LOS ANGELES -- Guards accompany them when they travel. Crowds flock to them when they arrive.
Johannes Vermeer's exquisite paintings of young women in gleaming domestic settings are the vigilantly watched and amply insured celebrities of the museum world, promising not only a glimpse of extraordinary beauty but big crowds as well.
Now two of Vermeer's luminous women are making rare appearances in California.
"Girl With a Pearl Earring," from 1665, a popular painting even before the Tracy Chevalier novel and Scarlett Johansson movie of the same name, went on display last month at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter," painted a year or two earlier, will be shown for six weeks at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, starting Feb. 16.
Both paintings are on loan from European museums in the process of completing major renovations and expansions. And both California museums are giving their 17th-century Dutch guests the full star treatment.
At the De Young, "Girl With a Pearl Earring" -- whose real-life identity is unknown and status ambiguous (is she a servant or a lady?) -- has been given its own gallery, with no other works on the wall.
"What other picture could you possibly put in a room with her?" said Dede Wilsey, president of the De Young. "Nothing could compete with her."
The De Young has used the title of the painting as the name of its current exhibition with 34 other works on loan from the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague. And its image -- a close-up of a pale, wide-eyed woman with parted lips wearing a blue and yellow headscarf -- is the face of its citywide marketing campaign.
Wilsey described the subject's appeal as very contemporary. "The 'Mona Lisa' is fascinating, but she's dark," Wilsey said. "This girl is full of light and youth, with such a compelling expression that you really do want to know what she's saying. It's hard to stay away from her."