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Pearl of a museum: Vermeer shines among Dutch icons in new Mauritshuis

pearl [1]The young woman painted by Johannes Vermeer [2] in about 1665 has never looked better. Her perfect skin and lively eyes, as bright as her famous earring, are exquisitely lit as she parts her lips to say – what?

The Girl with a Pearl Earring’s wordless utterance hints at an erotic come-on that historians cannot explicate but novelists and filmmakers can’t help guessing at. Was she Vermeer’s lover? His obscure object of desire?

Now this seductive painting [3] in which Vermeer (usually such a restrained, cool, cautious artist) seems to indulge a secret passion, has a new, or rather reinvented, home. The masterpiece is better lit, better hung and more elegantly surrounded than ever before at the refurbished and modernised Mauritshuis [4] in The Hague [5], which rivals Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum as the greatest collection of Dutch art in the world.

If the Rijksmuseum is bigger, it is the Mauritshuis collection that owns some of the most iconic Dutch masterpieces, from The Girl with a Pearl Earring to The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius – yes, that goldfinch [6], the painting that inspired the recent bestseller by Donna Tartt [7] whose main character is obsessed with this picture. Visitors flocked to an exhibition of highlights from the Mauritshuis in New York last year to see the bird that appears on the cover of the book.

Now the painting has its own fenced-off little display in The Hague as a celebrity painting – and what a brilliant work it is, the feathers of the goldfinch painted in broad, free, almost abstract dollops of colour.

Yet however much glitz and glamour surrounds some of the paintings here, the Mauritshuis is above all a collection to lose yourself in, as you drift among the painted polders and anatomy theatres of the 17th-century Dutch Republic.

The museum’s refurbishment is dramatic and tasteful. It is clearly designed to turn a connoisseurs’s collection into a pop destination, and it deserves to succeed at that. Its period treasure house of Dutch Golden Age art is now reached by a very modern approach. The new entrance is through a spacious underground lobby. One way leads to a stylish suite of cafes, shops and all the other facilities we expect nowadays. What does all this added modern swankery add to the art collection of the princes of Orange that is housed here? It gives the place a sense of occasion – and the cafe really is very nice.

Continue reading in The Guardian [8]