By Michael Raffety
What other place could you choose in all the world where all the comforts of life and all the curiosities that can be desired are so easy to find.
— Rene Descartes, Amsterdam, 1631
Seventeenth century Dutch society is one we might recognize. Here is the description from a portion of the show catalog written by Lynn Federle Orr, curator of European art for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: “The resulting concentration of capital enriched bankers, oligarchs, and the merchant class, as well as society at large. In all of 17th century Europe, Dutch citizens enjoyed the highest standard of living: a social climate perfect for the flowering of the arts.”
It was an economic situation best described by President John F. Kennedy: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
This golden age of Dutch art is what followed after the provinces that made up the Netherlands won their independence from the Spanish Habsburg empire, then embarked on trading and banking that saw them establish the first European trading outlet in Japan, a fact memorialized in a Japanese print in the collection of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor. The Dutch banking was strong enough to draw John Adams from his assignment by Congress in France to Holland, where he was able to land a loan for the struggling American republic.
It was the wealth generated through trade, banking and the first stock market based on modern principles that created a middle class with wealth enough to invest in paintings to decorate what had now become comfortable homes. This was a break with the past where artists depended on royal and religious patronage.
This patronage for home art resulted in smaller sized paintings, what Orr describes as small “cabinet” paintings. These small paintings did not require the artist to have a large workshop. They could be produced by a single artists working alone or with an apprentice.
With a Calvinist Protestantism banishing religious painting from churches, that helped shift the subject matter to secular subjects — landscapes, cityscapes, domestic scenes, portraits, still lifes.
The signature piece of the art exhibit now open at the de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is the Girl With A Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. The exhibit continues through June 2 and includes this and 34 other paintings from the Royal Picture Gallery of the Mauritshuis, the Hague, in Holland. Concurrent with this in the same gallery is an exhibit of 200 engravings, etchings, ink drawings and watercolors from the Achenbach collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Included in this virtuoso print show are 60 etchings by Rembrandt.
The Mauritshuis show includes four Rembrandt paintings. The Mauritshuis show is another one of those exhibits negotiated by the late FAMSF Director John Buchanan and Board President Diane B. Wilsey. The exhibit came to San Francisco because the Mauritshuis bought a building across the street from it and is going to expand into by providing an underground connection.
Wilsey told the assembled press Wednesday that the shows assembled from the Musée d’Orsay were a highlight for here, “I never thought we would have an exhibition like this.”
“Our collection is so fantastic,” said Mauritshuis Director Emilie Gordenker, who is half Dutch and half American.
The Girl With a Pearl Earring painting is made even more famous because of a 1999 historical novel by the same name by Tracy Chavalier and then films by the same name in 2003 and 2008. Scarlett Johansson won a Golden Globe for her acting in the 2003 film.
The girl in the painting is unidentified. It is referred to as a tronie, a head painting not meant to be a portrait. It originally was sold at an auction in the Hague for what the Dutch ambassador to the U.S., Rudolf Bekink, described as $1. The buyer recognized it as a Vermeer, though the auctioneer did not, according to the show catalog section written by Quentin Buvelot and Ariane van Suchtelen.
So little is known about Vermeer that he is often nicknamed the Sphinx of Delft. Only 36 of his paintings survive, including several paintings misattributed to other painters. The authors of this chapter note that it has been “surmised” that Vermeer used a camera obscura, “but there is no proof of this theory.”
However, an examination of his painting, a View of Delft (not in this exhibition), reveals circles of confusion faithfully painted in as part of the scene. Camera lenses cast light on film in the form of tiny circles of confusion. The smaller the aperture setting of the camera the smaller the circles of confusion. The larger the aperture the larger the circles of confusion. By the 16th century the camera obscura used a convex lens to cast an image on paper. From drawings by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century it appears likely he may have employed one himself.
In San Francisco at the Cliff House there is a camera obscura hut that one can go into and see Seal Rocks and the ocean.
Even on the Girl With A Pearl Earring there are photographic elements to it — the out of focus earring and dots of paint on the turban and coat that cause a photographer to wonder whether Vermeer also might have used a camera obscura for this and other interior paintings.
The painting has become so popular with museum goers, especially after the novel and the movies that, “In 2006, in a poll organized by the Dutch national newspaper Trouw, Girl with a Pearl Earring was voted the most beautiful painting in the Netherlands. Its fame has taken on such mythic proportions that one is tempted to call Vermeer’s ever-mysterious work the ‘Dutch Mona Lisa,'” wrote Buvelot and van Suchtelen.
Just because the title is so amusing one of my favorite paintings from the show is Jan Steen’s, “As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young.” It’s not really about the difference between the older set who write letters and use landlines and the younger set who use social media. The quote is from a Dutch proverb. Steen painted himself into the scene teaching a younger person how to smoke a pipe. While the old lady is following the words of a song everyone else is celebrating the christening of a baby. It’s a twittering good party.
And it’s a twittering good show. Advanced tickets are suggested. They are sold for timed entrance to keep the exhibit from getting too crowded.