Along with 34 other works from the Dutch Golden Age, including four by Rembrandt van Rijn, the 17th century masterpiece is part of the exhibition "Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis," which opens Sunday in Atlanta and runs through Sept. 29.
"What you get from this exhibition is an overview of Dutch paintings at the hand of the very best examples you can imagine," said Emilie Gordenker, director of the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, which owns the paintings.
"Girl with a Pearl Earring" is one of only about three dozen paintings that can definitively be attributed to Vermeer. It's also the most famous example of a category of Dutch portrait known as a "tronie," from a Dutch word for face. These bust-length portraits aren't meant to capture the likeness of a specific person.
The mystery surrounding the identity of the girl with the soft, translucent skin and enigmatic gaze has contributed to the painting's fame, which has been boosted by author Tracy Chevalier's 1999 book of the same name. The novel, later adapted to a film starring Scarlett Johannson as the girl and Colin Firth as Vermeer, is a fictional story about the painter and his model.
The girl's blue and yellow turban is not something a 17th-century woman would have worn, and could indicate she is a figure from history or the Bible, Gordenker said. The uncertainty allows the "freedom for us to really think about who she might be," she said.
"Girl with a Pearl Earring" last visited the U.S. during a Vermeer retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1996. Like Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," to which it is often compared, it is a relatively small painting, only about 18 by 15 inches, and occupies its own gallery at the end of the High exhibition.
Leading up to that highly anticipated finale are more extraordinary examples of 17th-century Dutch painting. They're grouped into four categories, opening with landscapes and winding through still lifes, scenes of everyday life, and portraits.
"There are 35 paintings in the exhibition. Any one of them would be a highlight in our collection," High director of collections and exhibitions David Brenneman said.
Among the highlights is a 1665 painting by Jan Steen, "As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young," a scene of debauchery with adults eating, drinking, playing music and even teaching a young child to smoke a pipe. As is characteristic of depictions of everyday life at the time, Steen is trying to convey a moralizing message — a parrot symbolically looking on from the corner drives home the point that children will mimic their elders' bad behavior.
The four Rembrandts in the exhibition trace the Dutch master's career. "'Tronie' of a Man with a Feathered Beret" from 1635 and "Portrait of an Elderly Man" from 1667 showcase Rembrandt's exquisite attention to detail and masterful use of light.
The exhibition had its U.S. premiere at the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco earlier this year, and a condensed version will be on view at The Frick Collection in New York from Oct. 22 through Jan. 19.
If You Go...
GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING: DUTCH PAINTING FROM THE MAURITSHUIS: Through Sept. 29 at the High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta; http://www.high.org, 404-733-5000. Open Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and on Thursdays until 8 p.m.; Sundays, noon-5 p.m. Adults, $19.50; students with ID and seniors 65 and over, $16.50; children 6-17, $12; children 5 and under, free.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.