"There is so much that doesn't translate in reproduction, like the way Vermeer painted the pearl," said Melissa Buron, a De Young assistant curator who helped coordinate the show, which runs through June 2. "When you see it in person, you can see it's only three brushstrokes that he used to create one of the most exquisite pieces of jewelry in art history."
The Getty Museum has borrowed its Vermeer from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and plans to hang it in its 17th-century Dutch galleries surrounded by Vermeer's contemporaries like Frans Hals and Pieter de Hooch.
The painting shows a woman, who appears to be pregnant, standing at a table in a long skirt and bright blue jacket (made brighter by a recent restoration). A map of Holland hangs on the wall beside her, but she seems absorbed in another world: the one created by a letter in her hands whose contents are hidden from our view. (The Getty has an online contest in progress asking people to submit the first line of the letter she is reading.)
"This painting is one of the most beautiful and magical Vermeers -- and his paintings do have a magical quality about them," said museum director Timothy Potts. "Their sense of light, reality and immediacy -- an almost photographic realism -- has never been achieved in that way before and frankly never since."
Even though the Getty's "Woman" won't have its own gallery, Potts says the museum will be leaving a lot of space around the Vermeer to accommodate sizable crowds. The museum is also replacing large benches nearby with smaller ones to create more standing room.
The popular clamor for Vermeer owes something to Chevalier's 1999 novel, a sort of will-she-or-won't-she romance dressed up in 17th-century period detail. It has sold about 2 million copies and been translated into 39 languages.
Then there's the fact that Vermeer painted so few works during his lifetime.
When he died, at 43, he had painted only 40 or 50 pieces, according to experts. And only 34 or so works are known today. The exact number is a matter of great debate, hinging on the authenticity of a few paintings.
What is known is that no Vermeer makes its home on the West Coast. The majority belong to European collections. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York owns five Vermeer paintings, plus one now established as a forgery. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has four, as well as two considered fake. The Frick Collection in New York has three. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston had one, "The Concert," but it was stolen as part of a legendary art heist in 1990 and never recovered.
The Frick Collection will be the final stop for "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" in the fall.