by Goody Hirshfeld
Docent to Docent presentation 2007

If you take a leisurely walk through the galleries, you will notice that many painting are replete with jewels of all descriptions. But, the one thing that piqued my attention was the number of paintings that featured pearls, particularly in the Renaissance and Baroque galleries. Actually, the word “baroque” originally referred to pearls that were irregularly formed, full of bumps and globules. When an exuberant new style of architecture became popular in the 17th century Europe, its critics mockingly nicknamed the style “baroque” suggesting that these structures were grotesque, like ugly pearls. But the word caught on, and even came to have a positive meaning.

Throughout most of recorded history, pearls were considered incomparable treasures. In the New Testament, there are numerous references to the esteem in which pearls were held. Christ repeatedly referred to them as something most precious. The Talmud also referred to pearls as signifying something beautiful or very costly. Before the creation of cultured pearls in the 1900s, natural pearls were so rare and expensive that they were reserved almost exclusively for the noble and the very rich.

The ancient Romans valued pearls highly, especially as a symbol of wealth and prestige. The Emperor, Julius Caesar, had already drawn up his own strict law in Rome that only aristocrats might wear pearls. In 55 B.C., Julius Caesar stood on the coast of France watching his ships preparing for an invasion of England. According to his gossipy and only marginally reliable biographer, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, it was not only Britain’s mineral wealth that persuaded Caesar to make his military move across the Channel. It was for his lust for Britain’s pearls which were much desired in the ancient world! Caesar wanted to make sure his personal supply of pearls were guaranteed, not only to satiate his own passion for pearls but also to gift his many mistresses.(Just one perfect pearl could assure one of his paramours a comfortable retirement. There is no doubt that it was pearls that were a Roman girl’s best friend). Heads of state do go to war for the strangest reasons! In any case, Caesar failed to conquer Britain and so had to get his pearls elsewhere.

Shortly after Caesar died, near the end of the 1st c. B.C., Cleopatra and her new lover, Marc Anthony, made an outrageous bet. Which of the two lovers, the mighty Roman general or the haughty Queen of Egypt, would offer each other the most expensive feast? According to Pliny in his treatise, “Natural History”, Cleopatra owned two pearls that were the largest in the whole of history.

She appeared at the banquet dressed in all her finery with the fabulous gems in her ears. The table was set with elaborate dinner plates. According to previous instruction, the servants placed in front of her only a single vessel containing strong, rich vinegar capable of melting pearls. She took one earring off and dropped the pearl in the vinegar, and when it was melted, swallowed it. Astounded, Anthony declined his dinner….the matching pearl….and admitted she had won. In our painting, Anthony holds a large wine glass and seems to be fending off Cleopatra and the pearl which she holds between her finger and thumb. Actually, this story was told by a despairing Pliny to point out the decadence and excesses of the Roman Empire. Both Anthony, wearing the laurel leaves of victory, and the crowned and bejeweled Cleopatra seem to be more than a bit tipsy. The painting by the French artist, Claude Vignon, is both fantastic and funny.

Early on, pearls acquired multiple symbolic meanings, standing for worldly vanity as well as faith. While white pearls became a symbol of Mary’s purity, a quality transferred to those women wearing them, they also came to be associated with the love goddess, Venus.

Vignon was acquainted with the artist, Simon Vouet who painted “Time Discovering the Love of Venus and Mars.” Venus was an enigmatic goddess, representing at different times earthly love as well as divine love. Even the story of her birth is told in many versions. Some myths state that she was born of Jupiter and a nymph. However, the poet Hesiod provides a much more elaborate and entertaining explanation for her birth. His myth states that the Titan Cronus castrated his father Uranus and then cast the severed genitals into the sea. From the foam that gathered around the severed sex organs, Venus emerged from the sea, fully formed and ready to go.

So, very early on, her persona was tainted with eroticism. Some say that she was then wafted ashore atop a sea shell. . Think of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (familiarly called Venus on the Half- Shell). It was said that the ancients all agreed to dedicate the pearl to Venus. After all, it was she who was the deity born from the sea. There exists an entire web of associations between Venus and pearls (which we see adorning her hair). Venus’ high profile affair with Mars, the God of War is the subject of this painting. Incidentally, Venus who was one of the 12 great Olympians, was the only goddess with an active sex life. Venus was married to the lame and unattractive, Vulcan. That did not stop her from carrying on a series of torrid love affairs. In revenge, Vulcan, the blacksmith, traps Venus, Mars and their love child, Cupid, on his marriage bed, enveloping them in an invisible net. He then invites the other gods to mock them. Vignon has taken some artistic liberties with the story. He has substituted Cronus (Time/Death) for Vulcan. Vulcan can be seen on the left casting his net over Cupid, perhaps suggesting that even love and beauty can be vanquished by time.

In the 17th c. the Dutch led the world in commerce. The Dutch burghers were experiencing a surge in economic prosperity that created an unprecedented boom in artistic creation. While elsewhere in Europe power was held by kings or popes, the Netherlands was creating a civil society run by the bourgeoisie. Portrait painting reached great heights of popularity at this time. As you enter this gallery, you cannot help but notice the proliferation of pearls in ears, woven in hair and gracing the bosom and the wrist. From housemaids to wealthy dowagers, pearls were in style!

