Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is the ultimate expression of unrequited love. Glowing in the pooled darkness, she turns toward us, looking down and over her shoulder with seductive eyes and moist, parted lips.
Yet her long, hanging turban betrays indifference. It swings toward us like a final curtain, indicating that she’s forever turning away, saying “No” to our affections.
Is there another face in art so alluring yet standoffish?
The “Dutch Mona Lisa” broke my heart years ago in her permanent home, the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague. I had her all to myself, unglazed, face-to-face for nearly an hour.
I just saw the “Girl” again in New York’s Frick Collection. She’s in the travelling loan “Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis.”
Chaperoned by two guards, Vermeer’s “Girl” hangs alone in a large gallery. She feels constrained and enshrined, roped off behind a big, half-moon slab of marble, and housed in a deep, gray shadow box beneath two layers of glass.
I know: safety first. But I was reminded of the Popemobile. Vermeer’s intimate little portrait is also hung unfortunately high, endowing her with unwarranted airs.
No doubt this is to accommodate the sightlines of the expected throngs. When the “Girl” was exhibited in Tokyo last year, she drew a record 10,500 visitors per day. So book your timed-tickets early.
She still has mystery and power, but don’t expect Vermeer’s “Girl” to really engage with you. Sadly, I left the Frick with my heart intact.
Luckily, her entourage includes 14 other Dutch Golden Age paintings.
Only one, Jan Steen’s large interior, “As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young,” is unglazed. It’s a raucous, drunken, erotically charged family portrait in which the artist depicts himself passing on questionable behaviors to the young.
There are two grand, three-quarter-length portraits by Frans Hals that rival Velazquez. And Rembrandt, with two portraits and two religious scenes, is experienced in full force, especially in combination with the Frick’s own paintings by the great Dutch master.
You can see the museum’s three Rembrandt paintings and three Vermeers in a nearby gallery.
Jacob van Ruisdael’s sweeping “View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds” is beautiful and expansive, dominated by a dynamic, cloud-filled sky.
In Nicolaes Maes’s toy-like “The Old Lacemaker,” everything is tilted forward, as if the content of the painting were about to topple into our laps.
And in Gerard ter Borch’s suggestive “Woman Writing a Letter,” the canopied bed advances, threatening to engulf her.
Carel Fabritius studied with Rembrandt and influenced Vermeer. Among the most charming and rare pictures here is his “Goldfinch.”
The bird is a fluttery, feisty, wispy little guy perched on its feeding box. Emblazoning its black wing -- like a logo that both grounds and sets the bird alight -- is an opaque yellow lightning-bolt.
Like Vermeer’s “Girl,” which inspired a book and film, this small picture has been in the spotlight recently because of Donna Tartt’s new novel, “The Goldfinch.”
At the Frick, the charming bird won’t outshine Vermeer, but it might just break a few hearts of its own.
“Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis” runs through Jan. 19 at the Frick Collection, 1 E. 70th St. Information: +1-212-288-0700; http://www.frick.org.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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