The No. 1 question from visitors to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is “Where is ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’?” The problem is, this beloved Vermeer painting, the Dutch Mona Lisa, as it has been called, doesn’t reside at the national Rijksmuseum at all but some 30 miles down the road in the lesser-known Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, in The Hague.
But currently its home is New York. For over a century “Girl” has been hanging on the walls of Mauritshuis within a 17th-century palace, alongside paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens and other top-flight masters from the Dutch and Flemish golden age. Although the painting has been popular for several centuries, it was only in 1999, when it became the subject of a best-selling novel and then a 2003 movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth, that the image of that wide-eyed girl looking over her shoulder rose to a kind of superstar status.
But the Mauritshuis closed for renovation in April, and “Girl,” last seen in New York nearly 30 years ago, is the chief attraction in “Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Paintings From the Mauritshuis,” opening at the Frick on Oct. 22, 2013.
The painting appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984 as part of a five-year traveling show during the Mauritshuis’s previous restoration. This time the gallery will close for only two years for gentle work on its existing home as well as an expansion into an Art Deco building next door. Having the additional building will give the Mauritshuis twice as much space, including special exhibition galleries and educational space, which have been lacking.
Although the Mauritshuis building and its spectacular art collection are owned by the government, the institution itself is privately run. And while the Dutch government has contributed some funds for the renovation and expansion project, the gallery will be responsible for raising a total of about $28 million for the project. Of course, allowing these master pieces to leave the country and go to NYC are part of the campaign to raise that money.
The show is more than a fund-raiser, however. It is also an exercise in branding. The Mauritshuis had more than 260,000 visitors last year, but it wants to become better known around the world.
The Frick’s is the last stop on a three-museum tour in the United States. Before New York “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” along with 34 other works from the Mauritshuis, was de Young Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco from Jan. 26 through June 2 of 2013, and then the High Museum of Art in Atlanta from June 22 to Sept. 29.
Certainly the Frick, whose limestone mansion on the Upper East Side was built for Henry Clay Frick, the Pittsburgh coal and steel industrialist, is similar in spirit to the Mauritshuis, which was built for Count Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen, a professional soldier who was the governor of the Dutch colony in Brazil from 1636 to 1644.
The exhibition in New York will be far smaller than the shows at the two other museums. It features just 10 paintings, and rather than appearing in the special exhibition space in the basement, it will occupy the far grander Oval Room, near the Frick’s own three paintings by Vermeer — “Girl Interrupted at Her Music,” “Mistress and Maid” and “Officer and Laughing Girl.” Besides “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” the Frick’s show will also include “The Goldfinch,” by Carel Fabritius, as well as portraits by Rembrandt and Frans Hals; and a landscape by Jacob van Ruisdael. Not much to add to be honest.