Artist and model, framed

by Victoria James

The girl with a pearl earring, whoever she may be, is safely at home in the Netherlands. There, she’s the centerpiece of the Mauritshuis collection in The Hague, although her identity is as much of a mystery as ever — art history favored one of Vermeer’s daughters, until Tracey Chevalier wrote her best-selling novel about an unconsummated romance between the artist and his maid.

But curators at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum somehow sweet-talked the Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna, into loaning its finest Vermeer for a new exhibition, “Masterworks of Dutch and Flemish Painting,” timed to coincide with the Japan opening of the film of “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

You’ll be disappointed if you go to the Tokyo Met expecting any more canvases by the artist. Vermeer’s name was plastered all over the exhibition’s publicity material and “The Allegory of Painting” (1665/66) is its poster image, but it’s the only work by the artist in the show.

No need to feel cheated, though: Until the publication of Chevalier’s book, “The Allegory of Painting” had a claim to being Vermeer’s best-known and most-loved canvas. It’s got the gorgeous blues and yellows characteristic of his paintings, and the slightly unreal, hightened light and color that’s believed to come from his use of a camera obscura, the innovative viewing device that fascinates Griet the maid in “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” It even includes a self-portrait of the artist — though he’s viewed from behind, so we can’t check whether he really was a Colin Firth look-a-like.

What’s more valuable is the wealth of detail that tells us how Vermeer painted, from the physical arrangement of his atelier (seated at an easel, using a mahlstick to steady his hand as he works) to the preparation of the canvas (a light-gray ground, the composition sketched lightly in white chalk) to the techniques employed (the artist is shown applying a flat-toned base color that will become the laurel wreath on the model’s head). You could study it for hours — as art historians have done, their conclusions forming the basis for the descriptions of Vermeer’s working processes that enrich Chevalier’s romance.

In Vermeer’s day, his tiny country was an unlikely world power. Holland sold ceramics to all corners of the globe — including Japan, where the Protestant Dutch were the only Westerners permitted to trade after the expulsion of missionaries and traders from Europe’s Catholic nations. The mercantile wealth of the nation created flourishing urban centers, among them Delft, where Vermeer lived, which was famous for its eponymous ceramic ware and decorated tiles. (In Chevalier’s story, Griet’s father made his living painting tiles.)

Wealthy townsfolk — like Van Reijven, Vermeer’s patron — were a new breed of art lovers, and from the 16th to the 17th century favored subjects for artistic representation shifted from lofty classical and mythological themes to earthier “genre” painting of scenes from everyday country and urban life.

That transition is writ large on the walls of the Tokyo Met. The exhibition is a Who’s Who of painters and a catalog of genres from Europe’s most unlikely artistic powerhouse, known at the time as the “Low Countries.”

Fleshy, near-naked women loll in spuriously classical scenes by Pieter Paul Reubens; there are stunning still lives of flowers by masters Jan Breughel the Elder and Jan van den Hecke; David Teniers the Younger is represented by an unsparing portrait of rural simplicity and cunning; his brother Abraham contributes a whimsical scene of cats in a barbershop staffed by monkeys; and sternly surveying the whole menagerie, human and otherwise, is Rembrandt’s magnificent “Apostle Paul.”

Not everything appeals to a modern audience. Many of the religious paintings are a turn-off, from the repulsive Christ Child stood on the knee of a “smug married” Virgin Mary (“The Provinces of the Netherlands Revere the Madonna” by Theodor van Thulden, 1654) to a laughable work from the School of Reubens in which Daniel sits cross-legged in the lions’ den, wearing an expression that says, “I’m a prophet, get me out of here.”

It’s perhaps not surprising these explicitly religious works fail to satisfy. They’re not representative of the subtler theology, more sympathetic to us today, that infused most all Dutch painting of the period. At the time it was believed that the whole of creation, even its humblest landscapes and inhabitants, was to be valued — and so merited artistic depiction.

Finally, at the end of the galleries, you come to that Vermeer, hung in splendid isolation. Barely 100 years ago, the artist wouldn’t have drawn a second glance from most gallery goers, let alone have enjoyed such pride of place. In the early 1880s, “Girl With A Pearl Earring” was sold at auction in The Hague for an insignificant sum. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that Vermeer’s meager output (the equivalent of three paintings every two years for the two decades of his working life) found favor.

Looking at the glowing colors of “The Allegory of Painting,” you wonder how such neglect was possible. Take time to stand in front of it (given the crowds, you’ll need to).

And as you look, you’ll notice details. Like the glistening, full lower lip of the model, recalling that of the maid played with such an uncanny resemblance by Scarlett Johanssen. Like the gleaming dabs of white paint down the left side of the model’s face. The lowest, in particular, draws the eye. It’s too bright to be a curl of hair, too large and low to be a plump earlobe.

Could it be, perhaps . . . a pearl earring?