Growing up in middle class suburbia, I was greeted daily by the Dutch artist Vermeer's Milkmaid, and French painter Utrillo's Montmartre scene, because these paintings hung in our home's living room and entryway. My Mother's choice of art is fascinating since she bought the prints based on color and style without any knowledge of the artists. The Milkmaid is a kitchen maid who is shown near a window wearing a crisp linen cap, cornflower blue apron and a blouse that resembles a corset with a rounded neckline. Her pushed up sleeves are pleated and coordinated with the same cornflower blue. She is pouring milk into an earthenware container known as a Dutch oven and, if you look closely, there are Delft wall tiles near her feet with blue cupids on them. The shades of blue became a lasting memory for me since I spent a lot of time in front of the painting doing homework and listening to my 45s. My Grandmother also favored Dutch art in her china selections, and a marble bust of a woman who looked much like the milkmaid.
On a trip to Rotterdam a few years ago, I visited the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, where many of Vermeer's paintings are kept. The focal point of the collection was The Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is sometimes referred to as the "Dutch Mona Lisa.” I had read the historical novel by Tracy Chevalier and saw the Hollywood movie, which fictionalized how the painting had come about. In the story, Vermeer had used a servant named Griet as his model, and had her wear his wife's pearl earrings. Visiting the area in which Vermeer lived and worked was an added bonus because it has not changed since the 17th Century; a period of prosperity in what would later become the Netherlands. The same scenery and buildings that inspired the Dutch masters remain after almost 400 years. The painting of "The Girl" seems relevant today because of the simplicity of her blue turban headgear, the subtle colors of her clothing and the infamous pearl drop earring, which was the ultimate accessory. Her youthful gaze and hesitant smile has made her the "it" girl of the Dutch Golden Age.
Pearls have been used as a fashion accessory for centuries, and were very popular during the Golden Age in the Netherlands. Although they were rare, artists used them in paintings because of their luminous quality. It was only in the 19th century that the techniques for creating pearls were introduced, making them more accessible and affordable. In the 20th Century, the flapper donned them in long strands and Coco Channel layered them with gold chains, a trend that remains a strong influence with modern designers.
"The Girl” has arrived in San Francisco at a new exhibit at the De Young Museum through June 2. It is entitled “Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis.” The collection is on loan while the Royal Picture Gallery is being remodeled, and includes 35 paintings from Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Jacob van Ruisdaek, Adriaen van Ostade and of course, Johannes Vermeer.
My curiosity regarding the artist that had attracted my mother's eye so many years ago continues. I will take the opportunity to take another look between now and June while "The Girl" is in town.