SAN FRANCISCO (USA Today) - She sits in the dark, waiting. A man at each side lifts her into position. A veil is lifted; staring at you is the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Inviting yet distant. Familiar yet unknowable.
The gasps were audible as one of the world's most recognizable paintings -- created in 1665 by Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer and in recent years the inspiration for a novel and film by the same name -- was unveiled for workers and special patrons of the de Young Museum Tuesday night. For art lovers, this moment was the World Series, Super Bowl and Masters rolled into one magic moment. It is the first time in nearly 20 years the modest, 17-by-15-inch portrait has visited the USA, which will include stops in Atlanta and New York later this year. "She's known as the Dutch Mona Lisa, and like that work the fascination we have with her is endless," says Dede Wilsey, one of this city's leading philanthropists and president of the de Young, which will host Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis from Jan. 26 to June 2. "Besides, every woman with a pearl earring always thinks, 'How come mine doesn't look as good as that?' " Wilsey spearheaded the push to win over the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in the Hague, whose current renovation precipitated the loan of this Vermeer and 34 other permanent collection masterpieces from the Golden Age of Dutch painting, including works by Rembrandt van Rijn and Carel Fabritius. Wilsey's track record luring King Tut's gold and Picasso gems here helped the cause, and she's gunning for the one-and-only Mona Lisa next. "Why not?" she says with a wink of a work that hasn't been in the U.S. since the 1960s, when Jackie Kennedy lured the lovely Italian to Washington, D.C. "We set up our museum to accommodate very special exhibits, including the dedication of one gallery to an entire painting if necessary." "The girl" -- as everyone here calls the Vermeer classic -- has her own room at the de Young. Bathed in a soft light, the image is almost photographic. Up close, one can't help but marvel at the deceptive simplicity of this work. A young girl emerges from darkness, facing away from the painter but looking over her shoulder in his direction. Her lips are slightly parted. Her hair has vanished under a blue and yellow turban that would not have been a common fashion of the day. And there, hanging from her left ear, is a large pearl earring, a delicate dollop of white paint that rivets the viewer like a full moon. "It's more than just a beautiful girl who was beautifully painted," says Emilie Gordenker, director of the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, noting that nearly 1.2 million visitors saw the painting during its recent stop in Japan. "She begs a question with her look. She asks you to fill in her story." Novelist Tracy Chevalier did just that in her 1999 historical novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, in which Vermeer becomes close to a servant named Griet. (The Mauritshuis often gets visitors asking, "Where's Griet?") The 2003 movie version starred Scarlett Johansson as the object of the painter's affection, and helped catapult the painting into the cultural mainstream. "Everyone's probably seen the image somewhere, in posters or on T-shirts, but frankly it's not the same as looking up close," says Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTnews magazine. "If you're lucky enough to see it in person, just look in her eyes and take it from there." Vermeer painted fewer than 40 works in his lifetime, but he was a seminal figure in a group of artistic all-stars that redefined the role of art. Prior to the 17th century, most artists idealized their subjects and settings, often taking their stylistic cues and patronage from the church. What Vermeer, Rembrandt and other Dutch painters did was produce tableaux of everyday people and quotidian street scenes, thereby elevating the dignity of the ordinary citizen while at the same time providing a record of public life during an extremely rich and exploratory phase of Dutch history. "It was a dynamic time with an explosion of innovation, including in art," says Gordenker. "Not only did the subject matter change from the religious to the secular, but so did the scale. Paintings got smaller because they were meant to hang in homes. Combine that with extreme painterly skill and you get works that are still relevant today." Those include a number of paintings in this Girl exhibit, including Rembrandt's Portrait of an Elderly Man, which rejects the rigors of formal portraiture, and Fabritius' The Goldfinch, a stark and faintly modernist rendition of a pet bird. On Tuesday night, the remaining works of this exhibit were hung under the watchful eyes of Julian Cox, chief curator of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which includes the de Young and Legion of Honor. Given the incalculable value of the art in question, countless procedures were in place to ensure their safety. That started with each Dutch masterwork traveling in its own crate, which actually looks more like a finely wrought piece of furniture. Although insurance is taken out on such priceless pieces, measures included sending the paintings on multiple international flights and in various transport vans. Girl got no special treatment in order to help her not stand out.But "rest assured, for an exhibit like this, and with a star painting like Girl with a Pearl Earring, all precautions are being taken," says Cox, adding that Girl will feature a transparent barrier -- like the Mona Lisa -- to guard against accidental or deliberate damage. But tonight she is naked, nothing separating her gaze from yours. Wilsey and a few other distinguished visitors cautiously approach the painting as if tip-toeing up to a newborn. One woman comments on the elegant drape of the turban; another the dizzying large size of the pearl. Then someone asks whether the girl would have worn lipstick, the only apparent explanation for her lush red lips. "No," says Wilsey with a sigh. "That's just the moistness of youth."