Johannes Vermeer paintings get California spotlights

Guards accompany them when they travel. Crowds flock to them when they arrive.

Johannes Vermeer's exquisite paintings of young women in gleaming domestic settings are the vigilantly watched and amply insured celebrities of the museum world, promising not only a glimpse of extraordinary beauty but big crowds as well.

Now two of Vermeer's luminous women are making rare appearances in California.

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"Girl With a Pearl Earring" from 1665, a popular painting even before the Tracy Chevalier novel and Scarlett Johansson movie of the same name, went on display last month at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter," painted a year or two earlier, will be shown for six weeks at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, starting Saturday.

Both paintings are on loan from European museums in the process of completing major renovations and expansions. And both California museums are giving their 17th century Dutch guests the full star treatment.

At the De Young, "Girl With a Pearl Earring" — whose real-life identity is unknown and status ambiguous (is she a servant or a lady?) — has been given her own gallery, with no other works on the wall.

"What other picture could you possibly put in a room with her?" said Dede Wilsey, president of the De Young. "Nothing could compete with her."

The De Young has used the title of the painting as the name of its current exhibition with 34 other works on loan from the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague. And her image — a close-up of a pale, wide-eyed woman with parted lips wearing a blue and yellow head scarf — is the face of its citywide marketing campaign.

Wilsey described her appeal as very contemporary. "The 'Mona Lisa' is fascinating but she's dark," Wilsey said. "This girl is full of light and youth, with such a compelling expression that you really do want to know what she's saying. It's hard to stay away from her."

"There is so much that doesn't translate in reproduction, like the way Vermeer painted the pearl," said Melissa Buron, a De Young assistant curator who helped coordinate the show, which runs through June 2. "When you see it in person, you can see it's only three brush strokes that he used to create one of the most exquisite pieces of jewelry in art history."

The Getty Museum has borrowed its Vermeer from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and plans to hang it in its 17th century Dutch galleries surrounded by Vermeer's contemporaries like Frans Hals and Pieter de Hooch.

The painting shows a woman, who appears to be pregnant, standing at a table in a long skirt and bright blue jacket (made brighter by a recent restoration). A map of Holland hangs on the wall beside her, but she seems absorbed in another world: the one created by a letter in her hands whose contents are hidden from our view. (The Getty has an online contest in progress asking people to submit the first line of the letter she is reading.)

"This painting is one of the most beautiful and magical Vermeers — and his paintings do have a magical quality about them," said museum director Timothy Potts. "Their sense of light, reality and immediacy — an almost photographic realism — has never been achieved in that way before and frankly never since."

Even though the Getty's "Woman" won't have its own gallery, Potts says the museum will be leaving a lot of space around the Vermeer to accommodate sizable crowds. The museum is also replacing large benches nearby with smaller ones to create more standing room.

Potts has shown works by Vermeer once before, as director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. When the Louvre wanted to borrow a work from the Fitzwilliam, he negotiated in exchange the loan of Vermeer's "The Lacemaker." He used that as the centerpiece for a larger show on 17th century Dutch domestic customs, including three other Vermeers and some two dozen works by his contemporaries. "Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence" opened in 2011. Museum attendance doubled, he said.

The popular clamor for Vermeer owes something to Chevalier's 1999 novel, a sort of will-she-or-won't-she romance dressed up in 17th century period detail. It has sold about 2 million copies and been translated into 39 languages.

Then there's the fact that Vermeer painted so few works during his lifetime.

When he died, at 43, he had painted only 40 or 50 pieces, according to experts. And only 34 or so works are known today. The exact number is a matter of great debate, hinging on the authenticity of a few paintings.

What is known is that no Vermeer makes its home on the West Coast.

The majority belong to European collections. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York owns five Vermeer paintings, plus one now established as a forgery. The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. has four, as well as two considered fake. The Frick Collection in New York has three. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston had one, "The Concert," but it was stolen as part of a legendary art heist in 1990 and never recovered.

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has borrowed two Vermeers in recent years, drawing big crowds with its 2008 to 2009 showing of "A Lady Writing" from the National Gallery. Museum attendance spiked over those three months to 55,000 visitors, a nearly 60% increase over the same period the previous year.

Norton Simon spokeswoman Leslie Denk said she had never seen anything quite like it, noting that tours and talks were sold out. "We had to turn people away for events," she said, "which is rare because our theater seats 300."

Attendance at the De Young has been strong, with an average of 3,000 daily visitors during opening week, a representative said. That's more than twice the number for the previous show in the same space, the William S. Paley collection, which was rich with Cezannes and Picassos.

Before the De Young, the painting made two stops in Japan (the touring show will end at the Frick Collection this fall), where roughly 1.2 million visitors turned out, according to Mauritshuis deputy director Victor Moussault. One exhibition sponsor there was the high-end jeweler Mikimoto, which commissioned sets of pearl earrings inspired by the painting that were priced at 12.6 million yen (around $135,000.)

In San Francisco, the De Young reports strong sales for "Girl"-branded gift-store merchandise, which includes the usual postcards and tote bags but also pendant necklaces and a compact mirror. At least one item, "intense dark" Ghirardelli chocolate bars wrapped with the "Girl's" image, have already sold out and been reordered.

jori.finkel@latimes.com

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