Johannes Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring" was purchased in the 1880s for $1. Today it is the centerpiece of a show of 17th century Dutch paintings at San Francisco's de Young Museum, where it has a room of its own.
Vermeer's most famous painting is the showstopper of the display of 35 paintings from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, the Hague, Netherlands.
While it's Vermeer's best-known painting, thanks to the novel and the movie of the same name, it is not my favorite Vermeer. Yes, the lady in question is appealing in her ultramarine blue turban and the large pearl symbolizing purity, made by three bold brush strokes. She looks up in anticipation, mouth slightly open, as if someone or something has awakened her from a reverie.
But for me, it doesn't compare with the National Gallery's "Girl With the Red Hat" or "A Lady Writing." Still it is a marvel, and you will no doubt have trouble getting close to it in the crowds that are bound to attend this show.
Those who go will be more than gratified by the exhibit as a whole. There are four paintings by Rembrandt, including a small but glowing image of the nude Susanna and a boldly painted portrait of an elderly man. The youth and innocence of Susanna, a biblical figure who according to myth was surprised at her bath by a group of leering old men, are palpable. Here she is alone, glorious in her golden pubescence.
The other painting is an honest, straightforward view of a salt-of-the-earth type man well into his old age and wholly comfortable with himself. Both are as prepossessing as Vermeer's painting of the girl.
So is Carel Fabritius' small still life of a goldfinch, which reminds me of a Wayne Thiebaud in its simplicity and dashing application of paint. A student of Rembrandt, Fabritius renders the tiny bird in swift brush strokes, its drab body lit up by a flash of gold on its wing. It and the Rembrandts would be reason alone to visit this show.
But the show offers a fine survey of the Dutch Golden Age, when secular subjects began to replace religious ones in a country with a prosperous middle class that yearned for images that reflected its values, which echo our own American ideals of middle-class comforts and quiet domesticity.
In addition to portraiture, paintings from the period present landscapes of the flat lowlands and waterways, including Salomon van Ruisdael's jaunty "View of a Lake With Sailing Ships." His nephew Jacob van Ruisdael's fascinating picture of a bleaching field, where linens were whitened in the sun, reflects Holland's importance as a textile center.
The landscapes give way to a selection of still-life paintings that take your breath away. In addition to "The Goldfinch," there is a sumptuous still life of a wilting bouquet by Rachel Ruysch, one of the few female painters of the period.
Even lovelier is Abraham van Beyeren's painting of flowers in full bloom with a timepiece, the canvas rich with delicate tones of red and pink. There is also an classic vanitas still life with a skull and a timepiece by Pieter Claesz, which symbolizes the brevity of life and its pleasures.
A wonderful selection of genre paintings that reflect the life and times of the people of the period are also on view, including Jan Steen's largest painting, a scene of a family gathering after a baptism, where the people relax with wine and pipes, and his smallest painting, "The Oyster Eater," which depicts a wonderfully lascivious woman eating the aphrodisiac denizens of the sea.
As if the Mauritshuis exhibit wasn't enough, it is accompanied by "Rembrandt's Century, a show of masterful prints from the 17th century including approximately 50 magnificent Rembrandt etchings, among them "Faust's Study," "The Raising of Lazarus" and "The Three Crosses."
Both shows take a good deal of time to see, so you may want to spend the day at the museum where you can also get spectacular views of San Francisco in the de Young's tower and have lunch in the cafe.
These are timed and ticketed exhibitions so you will want to get your tickets early on the de Young's website.
GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING
What: Dutch paintings from the Mauritshuis
Where: M.H. de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 9:30 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Friday (from late March to late November). Exhibit runs through June 2, closed Mondays.
Admission: $25 general, $21 college students with ID, $15 youths 6-17. Members and children 5 and under are free. General admission is free the first Tuesday of every month ($15 surcharge for special exhibition still applies).
Information: (415) 750-3600, www.deyoungmuseum.org.