The High Museum of Art often plays host to “masterpieces” in exhibitions traveling from other institutions. This summer, a truly great one will make an appearance in Atlanta. The High is one of three U.S. institutions that will present “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” an exhibition of paintings from the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, starring Vermeer’s titular painting. The exhibition opens June 23 and runs through September 29.
The Dutch museum, often referred to as a “jewel box,” has sent a group of works on the road while it undergoes an extensive renovation and expansion. A larger version of the exhibition made two stops in Japan last year. A reduced selection of 35 works, on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through June 2, will arrive in Atlanta on June 23. A smaller group of 15 paintings will travel to the Frick Collection in New York this fall.
ArtsATL: When was the last time “Girl With a Pearl Earring” traveled?
Emilie Gordenker: It was included in the big Vermeer retrospective in 1995-96 at the National Gallery in Washington, and in the 1980s, before anyone paid much attention to the painting. It went to Japan in 2000.
Gordenker: Absolutely. They really drew a lot of attention. It had already started with the retrospective with museum-goers, but the book and the movie brought the painting to the attention of a wider public.
Here’s a funny anecdote. The Mauritshuis made a luggage tag with a picture of the girl, so of course I made my husband put it on his suitcase. He was in Florida on a business trip, and a woman comes running up to him and says, “Oh, I saw that movie!” He was very good and explained that “actually, it’s a painting.”
That just tells you a little bit about how images get out into the world today. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. One of the reasons we wanted to have this exhibition is to make people aware of where the painting is.
We’re also sending a terrific group of works. We never send out this many unless something unusual is going on, like the renovation.
ArtsATL: What are some other highlights?
Gordenker: There’s an amazing selection of Rembrandts. The little “Goldfinch” by Fabritius is one of our most-loved paintings. It’s an incredible illusion and looks very much alive. The Ruisdael landscape and several paintings by Jan Steen are very important. “Vase With Flowers” by Rachel Ruysch was conserved especially for the show. She was very well known and revered in her time, which was unusual for a woman artist.
ArtsATL: How has the tour been doing?
Gordenker: The reception in Japan was unbelievable. They are crazy for Vermeer. At the Mauritshuis, the Japanese are our largest foreign group. We just found out that our exhibition in Tokyo was by far the most visited exhibition in the world last year.
ArtsATL: Tell us about the renovation.
Gordenker: Our wonderful 17th-century building needs new windows, new air conditioning, new lighting and things like that. We’re also expanding into the building across the street.
ArtsATL: What are some of the other changes?
Gordenker: The old entrance is not usable any more — it ruins the climate — so we needed to find a better way of getting people into the building. We used to have visitors come in the servants’ entrance on the side, which is not how we want to welcome our public. And the front gates were always shut. In the future, you’ll come in the main gate and take an elevator or steps down into a big hall that connects the two buildings. It’s intended to be very neutral, because the Mauritshuis has a lot of personality, and so does the new wing — it’s an Art Deco building.
We’re a small museum and we’re going to stay small, but we need some breathing space for other things that museum-goers expect, like an auditorium and café.
ArtsATL: Can you give us a visual walk-through of the exhibition?
Gordenker: The exhibition is organized by genres. [Looking at a model of the exhibition layout.] It starts with landscape, which is good because it sets the scene. Then there’s a gallery of still lifes. The genre painting section features the Jan Steen, which is the biggest painting we’ve sent and also his biggest. We’ve also got his smallest, “Girl Eating Oysters.” Then we go into portraits and Rembrandt. There are some early Frans Hals that were conserved recently and have come out beautifully. They’d always been hung sky high because they were really dirty and looked terrible. There will be a gallery of didactic material, and then the final room, which contains the “Girl” herself.
ArtsATL: She looks like the “Mona Lisa,” all alone and behind glass.
Gordenker: We’ve started calling her the “Mona Lisa” of the North. She’s taking over!