We could dispute the question of greatness forever, and eternal masters can't really be compared to each other. Is Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" more dazzling than Van Gogh's "Starry Night" or Velazquez' portrait of Juan de Pareja or Seurat's "Grande Jatte" or Monet's water lilies or Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa?" (For my money, "Mona Lisa" isn't even the greatest painting in its room at the Louvre: Veronese's "The Wedding Feast at Cana," which hangs on a nearby wall, kept me goggling at it longer.)
I've had the good luck to see all of these in person, and my candidate for the top spot depends on the one that's in front of me at any moment. Last weekend, I finally saw a painting I'd waited decades to encounter: Jan Vermeer's immaculate "Girl With a Pearl Earring," on display at the High Museum of Art through September 29.
No copy could hope to reproduce exactly the olive tints of her clothing, her alabaster brow, the subtle gray-green of her eyes (which I had thought were brown). But here's the painting I'm talking about:
Vermeer's most famous work sits alone, in the last room of the gallery devoted to Dutch paintings from the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague. (It returns there next year, after the Mauritshuis completes a renovation that will nearly double its size.)
When you see"Girl" at the High, you have already walked through rooms devoted to landscapes by Jacob Van Ruisdael (including an extraordinary depiction of winter that's realistic yet fantastic), moral paintings by Jan Steen (one bearing the oddly prophetic title "As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young"), portraits by Frans Hals and Rembrandt van Rijn.
All of them spoke to me, especially memento mori paintings that showed the passage of time and reminded us to make the most of our days (a skull by Pieter Clausz, dying flowers by Abraham Van Beyeren). But "Girl" justified the 250-mile drive to Atlanta.
Her enigmatic expression, with lips slightly parted (to say a word of welcome?) and eyes seeming to approve of the person she observes over her shoulder, has earned this painting the sobriquet of "the Dutch Mona Lisa." It's a tired truism to say we can't fully appreciate a piece of art until we see the original, but that's never been as accurate for me as it was Sunday, when I could study every shade of blue in her headdress.
I learned she was what the Dutch called a tronie: possibly someone from real life, possibly invented or a composite of women the artist knew, but certainly painted as she would never have been seen in Holland in 1665. (Other tronies, two of them by Rembrandt, stand out in this show.)
To see her is to marvel not only at Vermeer's skill, his keenness of eye and hand, but his imagination: He knew this exotic head scarf would set off her Northern European beauty and make her instantly memorable. Not all the postcards and calendars and boxes of mints bearing her picture in the inevitable gift shop dulled my memory of this amazing work.
Is it THE greatest in the world? Impossible to say. But after staring at her off and on for almost half an hour, I can accurately say I've never seen a painting greater than this one. Maybe someday I'll get over to the Mauritshuis to confirm my first impression.