Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Dutch Mona Lisa Superstar comes to San Francisco

Johannes Vermeer, "The Girl with a Pearl Earring"

The Girl with a Pearl Earring
Also: The Columbarium—a quiet trip back in time
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel February 1, 2013

You know her. Tracy Chevalier wrote a captivating, best-selling novel about her. Scarlett Johansson played her in the movie. She’s been compared to her iconic rival, Mona Lisa, but she’s much more exotic, enigmatic, and strikingly gorgeous. And yet, despite her extraordinary popularity, she was never real. In fact (scholars believe), she’s a “tronie”— a painting exercise created from the imaginings of the brilliant Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer.

 No matter. The “Girl with a Pearl Earring”—a superstar in oil on canvas—has come to the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and this might be your only chance to see her, since she rarely leaves the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, South Holland. Despite her diminutive size—the painting is just 17.5 x 15 inches—she won’t disappoint, with her glinting pearl, frozen-moment-in-time gaze, and simple beauty—all of which invite speculation and adoration.

To see an original painting by Vermeer is also a rare treat. There are only 35 (give or take) in existence, and their rarity makes them so highly prized, that their owners (mostly museums) rarely let them out of their sight. Vermeer initially painted biblical and mythological scenes, but around 1656 made the fortuitous switch to more intimate scenes of contemporary life in Delft, where he lived and worked all his life. For the next 20 years, he made unprecedented paintings that galvanized viewers, even to this day.

“Girl with a Pearl Earring” is spotlighted in its own darkened room at the de Young exhibit. The guards allowed
 me to get close to most of the small painting in the exhibit, however “Girl” is protected by a railing.

What makes Vermeer’s paintings so special—what “Girl with a Pearl Earring” so aptly demonstrates—is his ability to elevate the common place. He infused “modest images of ordinary middle-class experience with the imposing gravity and monumental seriousness traditionally reserved for history painting,” writes Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight. “His pictures captivate in part because they give value to the mundane—namely, you and me and the utterly ordinary things we do—endowing it all with quiet grandeur.”

Besides Vermeer’s masterpiece, “Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis” also features other exceptional works—35 paintings in all—from well known painters such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Frans Hals and Jan Steen. The exhibition highlights the artistic genius of the Dutch Golden Age—a fascinating time in history with many parallels in our own century.

In the Netherlands 350 years ago, technology, foreign trade, banking and the stock market ruled the day and led to an explosion of wealth. (Sound familiar?) But this remarkable prosperity was not limited to the uppermost strata of society. Peace and religious freedom allowed the rise of a healthy middle class who, for the first time ever, had the opportunity to buy things that were less practical and more pleasurable. They ate imported foods, collected exotic plants and animals such as tulips and parrots, and purchased small, original paintings that would fit into their compact urban homes.

The focus of artwork changed utterly in 17th century Europe, from religious to secular. But maybe even more ground-breaking at the time, Dutch painters embraced subject matter that was not only secular but also mundane. The burgeoning middle class wanted art that mirrored their lives, featuring their simple, domestic routines, and brilliant artists like Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals gave them what they wanted.

Jan Steen, "As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young"
 Most of the paintings in this exhibit are small, domestic-sized works. But one of the larger paintings (probably a commission), “As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young” by Jan Steen, says a lot about the excesses inevitably resulting from prosperity. It features three-generations of a family, raucously laughing, smoking, singing, and celebrating the baptism of the youngest offspring. Apparently the artist had an ironic sense of humor, as well as a moralizing message, since he included himself in the group of merry-makers, who are blithely setting a bad example for the young children in the room.

Studio copy, "Portrait of Rembrandt with a Gorget"
Rachel Ruysch, "Vase of Flowers"

I also loved the lush-but-passed-its-prime still life “Vase of Flowers” by Rachel Ruysch (a gender phenomenon in her day) and “Portrait of Rembrandt with a Gorget,” a studio copy of an early self-portrait of the famous artist, with its flattering shallow depth of field, as if it had been painted from a modern day fashion shoot.  A companion exhibit, “Rembrandt’s Century” with works on paper largely from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s collection, sheds further light on the Dutch Golden Age and its remarkable artistic achievements.

Carel Fabritius, "The Goldfinch"


The Columbarium is tucked away at the end of a
 cul-de-sac near Geary Blvd., with free parking for visitors.
While in San Francisco for the day, I also visited the Columbarium, a hidden gem I’ve wanted to see ever since I heard about it. A repository for human ashes, this impressive Neo-Classical building is not far from the east end of Golden Gate Park. Built in 1895, the Columbarium was once part of the Odd Fellows Cemetery which spanned 167 acres of prime Richmond District real estate. When the city passed an ordinance in 1902 prohibiting the further sale of cemetery plots, the Odd Fellows established Green Lawn Cemetery in Colma and began the momentous task of transferring bodies beginning in 1929. The Columbarium (now owned by the Neptune Society) is the only remaining structure from the original cemetery, and I’m sure it was spared because of its enchanting, anachronistic beauty. 

Niches from floor to ceiling line the rotunda and the circular hallways
 that follow the circumference of the building on three separate floors.

The three story domed building contains 8,500 niches, of which a few are still available. The niches are placed floor to ceiling in circular hallways and small rooms. Beautiful stained glass windows grace the vaults and dome, and the niches range in size to accommodate the great variety of urns and chests containing ashes. Some niches are sealed, but those with glass windows allow you to view not only the urns, but various other remembrances of the dead, including photographs, personal belongings and other memorabilia. Many of the niches were purchased and sealed 100 years ago, but others were more recently acquired.

Lovely stained glass windows grace many of the vaults.
At times, because of the circular, symmetrical nature of the building, I lost track of where I was and how I entered—a metaphor for the never-ending fate of the ashes themselves. Notable internments (or memorials) include Chet Helms (music promoter and father of San Francisco’s 1967 “Summer of Love”); Dorothea Klumpke (astronomer and mathematician); and Harvey Milk (first openly gay man elected to public office in California).


After writing about my online family history research last month, readers Bill Delaney and Susan Alland filled me in on some local genealogy resources. The Genealogical Society of Santa Cruz County has a library, located on the ground floor of the Santa Cruz Public Library, 224 Church Street, which houses microfilm of local newspapers back to the early 1800s; close to 10,000 books; computer access to library edition and Heritage Quest (available at all branches); and volunteers to assist patrons in their searches.  The Genealogy Library is open during library hours and staffed with volunteers from 10:00-12:30 and 1:00-3:30 each day to assist patrons with their research. Go to for information about the Genealogical Society’s monthly meetings with expert speakers open to the public. The Watsonville Library has an upstairs history room with many of the same resources.

Tina Baine
For an archive of my columns go to

The Neptune Society Columbarium of San Francisco
One Loraine Court, San Francisco
Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. 
Saturday - Sunday, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m

Girl with  a Pearl Earring
Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis
de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 20 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco
Tuesday – Sunday, 9:30 a.m. – 5:15 p.m.
Friday (beginning late March) 9:30 a.m. – 8:45 p.m.