paintings from Holland’s golden period from the collection at the Mauritshuis in The Hague.

The Dutch museum is closed while it undergoes a major renovation and this has given the opportunity to tour some of its collection to North America. San Francisco’s de Young Museum, where I saw the exhibition, was its first stop.

The work in the exhibition is divided into five parts, or themes; portraits and thonies (idealised portraits of non-existing subjects like Girl with the Pearl Earring); landscapes and seascapes; genre paintings; and still lifes that, through their execution, illustrate the triumph of the bourgeoisie in 17th Century Holland. It is the commonplace made concrete that made these paintings revolutionary in the history of art. The short lived Dutch Republic, a golden period, was the result of a hard fought bloody revolution with Spain which split the Spanish Netherlands into what is now Holland and Belgium although the latter remained under the Spanish yoke for a long time after Dutch independence. It was as well a fight over religion; Protestantism in Holland and Catholicism in the south of what remained of the Spanish Netherlands (Belgium) and that too played itself out through art of both regions.

What, of course, draws people to the exhibition is the painting of its title, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and they will not be disappointed. Many of the viewers have seen the film of the same name and are drawn to the fictitious romance around the painting and others, myself included, just want to see a painting that is so central to their understanding of the history of art. Like the Mona Lisa, Girl with a Pearl Earring has become a cliché that has taken away from its value as a work of art. Vermeer’s paintings stand out in the crowded art history of accomplishment of the 17th Century. There are only thirty-six known paintings by Vermeer and the Girl with a Pearl Earring is perhaps, along with the View of Delft, his best-known work.

Why is Girl with a Pearl Earring a good painting? There are many reasons and chief among them is its composition; odd by the standards of its day, she looks at us by turning her head to the viewer bathed in shaft of light setting her apart from a dark background, lips slightly apart. Our eyes are, indeed, drawn to the single large pearl earring on her left ear. She wears an exotic turban that was not common to the time. She is, by any standard, an object of desire. Historians cannot name her and many think that she is a thonie or an idealised combination of many women. There is the speculation, notably by David Hockney, that Vermeer used a camera obscura to help him master realism, I think not, but that is a whole other subject and, in the end, doesn’t affect the quality of his painting. We like Girl with a Pearl Earring because it is a drop dead beautiful work of art.

There are thirty-four other outstanding 17th Century Dutch paintings in this exhibition and I would have been happier if the show had been called something like Thirty-Five 17th Century Masterpieces from the Mauritshuis Museum, but that would be mouthful and not the good marketing ploy of its current title. You have seen the exhibition, now buy the coffee cup or necktie.

There is an excellent early Rembrandt, another thonie, in the exhibition, Man with a Feathered Beret. We have two imaginary people with ‘a’ something, an earring, a hat; they make a nice couple. One wishes they could go out on a date, he in his hat and she with her earring. Another favourite painting of mine that is included in this exhibition is the small work by Paulus Potter, Cattle in a Meadow. Potter is simply the best Dutch painter of animals, in particular cattle, of all time. What a tragedy that he died in his twenties. Another artist in the exhibition who died far too young is Carel Fabritius whose most famous painting The Goldfinch is included. Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt, died at the age of 32 in massive gunpowder explosion in Delft in 1654 the same year The Goldfinch was painted. This very small, 33.5 x 22.8 cm, work shows, as does the Potter, that great paintings need not be about great or important subject matter, but can reflect the everyday things in our lives.

I could write at length about every painting in the Girl with the Pearl Earring exhibition as they all have something important to say, but that would take a small book. What is important is that Dutch painting of the 17th Century, and this exhibition has great examples, is a mirror of what, in the following four centuries, has become the modern Capitalist life we now live in Canada; certainly far from perfect, but better than what went before it. These paintings are a celebration of lives lived well and their beauty is also a celebration of art done extremely well. 

GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING: Dutch paintings from the Mauritshuis
De Young Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 
26 January—2 June 2013

High Museum of Art, Atlanta 
23 June—29 September 2013

The Frick Collection, New York City 
22 October 2013—19 January 2014