'Pearl Earring' shimmers,
but Rembrandt reigns
by Sura Wood
"Girl with a Pearl Earring," (ca. 1665), Johannes Vermeer's luminous, bewitching portrait, is second only to the Mona Lisa in the woman-of-mystery department. The lovely, anonymous ingenue is posed in three-quarter profile, regarding us over her shoulder with a sweet gaze and soft face, an exotic gold-and-blue Middle Eastern turban (the expensive ultramarine pigment, made of lapis lazuli, was mixed on the canvas) tied around her head, and a single, glistening, exceptionally large pearl, hanging from her ear, grazes her white collar. The provenance of the masterpiece is equally enigmatic. It disappeared shortly after it was completed, resurfacing 200 years later at auction in The Hague in 1881, where it fetched a meager two guilders, the equivalent of one dollar. But, who was she? Questions surrounding her identity prompted Tracy Chevalier's 1999 novel and subsequent movie adaptation: both speculated about the model's relationship with the artist, whose own origins are so sketchy he was nicknamed the "Sphinx of Delft." Thirty-six Vermeers have survived; the rest have been lost to history.
Now his most famous masterpiece is the undeniable star of Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis, a small show of modestly scaled works which recently opened at the de Young. The 35 paintings from the 17th century, an era rightly dubbed the Golden Age, are part of a collection belonging to a gem-like museum in The Hague housed inside a palace, which, you guessed it, is currently undergoing renovations. Ergo, a touring exhibition that includes a selection of its genre paintings, portraiture, still lifes and landscapes by artists such as Jan Steen, Frans Hals, Gerard ter Borch, and prolific landscape painters Salomon van Ruysdael and his nephew, Jacob. The latter's "Winter Landscape" (1660-70), a primer on the mercilessness of nature, is awash in swirling black clouds that dwarf an isolated snow-covered farmhouse and threaten to engulf it as winds whip up grasses that crest like ocean waves in the stormy gray light.
Although the Mauritshuis show is slight in comparison to the impressive Van Otterloo exhibition that arrived at the Legion two years ago and featured stunning examples of Dutch paintings of the same period, it has something the other lacked: five spectacular Rembrandts, including renderings of mythological and Biblical scenes, as well as his portraits – he was the undisputed master of the form – that grow more magnificent the longer one drinks them in. Simultaneously earthy and dwelling in a state of grace, they're the main reason to trek out to Golden Gate Park. Take "Man with a Feathered Beret" (1635), a bust-length portrayal or "tronie" reminiscent of Caravaggio in its humanity, drama, and chiaroscuro – the contrast of astonishingly beautiful light, shadow and dark background. The prosperous, haughty man of means brought to life here dons an ostrich-feathered beret, which partially shades the side of his face farthest from view, and light reflects off his horn-shaped earring and the gold embroidery decorating his black cloak. Once you get past Rembrandt's virtuoso technique and commanding brushstrokes, there remains that awesome atmospheric light whose only sources were the glow of candles and nature. "Portrait of an Elderly Man" (1667), a strikingly accessible, robust work painted two years before the artist's death, and the last dated in his own hand, is an extraordinary depiction of an ordinary hail-fellow-well-met. Ruddy-cheeked and slumped in a chair as if he had just sat down to join you for a pitcher of ale, his soft belly thrusts forward in his loose-fitting dark shirt; he's nearly three-dimensional and bursting with life. Rembrandt employed a variety of brushstrokes, and applied layers of material, wielding his palette knife and brush handle to scratch the wet paint on the canvas. (His studio infamously reeked of fumes.)
While the painting show is compact, even sparse, Rembrandt's Century, a complementary exhibition of over 251 etchings and engravings from FAMSF's Achenbach Graphic Arts Collection, is immense. Its title capitalizes on the master's name, but the bulk of the prints are by Rembrandt's predecessors and acolytes, produced during a period when Dutch printmaking flourished. An avid creator and collector of etchings, Rembrandt is represented by 63 works and studies that lend insight into his creative process and astounding talent. Curator Jim Ganz's comprehensive text amplifies artworks throughout.
A gifted "stage director," Rembrandt orchestrated every aspect of gesture, pose, costume, setting and lighting in his paintings, and translated that level of hands-on involvement into the black-and-white medium of etching. He often, one could say compulsively, used himself as model, immortalizing his visage in both painting and etching. One can witness an autobiographical record of his changing tastes, moods and physiognomy as he aged from the 1620s to his death in 1669 at 63. Stirring religious imagery in nocturnal settings like "The Annunciation to the Shepherds" or "Descent from the Cross by Torchlight"; stories from mythology, from a devastated Medea to the huntress Diana; a sleeping puppy; and a few nudes are among the pleasures on offer.
Both exhibitions are on view through June 2 at the de Young.