For better and for worse, the High Museum of Art has made partnerships with European museums the core of its program. On the better end of the spectrum, its relationship with the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague has brought us the splendid “Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis,” the High’s first exhibition to focus on 17th-century Netherlandish art. It runs through September 29.
The Dutch Golden Age, like fifth-century B.C. Greece and the Italian Renaissance, was one of those magical moments when culture, prosperity, patronage and individual genius aligned to produce a burst of creative activity and a far-reaching legacy.
European art curator David Brenneman has said that any work on the checklist would be a highlight in the High’s collection, a comment that says as much about the collection’s lacunae as the quality of the paintings. But yes, this small but gem-studded exhibition envelops visitors in that Golden Age glow, capturing the spirit of the period through the work of many of its most eminent practitioners, among them Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer.
A golden age isn’t the result of spontaneous combustion, of course. Netherlandish artists played a founding role in the development of oil painting, passing skills from master to student through the generations. Scientific discoveries of the age, such as the telescope and microscope, deepened the interest in close observation of the material world that dated back to Jan Van Eyck.
But 17th-century politics, religion and economics played a profound role in shaping Dutch art. Newly independent of Spain and the Catholic Church, the Dutch republic was on an economic roll. Its people’s vaunted skills as traders (of goods and, it must be said, slaves) grew a class of wealthy, cosmopolitan citizens who wanted to enjoy and show the success indicated by the finery worn by Jacob Olycan and Alette Hanemans in Frans Hals’ gorgeous portraits. They replaced the church as patrons in this Protestant country, creating a market for the types of secular subject matter — landscapes, still lifes, genre scenes and portraits — that are the organizing structure of this stately installation.
This shift in orientation from the spiritual to the material world is serendipitously embodied in the exhibition catalog, in which Rogier van der Weyden’s 15th-century “The Lamentation of Christ” and Rembrandt’s 17th-century “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” are illustrated on facing pages. The composition of the supine Christ surrounded by mourners in the former is uncannily parallel to the corpse surrounded by medical students in the latter.
The star of the show is Vermeer’s mysterious girl, but my personal highlight is the cluster of four paintings by Rembrandt, which suggest the evolution of his themes and methods.
“Simeon’s Song of Praise” exemplifies Rembrandt’s theatricality and the influence of Caravaggio in its chiaroscuro: the beatific Simeon holds the Christ child in a darkened interior, illuminated by an otherworldly light with no obvious source. In “Susanna,” light seems to emanate from the milky skin of a young woman whose bath has been interrupted by lascivious peeping Toms who hope to do more than look. (You can see one guy’s profile on the far right of the painting as he peers through the thickly painted bushes.) While many artists used the story as an excuse to paint a nude, Rembrandt built his painting on her reaction to this intrusion: her expression of surprise, fear and vulnerability as she hunches forward to cover her body in a curve echoed in the shape of the canvas.
Rembrandt’s introspective “Portrait of an Elderly Man,” painted two years before the artist’s death, represents the looser paint handling and intimations of mortality that haunt his late self-portraits.
Rembrandt wasn’t the only artist pondering man’s fleeting existence. Most of the still lifes are memento mori, in which imagery of rotting fruit, wilting flowers, timepieces and, most obviously, skulls are intended to remind us of our inevitable demise.
Both artists and their patrons, however, got to have their cake and eat it too. The still life was equally a vehicle for the display of painterly virtuosity and celebration of the pleasures of the senses. Abraham van Beyeren’s “Banquet Still Life,” a pyramidal composition of a buffet groaning with delights, is a compendium of effects: light glinting silver and gold tableware, the transparency of glass, a trompe l’oeil lemon peel unfurling over the edge of a velvet-covered table.
The competition between values and actual behavior is evident in the section devoted to genre paintings, or scenes of everyday life. Many are images of sobriety and industriousness, and some pretend to be. Jan Steen’s “As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young” (both title and topic are remarkably contemporary) is ostensibly a warning about bad parenting, but then everybody is having such a good time, including the artist, who depicts himself offering a pipe to a child.
Some of these paintings don’t even try to be high-minded. The come-hither expression of the woman in Steen’s “The Oyster Eater” invites the viewer to share the aphrodisiacal bivalves, and maybe more.
Which brings us to Vermeer’s exquisitely painted “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”
The woman in Steen’s painting exists in a specific time: she wears the clothing of 17th-century Holland, sits in a typical pub, and her gesture, expression and context offer a discernible narrative. Not our “Girl.” This beautiful young woman, possessed of incandescent skin and parted ruby lips, seems to materialize out of thin air. Wearing a head wrap of uncertain origin, she glances over her shoulder with an expression so tantalizingly ambiguous that Tracy Chevalier was inspired to write a novel imagining her life. Vermeer’s use of softened edges and painterly passages, especially in contrast to the crisp naturalism of so much Dutch painting, also contributes to the painting’s mystique.
Not for nothing has she been dubbed “the Dutch ‘Mona Lisa.’ ” And she’s given the Louvre “Mona Lisa” treatment in this show. This climactic piece is isolated in its own room, set in a frame that looks like a bank vault. A platform surrounded by stanchions further distances the painting from the viewer.
It’s ironic that icon adulation, which this kind of star treatment only foments, often results in our inability to actually see the work — either because it’s cordoned off and swallowed by crowds or because the inevitable glut of kitchen magnets and shower curtains dooms an authentic experience.
And yet the painting is here, along with many other wonderful works. She will never be the girl next door, but it’s great to have her and them in the neighborhood.
View additional paintings in the exhibition here.