Vermeer plans a local visit

Times Staff Writer

A painting by Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch master whose luminous domestic scenes are cherished by connoisseurs and the wider public alike, is coming to the Norton Simon Museum.

“A Lady Writing,” a signature image of a young woman seated at a desk, will be lent to the museum by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., as part of an exchange program launched last spring with the Simon’s loan of a Rembrandt. The Vermeer will be on view in Pasadena from Nov. 7 to Feb. 2, 2009.

Small as it is -- 17 3/4 inches tall and 15 3/4 inches wide -- the visiting artwork is expected to be a big draw. One of about 35 known paintings by Vermeer, none of them lodged on the West Coast, it’s the work of an artist called “the painter of light” and popularized by a book and film inspired by his painting “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”


Carol Togneri, chief curator at the Simon, said that the museum’s staff wanted to start with “something that would be unusual on the West Coast” and that would have a strong public appeal. “Vermeer has this very intimate, quiet way of portraying space that people love,” she said. “It’s very pretty, very still, with an atmospheric effect.”

A 1995 to 1996 exhibition of 21 Vermeers brought crowds to the National Gallery and the Mauritshuis at The Hague. Although the Simon will offer only a single painting, it is planning a complementary series of lectures and other events.

Painted in 1665 or 1666 in oil on canvas, the “Lady” wears an ermine-trimmed yellow jacket, satin hair ribbons and pearl earrings. She holds a quill pen over a sheet of paper but is turning her head to look directly at viewers.

“You feel as if you caught her attention just as you walked into the room,” Togneri said.

The painting is a genre scene, but it’s also a study of light. Sparkling details illuminate Vermeer’s trademark jewelry and clothing along with brass tacks on the back of the woman’s chair.

Long known as an institution that rarely, if ever, lends artworks collected by its benefactor, the Pasadena museum has relaxed its policy with two bicoastal masterpiece swaps. The National Gallery partnership began last May with the Simon’s four-month loan of Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Boy, Presumed to be the Artist’s Son, Titus.”

An exchange with the Frick Collection in New York will debut Oct. 28 with an exhibition at the Frick of five prime pieces from the Simon: “Flight Into Egypt” by Jacopo Bassano, “The Holy Women at the Sepulchre” by Peter Paul Rubens, “Aldrovandi Dog” by Guercino, “Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose” by Francisco de Zurbaran and “The Birth of St. John the Baptist” by Bartolome-Esteban Murillo.

The Frick is expected to reciprocate in 2009 or 2010. Additional loans are under discussion.