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A Critic's Notebook: Girl with a Pearl enters the home stretch

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  • Courtesy Mauritshuis/High Museum of Art
  • TWITTER UPDATE: Carel Fabritius' painting "The Goldfinch" is part of the exhibition "Girl with a Pearl Earring" at the High Museum. Like the "Girl" herself, this little guy can only be seen in Atlanta through September 29.

The High Museum's exhibition Girl with a Pearl Earring, which opened in late June, has entered its final month. All of the paintings from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis currently on display will be packed up after September 29 and then shipped off to the Frick Collection in New York, the final stop on their grand tour while their home at the Mauritshuis has been undergoing renovations.

Promotional materials for the exhibit correctly emphasize the most famous and intriguing work in the exhibition, Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, but it would be a mistake to imagine that it's the only fascinating painting there. One of my own personal favorites is this image, a bird without a pearl earring, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius.

Sadly, the artist died at the age of 32 in an accidental explosion of gunpowder magazines in the northeast quadrant of the city of Delft in 1654, a disaster which leveled buildings and killed hundreds of people. Only a tiny handful of works can be attributed to Fabritius, but many critics consider his skill to be equal to that of Vermeer. This painting of a goldfinch, signed and dated the last year of the artist's life, is a fascinating, bittersweet glimpse at 'what might have been.'

The trompe l'oeil image is painted to scale. You have to see it in person to get the best sense of its disarming verisimilitude, but what's actually most striking about the image isn't so much its illusionism but the brilliant virtuosity of its brushwork. Somewhat unusual for trompe l'oeil, which momentarily "tricks the eye" into accepting a painted image as the real thing, the brushwork here is loose and quick, with actual strokes of paint - the quick movement of hand and brush - left visible. And somehow this technique makes the illusion seem more vivid and alive, the image more immediate and flashingly birdlike, and the former presence and personality of the artist himself somehow more palpable.

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There's some disagreement about the nature of the objects that the bird is standing on. Some argue that this goldfinch (a common pet in Dutch households at the time) is chained to these bars. Others point out that it's not entirely clear the bird is chained (there is a chain, but it's not depicted as being attached to the bird), and that this little structure may be related to a specific trick pet goldfinches were trained to perform, which is taking a small thimble-sized bucket, dipping it into water, and then bringing the bucket out.

The amazing brushwork, the charm of the image, the mystery of the chained vs. free bird, and the sad story of a career cut short all make spending some time with this painting a must.

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It's also interesting to note that Girl with a Pearl Earring gained a lot of her recent fame from the best-selling 1999 novel by Tracy Chevalier and the hit 2003 film based on the book. Now, it looks like the goldfinch will get his own best-selling book, too! Literary giant Donna Tartt, author of the blockbusters The Secret History and The Little Friend, is releasing her new novel The Goldfinch on October 22. I don't think Tartt's book will be a work of historical fiction detailing the passionate but doomed love affair between artist and model (or that Scarlett Johansson will sign on to play the lead), but a detail from Fabritius' painting does grace the cover. Maybe one day the paintings will tour again, and the goldfinch will get top billing. Till then, it's best to run down to the High and see both girl and goldfinch while they're still with us.

And this weekend is an especially good time to do so. You can enjoy looking at the paintings while listening to music from the time of Vermeer and Fabritius. The Atlanta Baroque Orchestra will perform works by composers including Samuel Scheidt, Johannes Schenk, Heinrich Scheidemann, William Brade, Carolus Hacquart, and Pieter Dircksz Pers in the "Girl with the Pearl Earring" galleries on Sunday, September 8, from noon to 2 p.m. A family concert with stories and games follows at 3 p.m.

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  • Courtesy Oglethorpe Museum of Art
  • Fernand Leger's Fêtes de la faim, 1949

It may be last call for Vermeer, but it's opening night for Puccini.

Atlanta's Capitol City Opera, which showcases Atlanta-based singers, will present Puccini's classic, La bohème, September 6-8 at the Conant Center for the Performing Arts at Oglethorpe University. La bohème is one of the most popular and accessible of operas, and tickets are relatively inexpensive by opera standards, starting in the $20 range, so this makes a great, low-risk way to give the art form a try for those who've never experienced it before. The classic, tragic story of penniless artists living the bohemian life in Paris also famously became the basis for the musical Rent, but that's not Puccini's fault and should never be held against him.

Also opening September 8 at Oglethorpe's Museum of Art is an exhibition of more than 80 lithographs, etchings, and aquatints by three 20th century masters: Picasso, Braques, and Leger. You could sit around this weekend complaining there's nothing to do, or you could head to Oglethorpe and spend an afternoon with Picasso, Braques, Leger, and Puccini.



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