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Vermeer takes a road trip

The Dutch master makes a rare West Coast appearance as 'A Lady Writing' arrives to showcase Norton Simon's evolving exchange program.

November 02, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic

In 1995, when the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., rounded up 21 of the 35 paintings known to have been made by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, the show was billed as a once-in-a-lifetime event. About 4,000 people filed into the specially ticketed exhibition each day -- until a partial government shutdown, caused by a budget disagreement between President Bill Clinton and the Republican majority in Congress, forced the gallery to close. The outcry was so loud that Director Earl A. "Rusty" Powell dug up $30,000 in private funds to reopen "Johannes Vermeer" while the rest of the gallery remained shuttered.

Nothing as dramatic as that is likely to happen when the Norton Simon Museum displays "A Lady Writing," an archetypal Vermeer on loan from the National Gallery, Friday through Feb. 2. The Pasadena institution is not funded by the federal government. It is not on the National Mall, where droves of tourists pass by. And the Simon will offer only one work by the mysterious artist from Delft known as a painter of light.

But a Vermeer is a Vermeer, and this particularly luminous masterpiece has been carefully chosen as part of the Simon's exchange of artworks with the National Gallery and the Frick Collection in New York. The program began last year, when the Simon sent a Rembrandt to Washington. Five other paintings in the Simon's collection -- including "The Flight Into Egypt" by Jacopo Bassano and "Still Life With Lemons, Orange and a Rose" by Francisco de Zurbaran -- will go to the Frick in February. The Vermeer will be the first work in the program to land in Pasadena, and word of the Frick's initial loan to the Simon is expected soon.

Making an occasion of a single painting -- and one that measures a mere 17 3/4 inches tall and 15 3/4 inches wide -- may be unusual. But petite exhibitions, which have proliferated as costs of giant loan shows have escalated, can be very popular. The J. Paul Getty Museum's recent exhibition of Edouard Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère," lent by the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, was a big hit.

At the Simon, which concentrates on its permanent collection, bringing in a Vermeer is a big event -- worth pulling out all the stops to make sure the distinguished visitor is seen, studied, discussed and enjoyed by as many people as possible.

Choosing the first National Gallery loan to the Simon was "a pretty easy task," says Carol Togneri, the Pasadena museum's chief curator. Vermeer's work, admired by connoisseurs and the public alike, is exceedingly rare. None of his paintings reside on the West Coast, and those in collections of such institutions as the National Gallery, the Frick, the Mauritshuis in the Hague, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Louvre in Paris rarely travel. The only time that "A Lady Writing" has been in California was in 1991, when "Great Dutch Paintings in America" appeared at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Although the National Gallery has three other Vermeers -- "Girl With a Flute," "Girl With the Red Hat" and "Woman Holding a Balance" -- "A Lady Writing" captivated Simon curators because it's a breathtakingly beautiful portrayal of a woman who seems to engage directly with viewers, Togneri says. Seated at a desk and adorned with an ermine-trimmed yellow jacket, satin hair ribbons and pearl earrings, she holds a quill pen over a sheet of paper but lifts her head and looks out of the picture, as if responding to someone who has just walked into the room. The subject may be the artist's wife, but her identity is uncertain.

Vermeer lived from 1632 to 1675 and is thought to have painted "A Lady Writing" around 1665, when he was in his prime. It's an intimate scene with a hushed aura that entices viewers to come closer. But unlike jewelry or delicately illuminated manuscripts, which can exert a similar pull, the painting contains relatively few details.

Arthur Wheelock, curator of Northern Baroque paintings at the National Gallery, puts it this way: "There's an absence of detail in Vermeer. So in a way, you become involved as you complete the picture."

In Washington, "A Lady Writing" hangs with other Vermeers in one of three small rooms known as cabinet galleries. They are intimate spaces, comparable in scale to a Dutch home, Wheelock says.

The Simon has no such galleries, and it took some time to come up with a suitable alternative. Initially, the staff considered a small room off the lobby, but it has only one door and can't accommodate many people. The challenge was to put the painting in an appropriate historical context while providing viewing comfort, maintaining security and abiding by the fire marshal's rules.

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