Holiday Guests

by Richard Brookhiser

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.

The Dutch being the Dutch, there are several paintings of objects or things. Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch has recently been made famous by Donna Tartt. If Dutch goldfinches are anything like American ones, this is a female, or a male in winter. Adriaen Coorte’s Still Life with Five Apricots could be straight from the produce section of some fancy supermarket — Garden of Eden, perhaps, or Fairway. There is a Vanitas Still Life by Peter Claesz — a hackneyed subject (items suggesting daily activities, ranged round a skull) but this headpiece has (had?) real personality, which gives the piece its punch.

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.

Call in the art theorists and the gender students. But just because something is often written about badly does not mean that it does not exist. As usual, artists have gotten wherever it is worthwhile going long before the critics.

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