The Girl holds herself with regal deportment. Shoulders down, back straight, head turned, ready to receive her fans. She comes home after being gone from Holland for too long. Japan, New York City, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Italy. She was sorely missed. The crowds on this Friday in The Hague are backed up several hundred deep in eager anticipation. Two marching bands, the King and Queen, and assorted street artists herald her arrival to the restored Mauritshuis Museum. It’s a fine day for the Girl with the Pearl Earring.
Across town, another woman holds herself with brash directness. Shoulders leaned in. Eyes bright. No wilting flower. She also returns after being gone for too long. Shanghai, Moscow, Berlin, Prague. But there are no crowds to see her home. Not even one baton is twirled on her behalf. In fact, she advises me to lead with the picture of her in her bikini — “otherwise no one will read further.” But, if asked, she’d tell you it is a fine day for Marloes Wesselink.
The Girl with the Pearl Earring was painted in 1665 by Johannes Vermeer. She wasn’t such a big hit in those days. She was painted as a “tronie,” which just meant Vermeer didn’t have a commission and was hustling for money by painting a model, maybe his oldest daughter, in costume. Perhaps Vermeer was hoping for a quick sale down at the Des Moines farmer’s market on a hot Saturday morning. Unclear. But when Vermeer died, the painting disappeared. For 200 years. No parades during that time.
Marloes Wesselink turned professional at 16. By 19, she was deep into the world of beach volleyball. The international circuit was her playground. She travelled around the world from April through September — with some success. Heck, she even had her own Wikipedia site. Her life was practice, practice, practice, travel, competition, practice, practice. An ordered life for sure.
But then events turned a little south.
“My Wikipedia site is not up to date because I think I got less interesting,” Marloes says with a self-conscious smile and a shrug. After a decent year in 2013, she was cut from the Dutch beach volleyball program. 26 years old and put out to pasture. A very public rejection.
“It was pretty weird. I think I’m a realistic person. I know your spot is never secure. That you always have to prove yourself every year. We had results. And I really liked the team. It was pretty crushing. ‘What’s happening? We just got a great result and now you tell us this.’ It was pretty painful. It actually came like falling out of nowhere. It was a difficult situation.”
So, Marloes disappeared. Not for 200 years, but disappear she did. Off the circuit, off training, and onto the couch. A hard time.
Vermeer took a similar trajectory. Sure, he had some early success during his career. Sold a few paintings. Made some money by running a bar and art gallery. Elected to run the artists guild. But he had eleven surviving kids and times were tough. War and disease were the order of the day. Sadly, when he died at 43, he left his wife and children in debt. His paintings were auctioned off. His work was soon forgotten and his reputation as a decent painter vanished within a couple years. Gone like a puff of Vermeer light blowing across canvas.
End of the story.
After doing nothing for several months, Marloes realized she loved the game and she missed it. Eventually she searched out another volleyball star, Laura Bloem, and they decided to make a run for it together. They found a strength coach, a ball coach, a practice area, and sponsors. They formed a team. All on their own. And between the two of them, they had enough points earned from past performances that they could start competing on the international stage in the 2014 World Tour. So they did.
As for Vermeer, in 1881, at an obscure auction in The Hague, there was a dirty, grimy picture waiting to be sold the next day. Two art-collector buddies from The Hague recognized it. It was agreed that one would buy it. Which he did. For a song. Two guilders. After the auction, the painting was sent to Antwerp for restoration, and lo and behold, the Girl with the Pearl Earring was reborn with her glistening parted lips, the wet corner of her mouth, the drop of moisture at the edge of her eye, and, of course, the translucent pearl. My oh my.
And Marloes, our other girl, now waxes philosophical about the twists of her life.
“You can say it’s just a game. It’s not. It’s your life. Some people say it’s just sport. True it is just sport. Of course, it’s more important to be healthy, to be happy, and to be loved, and to love, that is most important. But you cannot make it that simple. You really dedicate your life to the sport. You just have to find your way back after the sport doesn’t work.”
“Every week you’re somewhere else. One week you’re happy, one week you’re sad. It’s a roller coaster. We would like to play in 2016 in the Olympics. But even if it doesn’t work — I would of course feel bad if it doesn’t — but I have many things to feel proud of. Now I am playing only for me and my team. It feels like it is our own battle. I think it’s good. After 2016, I will definitely be done.”
Maybe. However, today, even the strands of her hair seem to dance with energy. There is a zing to her every sweep of hand. Her flower is definitely the hard-scrabble Iowa rose. I don’t envy those on the other side of the net.
When the Girl with the Pearl Earring was in New York this last winter, 235,000 people came to see her. No wonder.
And for Marloes? What will be her future?
Hmmm, is that a pearl earring in her left ear?