‘Girl’ is the highlight, but Dutch masters abound at show

“Girl with a Pearl Earring,” the Johannes Vermeer painting currently holding court at the High Museum, put me in mind of the vintage Blackglama fur ad campaign: “What becomes a legend most?” Vermeer’s painting has moved from mere art object to iconic cultural phenomenon, inspiration for a book and movie, and capable of rendering an audience slack-jawed and cowed before it.

This High show, “Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis,” places Vermeer’s masterwork on a symbolic pedestal all its own amidst other 17th century works of the Dutch Golden Age, a time thick with talent and prosperity. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is divided into key themes: landscapes, still lifes, history paintings, genre paintings and portraits culled from The Hague’s Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis. All build toward the climactic delivery of “the goods:” Vermeer’s singular portrait of a young lady in the full flower of youth who has been highlighted in a room of her own against a backdrop of dark teal walls, the better to illuminate her timeless glow.

Painted by the enigmatic Dutch master, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (ca. 1665) coalesces many of the exquisite features that can be found in other paintings on view. Like many of those works, Vermeer’s painting boasts a beautiful subject, a startling incandescence that gives the impression of something lit from within and a dramatic black backdrop to play against its radiance.

But beyond those features, which it shares with other assembled works by masters such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Steen and Frans Hals, Vermeer’s painting boasts certain singular merits of style and circumstance: its subject’s exquisite over-the-shoulder glance, for one, and her modern, distinctive Eastern headdress like some variation on a theatrical costume.

In this divinely lit golden age, any social ills illustrated are what we would today call First World problems: drunkenness, too much leisure time, permissive parenting and the inescapable end of even wealthy societies: death. Death comes calling in multiple still life works on view whose timepieces, wilting flowers, overly ripe fruit and vanitas skulls portend the fate that will come for us all. The implicit message about time’s passage and death’s certainty exists in the lavish spread of fruit and meat in Abraham Van Beyeren’s abundantly bursting-at-the-seams “Banquet Still Life” (after 1655).

Among the works on view is Steen’s “As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young” (ca. 1668-1670), a cautionary, reality-TV-ready painting featuring a boisterous group of adults crowded around a table, drinking, smoking and otherwise making merry. The three children in attendance are the hapless bystanders to their elders’ dissolute bad behavior, including the young boy offered a pipe by a laughing man. There is a Richard Scarry picture book’s worth of busyness to delight the eye. Lascivious in its own quiet way, Steen’s small, intimate painting “The Oyster Eater” offers a young girl looking directly out at the viewer as she prepares to eat that titular bivalve. The association of oysters with sexuality was frank at the time and combined with the girl’s come-hither expression gives the work a delicate sauciness.

There are other works that delight, not necessarily for content, but for technique, such as Nicolaes Maes’ “The Old Lacemaker” (1655), with its tiny elderly woman hunched over her task, illuminated by some divine light, a kind of blessed smile on the inherent nobility of her work. That gossamer light strikes again in landscapes like Jan van Goyen’s “View of the Rhine near Hochelten” (1953), whose epic skies seem to heroicize the ships, commerce and ordinary business of Dutch life.

The selection of 35 works gives a distinct impression of time and place, when secular scenes are rare, but studies of middle- and working-class life and reflections of a well-to-do and peaceful Dutch society figure prominently. Beyond the singular show-stopper the High so often crows about and uses to entice a broad swath of the public familiar with Vermeer’s work, there are many delights in this tidy Dutch Golden Age survey.

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