A few months ago in Amsterdam, I stayed at a bed and breakfast with especially trendy-but-funky decor. One entire wall of my room was covered in little squares about the size of sample paint chips from the hardware store, all hinged together in an abstract design. The shapes and colors were oddly familiar.
After about a day, I realized why the image was familiar. Of course! I was looking at an abstraction drawn from Johannes Vermeer’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” painted by the still-mysterious master of light and shadow in about 1665 in Delft. Vermeer worked slowly on his small canvases of domestic scenes, but he lavished the extremely expensive blue pigment of lapis lazuli on his work, building up luminous surfaces from repeated glazes.
When I returned home, I watched the 2003 movie Girl with a Pearl Earring, directed by Peter Webber from a screenplay by Olivia Hetreed. The story was taken from Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel of the same title. The painting creates a dramatic tension by its very subject matter: the humbly dressed but beautiful young woman should not be wearing a priceless pearl earring. She is gazing back over her shoulder at the viewer, as though caught in a guilty act. Yet she has an undeniable dignity and poise.
What’s the story here? This is the question the book and movie explore. In the Dutch Golden Age, as in our own time, the rich always find ways to exploit the poor. Scarlett Johansson is luminous as a servant girl pressed into service as a model for the artist. Colin Firth plays the artist, who painted this masterpiece in 1665. The movie explores themes of class, creativity, the waste of human potential, and the tragedy of repressed talent. Repressed sexuality is there, too.
The movie asks a lot of questions. How can the powerful rich be reined in? How far should an artist go to pursue a vision? What happens if a poor girl happens to have artistic talent? Colin Firth is in fine smoldering form, and Scarlet Johansson gives him plenty to smolder about. Tom Wilkinson and Cillian Murphy (of the high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes) round out the cast. The film was nominated for Academy Awards, the BAFTA, and Golden Globes. Unfortunately it fizzled like a seventeenth-century candle at the box office, but I have it on DVD for those times I really need to retreat to the Dutch Golden Age.
In my Amsterdam room, once I realized I was looking at a pixellated version of a masterpiece, all I wanted was to see the masterpiece itself in all its glory. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has several Vermeers. But this particular painting is not in Amsterdam; to see it, I’ll have to travel to the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague. Time to plan another trip!
Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!