One of only 36 surviving paintings by 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) has been loaned to the Philadelphia Museum of Art through the end of March and is now on view at the museum.
Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, painted in 1672 at the end of Vermeer's career, can be seen on the second floor of the museum (Gallery 267), amid the museum's rich collection of Dutch paintings, the largest in the United States.
"This is a rare and wonderful opportunity for us to present a rare picture by a rare artist," said Christopher Atkins, the museum's associate curator of European painting and sculpture. "One of our strengths is our Dutch collection."
But the museum has no Vermeer.
In fact, there are no Vermeers in the United States outside of museums in New York City and Washington, and only two Vermeers held privately in the world - the one now on loan in Philadelphia, the other in the royal collection of Queen Elizabeth II.
Young Woman Seated at a Virginal is owned by the Leiden Gallery in New York City.
Interestingly, this is the second time in a decade Young Woman has sojourned at the Art Museum. The first instance was in 2004, shortly after the painting sold at auction to an anonymous buyer, widely believed to be casino czar Steve Wynn, for $30.7 million.
In 2009, according to several news accounts, Wynn quietly sold his trophy to Leiden.
Art Museum officials said they have had many loan arrangements with Leiden over the years, and this one is part of that ongoing relationship. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, owner of four Vermeers, also displayed Young Woman on loan in 2009, and the painting is just back from exhibition in London.
Two other paintings are also on loan to the Art Museum from the Leiden collection.
Frans Hals' Portrait of Samuel Ampzing (c. 1630) has been hung in a gallery near the Vermeer. In this case, Atkins, the curator, has created an installation inspired by the small painting.
(Both the Vermeer and the Hals are quite small, almost diffident, less than 10 by 6 inches.)
Samuel Ampzing, subject of Hals' work, was a prolific writer, and Atkins has drawn from the museum's own collection to mount a pop-up exhibition on the literate Dutch culture of the 17th century, "Painting and Reading in the Dutch Golden Age."
The mini-exhibit even contains rare Dutch books, Arnold Houbraken's De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen (The Great Theatre of Dutch Painters, published 1718 to 1721).
The museum also counts no Hals paintings in its collection, so the loan fills a major gap, albeit temporarily.
A third painting loaned by Leiden, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout's The Coat of Many Colors, a biblical scene, will be hung near a van den Eeckhout already in the museum's collection.
The Hals and van den Eeckhout will be on exhibition for about six months, officials said.
Looking at the Vermeer on Monday, Atkins marveled at its ability to conjure an air of mystery by stripping out details, leaving the viewer to focus on the young woman portrayed, seated at a virginal, a keyboard instrument.
"The picture doesn't give us any sort of narrative," he said. "It's an open picture. It facilitates different people to respond in different ways."