It’s not a pet name for my genitals. I’m talking about the European country.
Almost thirty years ago, I visited The Netherlands and still hold deep memories of cruising the canals of Amsterdam by night, seeing Anne Frank’s hiding place behind a hidden secret door, strolling the footpaths, ponds, outdoor cafes, and eating cheesy meatballs with several cold bottles of Heineken. I rode a bike and played softball in the Vodelpark and somebody told me it was legal for people to have public sex there. I didn’t see anybody doing that, but you just have to love the Dutch for being so open-minded about such things. After a few days, I left Amsterdam and traveled across the countryside to see the seashore. It was a vivid journey, full of all the standard clichés of canals, dykes, wooden shoes, windmills, pretty villages, and blazing flower fields awash in color.
The Hague sits on the edge of the ocean and is the country’s seat of government, but it isn’t the capitol of The Netherlands. The constitution holds that distinction for Amsterdam, but all the work gets done in The Hague. I arrived there on some kind of national holiday and venders were selling orange cotton candy on the beach. In fact, the color orange was displayed everywhere in the city. Musicians were scheduled to perform on flat-bottom boats and in bars that night, which sounded fun, so I got a small room and set out on foot to explore the maze of windy streets. Quite by accident, I stumbled across an art museum called the Mauritshaus shimmering at the edge of a tree-lined city lake, and herein lies my most vivid memory.
You see, I fell in love with a strange young woman there.
The usual rules of exploring an art museum applied to the Mauritshaus. They asked that I leave my camera at the front desk as flash photography was prohibited. Stay at least a foot away from the paintings. Do not touch them. Don’t cause a ruckus. Museums have a library-type atmosphere. No food or beverages allowed in the building. Feel free to ask questions of the staff.
Armed with a brochure, I set out to see what the place had to teach me, perfectly content and comfortable in the eerie, echoing silence. When I’m in a museum, I am usually in my favorite element. They offer enlightening and peaceful experiences. But this was a special experience in that the Mauritshaus was constructed as a royal palace and actually has a roman temple feel to its interior.
The collection was manageable, only 16 exhibition rooms spread over two floors. The paintings themselves were surprisingly small in individual size, but they included many from the Dutch Golden Age of painting, including a few by Rembrandt van Rijn. The styling of that era had broken away from the Baroque into a more realistic style of depiction, very much concerned with the real world. There were historical paintings, portraiture, landscapes, cityscapes, and still lifes. During those times, paintings were always commissioned by wealthy individuals and usually hung in their parlors. Group portraits were paid for by each portrayed person individually. The amount paid determined each person’s place in the picture, either head to toe in full regalia in the foreground or face only in the back of the group. Allegories, in which painted objects conveyed symbolic meaning about the subject, were often applied. Many paintings, which seemingly only depicted everyday life, actually illustrated Dutch proverbs and sayings, or conveyed a moralistic message, the meaning of which is not always easy to decipher in modern times. Most patrons preferred landscapes, such as the dunes along the sea coast, or canals with meadows full of grazing cattle, or silhouettes of a city in the distance.
I was practically alone in the museum. After soaking in everything the first floor had to offer, I ascended the grand staircase to the Great Hall. And that’s when I saw her.
My arrival had caught her attention and caused her to turn her head. She looked at me in sensual surprise, with wide eyes and a slightly parted mouth. She was a light in the darkness, a human lantern, a staggering optical fact. Seen against the gilded wallpaper, she floated disconnected from everything around her, and disconnected me too. We stood there for several moments, slowly absorbing each other, a silent chasm of three hundred years between us.
“Girl With a Pearl Earring” is simply one of the most captivating images in the world.
The painting shows a young woman regarding us over her left shoulder. She wears a simple blue headband and a modest smock. Her red lips are slightly parted in a secret smile. She seems to be glancing back at the moment she was leaving the room. She wears a pearl earring.
She is set apart, singled out, and completely different than any other portrait of her era. We can only guess why. She seems for the artist, and for us, the most important object in creation.
Not much is known about the painter, Johannes Vermeer, who left behind only 35 paintings. Nothing is known about his model. His most famous work is regarded as “The Mona Lisa of the North” and it is just as intriguing. The girl is wearing the clothes of a peasant worker, and this obvious fact removes her from the possibility of belonging to either the upper-class family of Vermeer or the family of one of his wealthy patrons. Three hundred years ago, peasant girls simply didn’t have their portraits painted. It just wasn’t done. She couldn’t have afforded it. And when the average output for an artist like Vermeer was only one or two works per year, he couldn’t have afforded to do it for free either. And yet, there she is, her face turned toward us from centuries ago demanding that we question who she was. What was she thinking? What was the artist thinking about her?
But the most glaring enigma of the painting is the pearl earring.
Three hundred years ago, the pearl was the ultimate status symbol because of it’s wealth and elegance. They were a natural treasure with no processes, and had to be imported at great cost to their buyers. Only the very rich could afford them. The poor remained poor all their lives with absolutely no hope of ever rising to an upper class. Unfair, but a seventeenth-century fact. So why did Vermeer so prominently figure a pearl earring, probably his wife’s, in a portrait of a peasant girl? For me, the answer is in the painting. From the dark background of the canvas, light glides almost imperceptibly over the girl’s face, but the light is most intensely rendered in the only two reflective surfaces in the portrait: the eyes and the pearl. Look closely and you’ll see that Vermeer is drawing a comparison for us.
He is telling us that this nobody, this simple peasant girl, drawn into a world that will ultimately reject her, it is she who he sees as a natural treasure, a soothing star, and far more than what she seems.
She is a pearl.
Mankind has thousands of Shakespeares who were illiterate, Mozarts who never heard a note, Vermeers who never touched a brush. This girl could be something special, but she will never know because of her station in life. Vermeer must have sensed it. Essentially, the message of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” is that, sometimes two people will regard each other over a gulf too wide to ever be bridged, knowing immediately what could have happened, and that it never will. The portrait is about things not said, opportunities not taken, potentials not realized, perhaps even lips unkissed.
Most importantly, it speaks to the artist, the poet, and the dreamer in all of us.