Some years ago, I wrote a poem called "Why I Love Vermeer," which ends "I've never lived in a city without a Vermeer." I could say that until 1990, when Vermeer's exquisite painting The Concert was one of the masterpieces stolen from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It's still missing. The French conceptual artist Sophie Calle, who loved that Vermeer, put together a show called Last Seen, a series of photographs of the empty frames of the stolen paintings, combined with comments on the paintings by people who worked at the museum. It's a haunting and elegant show, though seeing this exhibit, which is now on view at the Gardner, then walking through the rooms with the empty frames still in place, made me feel more melancholy and hopeless than ever about this enormous loss.
One consolation for me is to see all the other Vermeers I can. No city in the world has more of them — eight — than New York. But right now there's even one more. Through Jan. 19, at the Frick Collection — my favorite museum in New York, partly because of its own three Vermeers — there's a show of 15 paintings on loan from the Mauritshuis, the great Dutch museum in The Hague. The centerpiece of the show is one of the world's most beloved paintings: Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. Cleaned and restored since I first saw it, it's even more breathtaking than I remembered.
At the Frick, it gets a room all to itself. The young girl, wearing a blue and yellow silk turban, is just turning her face to watch you entering the room. She may even be slightly distracted by someone else a little off to your right, maybe someone she knows better than you. Her mouth is slightly open, as if she's just taking a breath and is about to say something. The light falling on her is reflected not only on her earring but in her large shining eyes ("Those are pearls that were his eyes," Shakespeare's Ariel sings in The Tempest) and on her moist lips. There's even a little spot of moisture in one corner of her mouth.
Art historians tell us that this painting was not intended as a portrait, but was a type of painting — a study of a figure in an exotic costume. But there's something so particular about this girl's beauty and expression, she seems much more than just a model. Her presence is totally palpable. She's right there, in the room with you and radiating unique and individual life.
In the next room are 14 more paintings from The Hague, including Carel Fabritius' magical little goldfinch, the painting from which Donna Tartt gets the name of her latest novel, and Jacob van Ruisdael's small but expansive landscape of the bleaching fields outside the city of Haarlem (a sublime picture that's more than two-thirds sky), plus four marvelous Rembrandts. But there's really only one reason so many people are lining up to see this show.
You can also see the Frick's own Vermeers. This is a rare occasion when all three are exhibited together, on a wall that allows you to see them more closely and in better light than in their usual locations. The poignant Officer and Laughing Girl is my personal favorite, but so is the ravishing Mistress and Maid, in which a woman wearing another pearl earring, writing a letter, is interrupted by her maid handing a letter to her — maybe from the same person she's just been writing to?
I still needed to see more Vermeers, and there are five more at the Metropolitan Museum, half a mile up Fifth Avenue. For the first time all of them, including another painting of a young woman with a huge pearl earring, have also been gathered into the same room. It's a rare chance to see so many Vermeers together, to compare the subtle and sometimes dramatic differences.
One more thing: the scholarship on Girl with a Pearl Earring reveals that the pearl isn't really a pearl. No pearl that big has ever come to light. No oyster could be big enough. So the famous pearl is probably just glass painted to look like a pearl. But of course the pearl — the pearl of great price, perhaps — is a visual metaphor for the girl wearing it: glistening, radiant, a creature brought to life by light itself. Or if not the girl, then Vermeer's painting of her.