The newly betrothed woman in this pendant portrait wears a large pearl drop in her ears and in her headdress. She is dressed as the goddess Venus which is definitely more fun than wearing the sober clothes of the Calvinist Dutch and gives her the opportunity to show off some skin. Her very ordinary mate-to-be is holding the spear of Adonis. These portraits were painted as pairs and were to be hung together for an eternity. Unfortunately, in this case, the two were separated, and John Ringling purchased the woman alone. In later years, an anonymous donor discovered her intended, and they are reunited here, side by side. While Venus had many lovers, the myths lead us to believe that none was dearer to her than a handsome young shepherd named Adonis. When she spied the beautiful, young Adonis he became her first, but not last, mortal lover. His death in combat with a wild boar brought her terrible grief.

In the Vouet painting Venus is an experienced woman of the world. Here, she takes on another guise as the symbol of married love, fidelity and innocence. Through the ages pearls have been held in high esteem for both their unrivaled beauty and association with both love and marriage. A word about the rose. It was deemed sacred to Venus in antiquity and is often pictured as one of her attributes, largely because of its beauty and fragrance. It was common to compare the pricking of its thorns to the wounds of love.

In the story of Venus and Adonis, it was originally a white flower, but while Venus was hastening to assist the dying Adonis, a thorn pierced her foot and the drops of blood fell on the white petals staining them red. Times may change, but the symbols have not. At my daughter’s wedding she wore a strand of pearls and carried a bouquet of red roses.

In at least 20 portraits, Nicolaes Maes painted a woman, elegantly dressed, dipping her hand in a fountain. In the 1660’s when the Portrait of Anna Hofstreek was painted, many rich Dutch burghers were emulating the lifestyles of the nobility. In this case, the garden setting with a fountain supports the impression of wealth. Notice Anna’s elaborate dress, especially the elaborate display of pearls in her hair, around her neck, and her bodice. Again, we face a myriad of symbols. Water has long symbolized purity, as do pearls. They are both “cool” in nature and are both symbolic of femininity. By picturing Anna Hofstreek dipping her hand in the fountain’s clear water, Maes alludes to her chastity…..a highly lauded virtue to a young unmarried 17th century woman.

Before we leave this gallery, we must look at the wonderful, “ Portrait of a Woman”, from the studio of Rembrandt. A fleshy, intense, bejeweled women peers at us from the darkness that envelops her. She might be the heroine in an early 16th c. play about the history of Amsterdam. Her jewelry is stunning, but is it real? Could it be part of the acting company’s store of theatrical accessories? She has a large black pearl in her ear. Black pearls were symbols of wealth, were very highly prized and unbelievably expensive. There is a good chance that they are fakes. During the 17th c. a Parisian artisan patented a method of making fake pearls. Hollow blown glass balls were coated with varnish mixed with iridescent ground fish scales. This discovery made Paris the main producer and disseminator of faux pearls for well over 200 years. Even for ladies of means, it was quite acceptable to wear faux pearls during the day and save the real thing for an evening event.

Our last pearl of the day graces a handsome, broad-brimmed hat turned up on one side and trimmed with a luxurious plume held by a large pearl. (Nothing faux here.) The hat belongs to King Philip the IV of Spain, an unpopular monarch who accelerated Spain’s demise as a world power with his wild spending habits. The expensive and ongoing struggles between Spain and the Netherlands had weakened the economy. A sizeable portion of the wealth that came from Spain’s colonies in the Americas was hoarded by the monarchy in the form of jewelry and liturgical objects. Philip the IV’s taste for luxurious objects is well illustrated in the following story….. Knowing the King’s penchant for beautiful pearls, his dealer in rare jewels invested his entire fortune on the purchase of one perfect pearl. “How have you ventured to put all your fortune into such a small object asked His Royal Highness? Because I knew there was a king of Spain to buy it from me” was the quick reply. And Philip rewarded the faith of his jeweler by purchasing the pearl. There is no record of this particular transaction, but we know that his grandfather, Philip II, was equally aggressive in search of the rare and beautiful.

Let me tell you a tale that links the Spanish monarchy to Hollywood. It is said that one of the most famous and coveted pearls in the world, La Peregrina ( the wanderer) was found by a slave diving for pearls in Panama. He gave it up in return for his freedom. In 1570 the conquistadors sent the pearl to King Philip II of Spain. King Philip then gifted it to his betrothed, Mary I of England (Mary Tudor a.k.a. Bloody Mary). After her death, it reverted back to the coffers of the Spanish royal treasury, and was evidently worn by Queen Margarita, the wife of Phillip III and the mother of Philip IV, and Isabel of Bourbon, the first wife of Philip IV (our Philip). Velasquez painted both these ladies wearing the coveted jewel. Their portraits hang in the Prado. Margarita is depicted wearing La Peregrina as a brooch fastened to her bodice; Isabel wears the jewel suspended on a long chain. Isn’t it possible that after the ladies demise, our Philip borrowed it and used it to adorn his hat? As time passed, it was acquired by the Bonapartes of France, who sold it to a British Marquis. After disappearing for a century, the pearl turned up once again in 1969 at a New York auction house. It was purchased by ( can you guess?) Richard Burton who gave it to Elizabeth Taylor. It is pear shaped and measures about 1 1/2 inches long. Ms. Taylor had Cartier reset it with diamonds, pearls and rubies. A case of Hollywood royalty and Spanish royalty sharing the same object!