'Girl with the Pearl Earring' returns to Dutch museum

The exhibit 'The girl with pearl earring' of Johannes Vermeer from Mauritshuis Museum in Den Haag to Palazzo Fava on in Bologna, Italy. Photo: Mario Carlini - Iguana Press/Getty Images

THE HAGUE - The Dutch Mauritshuis museum, historic home of Vermeer's Girl with the Pearl Earring and a treasure trove of other Golden Age masterpieces, reopens next week after two years of renovations.

The elegant 17th-century classicist mansion in The Hague has undergone a 30-million-euro ($40-million) revamp and more than doubled its floor space thanks to an art deco extension accessed through a light-filled underground atrium.

"It's wonderful to see the collection back home where it really looks at its best," museum director Emilie Gordenker told AFP at a press preview on Friday. 

During the renovation, which began in 2012, many of the museum's best-known pieces, including Girl with the Pearl Earring, have been touring the world, drawing millions from New York to Tokyo.

Mona Lisa of the north                

"'The Girl with the Pearl Earring has become an icon, she's become the 'Mona Lisa' of the north, and she does belong here," Gordenker said.

"There's something very special about the painting which maybe in a way is a bit like the Mauritshuis: we're small, we're intimate," she said of the museum that is also known as "the jewel box".

A show at the Frick in New York drew record crowds to see the painting, which inspired a 2003 film starring Scarlett Johannson, but also Carel Fabritius' The Goldfinch, the title of US author Donna Tartt's Pulitzer prize-winning 2013 novel.

Given its new-found fame, The Goldfinch has been moved to another room in the renovated Mauritshuis.

"We decided to put it in a place where it has a little bit more room, we're expecting a large number of visitors to come specifically for this painting," Gordenker said.

The museum's collection is small, around 800 paintings with just 250 on display, but of very high quality, including Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp and the Golden Age's best-known landscape, Vermeer's View of Delft.

The original building dates from the height of the Dutch Golden Age, which roughly spanned the 17th century, when the Dutch dominated much of world trade and, as a result, art.

Spectacular new-found bourgeois wealth meant that millions of paintings were commissioned, often portraits or landscapes, rather than the romanticised biblical imagery that had dominated the Italian Renaissance.                 

Too many visitors                 

"The museum used to be this city palace... but being a museum every year it got more visitors and they didn't fit in the building any more," architect Hans van Heeswijk told AFP.

Whereas previously visitors went in through the service entrance, they now walk through the mansion's main gates and down a modern spiral staircase past the adjacent Dutch parliament and prime minister's office into the minimalist 21st-century atrium.

"We felt it important that we wouldn't create some architecture that's related to the Mauritshuis from the 17th century because the other building is an art deco building from 1930," Van Heeswijk said.

"So we have three buildings that have a different architectural style but they have the same quality."

Visitors walk through the atrium -- "Don't call it a tunnel!" warned Gordenker -- to the new wing, acquired on long-term lease from neighbouring gentleman's club De Witte, one of The Hague's oldest social institutions.

The new wing houses a library and education centre and is also used for temporary exhibitions.

The museum has launched a quirky marketing campaign that sees people from around the world who have a reproduction of The Girl, as she's known in the museum, hanging in their home invited to the museum where a reproduction of their room is rebuilt around the original.

The Mauritshuis renovation comes after three of Amsterdam's main museums reopened after completing their own restoration works: the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh museum and the Stedelijk Museum.

King Willem-Alexander will officially reopen the museum on June 27, with entrance free that evening.


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