If you need to be swept off your feet, the way it can happen when a visionary moment loosens your internal strictures and you behold the mist of another world, go to the Frick this month. There, alone in the Oval Gallery, is Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. It is part of another one of those incredible embarrassments of New York art-exhibition riches we’re so lucky to have, the fifteen-work knockout known as “Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting From the Mauritshuis.” This large-scale loan, seemingly bestowed upon New York by the Gods of Painting, came to us because this great Dutch museum is under renovation. Instead of putting the paintings in storage, the curators sent them on a world tour that includes a few weeks in New York. It probably won’t happen again in your lifetime, maybe ever.
If you’re worried about how to approach such upwardly spiraling art, don’t be. Vermeer is one of the most approachable painters in the world, an artist whose work radiates such celestial beauty and incandescent magnetism that just by looking you’ll know everything you need to know — maybe about art itself, maybe about yourself. I’ve seen this dream catcher before, yet it still had a whole new life lesson to teach me this time.
Since becoming the subject of a novel, film, and a stage play, Vermeer’s portrait has become a worldwide sensation, a red-carpet movie star in itself. People see the painting and think of Scarlett Johansson. When you look at the girl in the frame, though, she’s nothing like the actress, however soft, seductive, or beautiful she is. She’s 17 or 18 years old, and is thought not to be a portrait of anyone specific at all. The painting, a popular Dutch money-making trope at the time, is known as a “tronie,” an image of a type or an idea of a person rather than a picture of an individual. This explains some of the painting’s unknowability, what keeps its mystery so sky-high, and makes the visage so lasting. It has been called the Dutch Mona Lisa. I think this island of blue is better for being more reduced, elusively beautiful, condensed, and a moment of passage. You never know what you’re seeing. The girl becomes a widening of the idea of what it means to be human and what it means and feels like to see. She expands into something larger than, but parallel to, one person.
Atypically for the Dutch, she wears an exotic turban headdress and that notably swollen pearl earring. This is a painting of a subtle moment, a sidelong glance metamorphosing into a look directly at us. What moment this is remains unintelligible. Her rosy lips part somewhat, a tiny glistening at either end of her mouth. Light plays across her face, forehead, and cheeks, highlighting her neck. Her cloak or robe is plain but also looks like something off the Silk Road. The overall color is exquisite. To my eye, the accords of blues and yellows are unlike and more glorious than any other painter’s in the history of art. (Titian owns the universe among gold, yellow, pink, and red.) She’s isolated in a stark dark background, leaving you on your own with this person turned thing turned prism, and time stands still.
Can this act be followed? It can, and it is. In the next gallery crowded with fifteen mostly masterpieces is the very late Portrait of an Elderly Man (1667) by Rembrandt van Rijn. This painting didn’t sweep me off my feet — it swept through me, a crack of existential thunder. An old man sits rumpled, ruddy-faced, his skin pulpy, streaked, warty, rotting, dilapidating flesh, a man alive but laid low by time. He all but fills the picture, larger than life-size, and so close to the picture plane that we stand virtually between his knees. He dominates our visual field and yet is removed from life. Pathos radiates off his annihilated physical body. Emotionally direct and distant at the same time, a force of gravity yet a star system in dissipation. Amused, bored, comfortable in his own skin and in the presence of Rembrandt, open but also an abacus of mysteries. The inner immensity of this painting is only outdone by the extraordinary ways it is made. Flashing brushstrokes, darknesses, light dashing in and out of folds of space, stark whites, smoky blacks, meat hooks for hands, an off-kilter hat and open collar, each rendered in absolutely individualistic ways. It is not fair to compare this Shakespearian colossus to Vermeer’s sumptuous vision. Both attest to the metaphysics of the visual and the physical.
As if these two paintings weren’t enough to undo you, there’s Carel Fabritius’s tiny perfect seduction of the self, The Goldfinch. All I’ll say about this painting of a red-black-and-yellow bird on a perch with a tiny gold chain attached to its leg is that, in and of itself, it is from another existence, flawless, ethereal, intoning the elusive rhythms of being, raising us up to someplace nebulous, exhilarating, unimaginably touching.
I left the Frick so bowled over and undone by the Rembrandt, its towering uneasy interiority, that I felt let down by the Vermeer. A secret shame came over me. Was I so caught up in the gigantic unfathomable emotional impact and painterly fireworks of Rembrandt that I’d lost sight of the Vermeer’s delicacies and mysterious allure? How could I brush off that face, those blues and yellows? Yet late that night, I turned again. The divine harmonics of the Girl’s loosening beauty repossessed me, made its way through the familiar human jungle and wafted me back to being sublimely alive again. She is a blurred photographic image of contemporaneity and a perpetual moment of pictorial charisma.
“Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting From the Mauritshuis” is at the Frick Collection, 1 East 71st Street, through January 19.