If you want to see certain wonderful paintings, you can fly to Europe or wherever they live and look. Or you can wait until the institution that owns them sends them on a tour. A select group of Dutch visitors is staying at the Frick Collection over the holidays.
The Frick has splendid Dutch masters of its own. But the out of towners, from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in the Hague, stand up very well to the home team.
Hals and Rembrandt are here, but the star of the show is a Vermeer — Girl with a Pearl Earring. The painting inspired a 1999 novel by Tracy Chevalier, which became a 2003 movie starring Scarlett Johansson, as the girl. The temptation to weave stories around Dutch portraits is almost irresistible, and perhaps should be resisted. Impossible to resist is the painting itself. It’s a simple composition — a solid background, a model wearing solid-colored clothing, that big pearl (the text on the wall says it is too big to be an actual pearl, so it must be a costume jewel). The Dutch churned out such paintings to experiment with poses, expressions and head gear. But the look of apprehension in the girl’s face makes her seem like a real person — a real and not-so-happy person.
Who could be making her apprehensive? The only other person in the picture is you — the viewer. If there is a prying eye, it is yours. The same feeling is produced, even more strongly, by one of the Mauritshuis Rembrandts, depicting Susanna surprised at her bath by the elders (the story is in the Apocrypha for Protestants, Chapter 13 of the Book of Daniel for other Christians). This nearly naked woman does not want to be seen. She is beautiful, but her flesh is depicted clinically — she is not offering it for our admiration. She is quickly covering herself up. We are the elders — the voyeurs.