This past Sunday marked the closing of the Frick’s exhibition, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis. Perhaps most famous of the fifteen works on loan was Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which served as the focal point of the show. Other highlights included Jan Steen’s Girl Eating Oysters, Rembrandt’s Simeon’s
Song of Praise and Tronie of a Man with a Feathered Beret, and Carel Fabritius’ Goldfinch, which is garnering so much attention right now due to Donna Tartt’s bestseller.
Johannes Vermeer lived and worked in the Dutch city of Delft, and may have been introduced to art by his father, a small-time art dealer, as well as the dozens of street painters and other artists working around him during the Dutch Golden Age. Vermeer lived a short life (died in his 40s), and is only credited with an oeuvre of less than 40 works. However, it is both the rarity and skillfully executed nature of these surviving works that makes them so spectacular to viewers and art historians (and thieves!). While he did paint a few religious and landscape scenes, Vermeer is most well known for his interior scenes—choosing to paint the familiar, and in doing so, giving his subjects significance.
Within these ordinary domestic scenes, Vermeer completed many portraits of women, both in solitude and in small social interactions, and it is his portraits of unaccompanied women that strike me as the most powerful. His circa 1665 masterpiece, Girl with a Pearl Earring is famous for her steady, powerful gaze and the uncertainty surrounding the sitter’s identity. The young girl looks over her left shoulder at the viewer, letting their eyes meet. She looks both natural and idealized—she is fresh-faced and glancing casually, but also has smooth skin, pink, moist lips and clear eyes. She is dressed well, but not in a particularly trendy costume for the period, adding more to her mysteriousness. Around the same time Vermeer completed Writing Lady in a Yellow Jacket, which shows a young woman (younger than the first) responding to a letter at her desk (the text message of the 17th century!). She is wearing a more ornate and fashionable jacket, and is decorated with quite a few pearls. Like in Girl with a Pearl Earring, this girl is confident and independent, gazing at the viewer, but here she is not quite meeting our eyes. Since she is not as close-up, we are able to notice more details in the room—a painting hanging on the wall behind her, a writing desk with a cloth, and an elaborate chair, all details that give more information than afforded to us before.
Although these works are similar in subject matter, they are also extremely different, which allows the viewer to make different interpretations and conclusions. In a time of Beyoncé’s Single Lady anthem, it is nice to see historical reflections of self-assured young women. In my attempt at replication, I decided to focus on the actual pearls—a simple yet beautiful object of beauty that evokes admiration from viewers. The inclusion of the pearl accent in these two works is no mere coincidence. Though we do not know the exact reason for the commission of either work, the incorporation of this rare (rare being a natural pearl, rather than a cultured one) gemstone accentuates the confidence and strength of the women portrayed.
½ stick unsalted butter, softened
½ cup sugar
½ an egg (either beat a whole egg and use only half, or use a flax egg: mix ½ T. ground flaxseed with 2 tablespoons warm water, and let sit for 10 minutes)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 350°, and combine the butter and sugar in a large bowl. Beat until light and fluffy, and then add in the vanilla and egg, beating well after each addition. In a separate, smaller bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients, and then add to the wet mixture. Drop teaspoon-tablespoon-sized balls (depending on how large you want your “oysters” to be onto a parchment or silicone baking mat-lined baking sheet, and bake for about 12 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool completely while you prepare the frosting.
Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt
“pearl” – I used a yogurt-covered raisin, but you could also use any white, circular candy, about half and inch in diameter.
Beat the butter, sugar and salt until light and fluffy. Add in the milk and vanilla, and beat further until it reached the consistency you are happy with. Lastly, add food coloring to your heart’s desire. I added quite a bit of blue to achieve the rich royal blue of the girl’s turban. Thankfully for us, blue food coloring is not nearly as expensive as lapis lazuli would have been for Vermeer (the costly and exotic origin of his ultramarine paint), so use as much as you like!
Once your buttercream frosting is ready, spoon into either a pastry bag with a circular decorating tip, or into a Ziploc bag, making a small snip at the corner end to use as a decorating tip. If you have never used a pastry bag before, here is an excellent guide. To assemble cookies: Gently squeeze a large portion of frosting onto the center of one of your vanilla wafers, and lightly press a second wafer on top, mimicking an oyster shell. Finish with a “pearl” in the center of the visible buttercream. Voilà! Vermeer would be proud!
Featured art: Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, circa 1665, oil on canvas
Johannes Vermeer, Writing Lady in a Yellow Jacket, circa 1666, oil on canvas