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Vermeer's masterwork hangs out at the High

Why 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' snags celeb status

On her current world tour, she travels incognito, with only her closest handlers aware of her true identity. In Japan last year, she attracted more than a million fans. In San Francisco this spring, she demanded strategically placed soft lighting befitting an icon of a certain age. She’s inspired a bestselling novel, a critically acclaimed film, and a line of merchandise.

Hoping to capture her gaze, fans arrive dressed as look-alikes. Not bad for an almost 350-year-old painting making its Southeastern debut this month while on a three-city U.S. tour.

David Brenneman, the High Museum of Art’s director of collections and exhibitions, understands the hoopla over Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, showpiece of the High’s Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis exhibition that opens June 23. Vermeer’s masterwork, dubbed “the Dutch Mona Lisa,” has steadily grown in popularity thanks to novelist Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 perennial book club pick Girl with a Pearl Earring, with its risque backstory for the mysterious subject, and the even sexier 2003 movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.

“It’s a bit like planning for a huge celebrity to arrive,” Brenneman says of prepping for the exhibit. He first saw the painting as a college freshman in 1983 and recalls being “completely mesmerized.” He raves, “I thought it was a photograph the first time I saw it. It was perfectly proportioned. She has this softness, this sweetness that draws you in. I bought a poster of it in the gift shop and it hung in my dorm room for the rest of my college career.”

The High’s new It Girl will have a room all to herself and a merch table in the gift shop, including, of course, pearl earrings. “We know people are going to make a pilgrimage to see her,” says Brenneman. “We wanted to give her an almost shrine-like setting for her stay in Atlanta.”

San Francisco, New York, and Atlanta are the only U.S. cities that lured Girl for a visit. She’s spending time stateside while her permanent home, the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in the Netherlands, undergoes a multimillion-dollar renovation.

Like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Vermeer’s work is petite, measuring just 17 1/2 by 15 3/8 inches. “It’s not a big painting, but it packs a lot of punch,” says Brenneman.

“The difference is the Mona Lisa is very much of her time. It’s very difficult to imagine meeting her today. But Vermeer’s Girl is a timeless beauty who looks like someone you could encounter today.” Just like Ms. Johansson, we presume.

Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis will be at the High Museum June 23 through September 29. high.org

This article originally appeared in our June 2013 issue.