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The 350-year-old painting by Dutchman Johannes Vermeer that acted as the muse for Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, has rarely left its home at the Royal Picture Gallery Maruitshuis in The Hague, Netherlands.

But, thanks to a collaboration between the Dutch institution (which is closed for renovations until 2014) and San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums, the enigmatic girl is touring the United States. Her first stop? The de Young Museum in the Californian city’s Golden Gate Park, where she has been charming visitors since her unveiling on 26 January.

Vermeer’s famous girl is often referred to as the Dutch Mona Lisa, and is one of less than 40 known paintings from the artist, none of which are in any California museum collections.

“This is an extraordinarily rare opportunity to see one of his masterpieces,” said Melissa Buron, assistant curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “She is arguably one of the world's most famous women. And yet we know essentially nothing about the actual subject who modelled for this painting,”

The work belongs to a genre called "tronies” – pictures of ordinary people – and it was a popular style in the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age of painting. Despite what’s written in Chevalier’s book, the real identity of the girl with the pearl earring is unknown. This contributes to her enduring appeal and mysterious aura.

“She is also exquisitely painted, which you can really only appreciate when standing in front of the actual canvas, to enjoy the exceptional brushwork with your own eyes,” Buron said.

The exhibition, officially titled Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis at the de Young also features 34 other paintings by Dutch Golden Age masters, including works by Rembrandt, Peiter Claesz, Jacob van Ruisdael and Frans Hals. Simultaneously, the museum is presenting a complementary exhibition called Rembrandt's Century, which features prints, drawings and artist books from de Young’s graphic arts collection.  

The exhibition runs until 2 June, when it moves to Atlanta's High Museum of Art and then in October to the Frick Collection in New York City before returning home to Holland. Tickets are $25 per adult and can be purchased online.

Kimberley Lovato is the San Francisco localite.

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