Elusive Women: Girl with a Pearl Earring and Flaming June at the Frick

My (now) fiancé proposed to me in the Frick Collection in Manhattan during the exhibition: Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis. Specifically, he proposed in front of my favorite Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring. It was the proposal I wanted without having to tell him, and it solidified the association between me and Vermeer’s Girl forever in the minds of our family and friends. My Facebook wall is littered with ongoing references to her from Banksy’s graffiti stencils to a painted wookiee adorned with that signature drop pearl; there is no end to references and recreations in pop culture of Vermeer’s masterpiece, popularized by Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling novel (1999) and the subsequent film adaptation (2003).

This is not the first time I have been associated with a painting, and I hope it is not the last. In the summer of 2000, I created a LiveJournal account that I have since neglected. My avatar for this (and several other writing forums) became Lord Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June. My writing was what you’d expect of a fifteen year old girl – whiny, self-indulgent, faux poetic – but it fused together Leighton’s woman and me in the minds of all of those other LiveJournal users.

And now the Frick has given me yet another occasion to swoon: Flaming June will be on display in the center of the Frick’s Oval Room, where Girl with a Pearl Earring resided last fall, surrounded by four full-length portraits by James McNeill Whistler, from June 9th until September 6th. The painting, which hails from the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, has never before been shown publicly in New York City.

I joked that if Jon had wanted to propose for a second time, this would be another grand opportunity; I have never seen Flaming June in person. I was fortunate enough to see Girl with a Pearl Earring while backpacking in 2005, forgoing sight-seeing in Delft, Netherlands, Vermeer’s home and muse, to drag a friend on a train to The Hague lest my artist mother kill me for leaving Holland without seeing the painting we both adore.

One of many attempted recreations of the famous painting
One of many attempted recreations of the famous painting

Both paintings, while of vastly different origin and style – Vermeer’s elusive tronie to Leighton’s neoclassic design – possess several commonalities. Both women elude us and yet appear to sense our presence simultaneously, reacting as though we are imposing ourselves on them in different ways. From Girl’s interrupted reverie to June’s subtle flush of the cheek, both women are keenly aware of us, though Girl dares us with her gaze while June seems to pretend to be asleep, hoping only to be left alone again. A subtle eroticism is also implied, in the moist and slightly parted lips and seemingly haughty gaze of Girl with a Pearl Earring, to the diaphanous drape of fiery fabric that sheathes the curvaceous body of Flaming June in her heated languor.

Both women also remain a mystery to us: Vermeer’s Girl has never been identified, and her turban, out of fashion in 17th century Holland, makes her even more exotic to viewers. Many suggest that she is Vermeer’s eldest daughter, Maria, but most scholars dismiss this theory. Tracey Chevalier’s novel, named for the painting, takes the mystery of the work and creates a fiction to sate us: the woman is Griet (Scarlett Johansson in the film adaptation), a thoughtful and intelligent maid turned Vermeer’s assistant and love interest.  The woman portrayed in Flaming June is often thought to be an allusion to the sleeping nymphs and naiads in Greek mythology, though the model responsible for sitting for the piece has been variously credited to either Dorothy Dene or Mary Lloyd, notable actresses and Pre-Raphaelite models.

Their positions are comparable, too, in regard to their uncomfortableness. Girl with a Pearl Earring’s long, open-mouthed, over the shoulder gaze is a difficult pose for a model to maintain for an extended period of time, and the main reason I’ve yet to try to turn her into a Halloween costume (I doubt I could sustain the pose for the duration of a party, let alone a sitting for a painting). But that doesn’t even compare to the contortions of Flaming June’s limbs – she’s all curves and angles that, while they look natural in the painting, are extremely difficult to replicate while, say, maneuvering around on a dilapidated loveseat after a few beers, all for the sake of argument. If anything, this is a testament to Leighton’s brilliance – he’s managed to make such a damning position look so blissfully tranquil and natural.

While Girl with a Pearl Earring is lauded as “The Dutch Mona Lisa”, Flaming June is often met with mixed emotions. The beauty of the painting seems universally acknowledged, but its depth of meaning is widely disputed, often criticized as kitschy and superficial, described in the Independent as something like a travel brochure, with the tagline: “THIS SUMMER…DREAM OF CYPRUS”. While artistic judgments and aesthetics are notably subjective, this kind of crass dismissal of the work misses out on its allure – notably the mystery that binds both Flaming June and Girl With a Pearl Earring, allowing them to be more than merely pretty pictures, transforming them into contemplative works of art.

Maybe embarrassing to admit, but when I first laid eyes on Girl with a Pearl Earring, they filled with tears. It looked as though you could touch her canvassed lips and feel the wetness there. The second viewing reduced me to all anxious and excitable energy, both due to the proposal and the act of witnessing the piece again after so long, but the same sense of awe and wonder of the initial viewing remained.

While Flaming June is only alive for me now as a reproduction print or a pixelated image on the screen, her allure markedly different from Girl With a Pearl Earring, she has the element of surprise on her side: I’ve never seen her in the flesh, but when I do, I imagine it will be as though a warm calm has washed over me. The Independent’s Cyprus claim will hold, but not for its intended meaning.

If interested, Flaming June is presented by The Frick Collection from June 9th – September 6th.

The Frick Collection
1 East 70th Street
New York, NY 10021

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