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Cheating On The Pearl Girl

Nina Martin | January 25, 2013 | Story Galleries and Performance

One thing you can count on at the de Young’s breathtaking new show from the Netherlands’ Mauritshuis: Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (aka the Dutch Mona Lisa, aka the prototype for Scarlett Johansson in the 2003 film) will be mobbed. While you’re waiting for your glimpse, let yourself be diverted by these equally worthy lesser-known works.

Rembrandt van Rijn: Portrait of an Elderly Man (1667)
In contrast to the stiff portraits so popular among the rising Dutch bourgeoisie, this old man—his hat crooked, his jacket unbuttoned, his posture slumped—“brims with vigor and expressiveness,” says Fine Arts Museums chief curator Julian Cox. “This masterpiece of Rembrandt’s late [period]...effortlessly unites several of the master’s wide-ranging techniques in a single work.”

Pieter de Hooch: A Man Smoking and a Woman Drinking in a Courtyard (1658–60)
An unusual combination of middleclass genre scene and landscape, both elements depicted with extraordinary skill and detail. “The Dutch were very concerned with the specificity of things,” Cox says. “It’s like going back 400 years and immersing yourself in a unique, wonderful, highly articulated world for an hour or two.”

Jan Steen: As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young (1668)
“This is a classic scene of merrymaking, with a lot of wit and humanity as well as beauty,” says Cox. “While the 17th-century Dutch middle class aspired to an ordered, comfortable life, they had a penchant for frivolity which is very evident in the genre paintings of the period.” Here, children smoke and drink, but the adults are too busy having fun to notice. You can almost see Steen winking.

Carel Fabritius: The Goldfinch (1654)
If Girl with a Pearl Earring were a bird, this is what she might look like, down to the same enigmatic gaze. One of the few surviving works by Rembrandt’s most gifted student, this painting “has become an icon of Dutch 17th-century painting for its subtle handling of light, delicate brushwork, and brilliant illusionism,” Cox says.

With companion show “Rembrandt’s Century,” Jan. 26–June 2,

Originally published in the February 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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