At the Frick Collection in New York City, there lies a fragile specimen of Western decorum. The fervent pulse that beats around this painting is simply noticeable by the silent ferocity of the crowd that stands before it. It is what some call, the Dutch “Mona Lisa.” This painting is on show with a cast of several other A-list stars on loan from the Mauritshuis in the Hague. These paintings don’t just ooze class, but a fragile humanity. A tenderness and charm that any decent human being would find in these works.
The showstopper that I refer to as the Dutch “Mona Lisa” is “The Girl with the Pearl Earring.” Surely she is among the Parthenon of recognizable and much loved faces of art. One can think of Klimt’s “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” Ingres’ “Louise de Broglie” (also at the Frick) and yes, The Mona Lisa. And yet, there are other mediums that have influenced the impact of the painting. “The Girl with the Pearl Earrings” popularity nowadays is maybe attributable to the novel by Tracy Chevalier and the subsequent film in 2003. According to the New York Times, there are some fanatics who seemingly plan their lives around Vermeer. These fans will make room for Vermeer in their travels, business trips and reading due to these majestic artworks. Certainly this is the closest the idea of a fandom can even come in the realms of art. But what makes these artworks so appealing is their human connection. As the art critic Jerry Saltz wrote about the “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” one can find, “just by looking you’ll know everything you need to know — maybe about art itself, maybe about yourself.” There is also a middle-class quaintness to the works. The Dutch were not overly religious in their subject matter. This made it so that they focused on the everyday activities of daily life, which seem to resonate with people today.
Certainly “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” holds great fascination. While the pearl enhances the features of the girl, it is not the point of the painting to my eyes. To me, she is half-turned, looking at you and bidding one last farewell, before completely dissolving into the darkness. Yet, it is the moment that counts. One befitting a poem by Keats perhaps. A thing of beauty, which – ultimately – will never descend into nothingness. The lighting makes the portrait all the more palpable, romantic and fleeting. And the body language that is rendered, makes her reaction look mysterious. She seems so fragile, as if she is in love. But the love, for whatever reason, will not last. A note of tragedy, perhaps? Vermeer seems to realize – like other great artists have – that ambiguity in some instances, can but only raise the stature of the work.
I have always liked landscape pictures, and the Dutch are no less proficient at the genre than some other great artists that the public has duly taken note of. It is for this reason that when my eye caught the “View of Haarleem with Bleaching Grounds” by Jacob van Ruisdael, I was immediately at home with the exhibit. I want to say there is an intriguing use of linear perspective. The grounds near the bottom of the canvas are well contrasted with the elevation of the fields above it. Ruisdael creates a credible angle, in that one is slightly looking down from atop a hill, but one can also see the vastness in store. However, the grounds near the bottom of the frame really seem to tug at me. As much as I try, it is too unfathomable for me to explain the use of perspective in the picture. If there is one quality that makes the Dutch Golden Age artists trump other Western landscape artists, it would have to be perspective. Not just in landscapes per say, but every genre they laid their hands on.
The worst portraits can be those that lack the personality of the sitter. Rembrandt’s subjects can be larger than life. His portrayals are really Hollywood material. Even if they are nobodies they have charisma. Obviously, not every artist can summon up the sinews for such a tall order that Rembrandt set. Yet, an artist could do worse than study Rembrandt’s use of lighting. Though I feel that today’s “smart modern painters” as Ray Davies once said, have gone in a different direction. I don’t think it would be too much of a misdeed to say that lighting is not quite as important as it once was. Art today demands a different focus. Nevertheless, Rembrandt’s lighting really is superb. I can see how without Caravaggio, there would never have been a Rembrandt. Rembrandt certainly owed his enticing style to the roguish Italian painter. And the pastiness of the brush strokes (especially “Portrait of an Elderly Man” in the exhibit) is really wonderful. Also, I quite like “Man with a Feathered Beret.” I can imagine the debonair fellow shrugging his shoulders and giving off an arrogant chuckle. A very cavalier subject indeed. With a Rembrandt portrait I can always tell how the sitter would act in real life.
The other show-stopper that seemed to enthrall the crowd when I went there was a painting by Carel Fabritius. Haven’t heard of him? Well, I must admit, before I went to this exhibit I really did not know much about him besides some exotic background history anecdotes I read in some reviews of the exhibit. Tragically, he died at 32 in the explosion of the Delft gunpowder magazine. And it just so happens that most of his artworks went with it. What civilization has left is some dull portraits and a really cool painting dealing with complex spatial effects. However, “The Goldfinch” is not one of those chic, zany works. But to be honest, there is something special in this work, even if I don’t quite see it. Fabritius, it happens, was really into illusion. Not Harry Houdini illusion, but nevertheless, illusion. The shadows, the perfect symmetry and the heavy loaded brush is supposed to make one believe that this is an actual goldfinch. The Wall Street Journal has even theorized the small painting was supposed to be hung up high and viewed at a reasonable distance (and probably not in a well lit room either). If this is true, it is a shame that the Frick couldn’t have possibly traded the spot that “The Goldfinch” occupied with “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” for that painting had its own room (of course, “The Girl” will attract more people, but it was very crowded in both rooms, so either way really…). I have heard rumblings that you can see damage from the explosion on “The Goldfinch,” but don’t tell anyone I told you.
As Keats once told us, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” That respective quote explains the wonder of Vermeer and Rembrandt… they are timeless. Despite how many storms they have weathered, they could never possibly become unimportant. As cliche as it is, they tell the truth. In the end, I left the Frick with an injection of appreciation for these masters. I also knew that when I left, I would have to keep battling the shrapnel from this “age of insanity,” but the Dutch Masters exert that same comfort that another Golden Age once did. Maybe large crowds aren’t so bad after all.