With Martin Randall Travel, May 2015
Wherever I wake on my travels, be it a pulsing metropolis, a quaint town or a country retreat, I discover that every place has its own unique acoustic environment. Each has different sounds that accompany my transition into consciousness: a muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, sirens wail, a rooster crows, doves coo, or church bells ring out to welcome the new day.
Utrecht, where our group of art-lovers was based for a week, awakens to the tinkling melodies of the Domtoren (Cathedral Tower), which chime every quarter hour throughout the day and night. This Gothic landmark – and symbol of the city – is not only the tallest church tower in the Netherlands (112.5 m), it is all that remains of the 14th century Cathedral of St. Martin, which was never completed due to lack of funds.
This charming city near the River Rhine, bisected by the Oude Gracht (Old Canal), is the fourth largest city in the Netherlands (about 331,000 people), and has been the country’s religious centre since the 8th century. It was the most important Dutch city until the 17th century Golden Age, when it was superseded by Amsterdam as the country’s cultural and commercial centre. Utrecht University, founded in 1636, is the largest in the country, and a much sought-after institution – as the hundreds of young cyclists on the narrow cobbled streets attest. “Watch out for the bicycles!” warned, Guus, our tour guide. And so we had to keep out a wary eye for these hurtling two-wheelers at every turn in every town – some adeptly texting with one hand whilst steering with the other. Cycling is as much a part of Dutch culture as cheese and windmills, and is a healthy outdoor activity, come rain or shine, that keeps the people fit and the traffic (and pollution) low.
The Romans called the early settlement here Traiectum, denoting its location at a crossing point on the River Rhine. This became the Dutch word Trecht, prefixed with U from the Old Dutch, uut, meaning “downriver”.
The central location of Utrecht makes it an important hub for road and rail, and it was an ideal base for our daily peregrinations to other art centres in the Netherlands.
Our hotel, Grand Hotel Karel V, has a fascinating history which dates from the 13th century. Originally called Het Duitse Huis (The German House), it was the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights. Distinguishable by their white cloaks emblazoned with a black cross, their duty was to defend the Faith and to care for the sick, the wounded and the elderly. In 1808 King Louis Napoleon ordered the Knights to surrender the House, and in 1811 a military hospital was established there, which it remained until 1986. It then fell into disuse, until rescued by developers in 1997, who restored it to its former splendour.
The name refers to Charles V, born to Philip I and Joan of Castile in 1500 in Ghent, then under Habsburg rule. He was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1520, and gained power over the city of Utrecht soon after. He stayed in this building a second time with his sister, Mary of Hungary, in 1546, for a meeting of the Chapter of the Golden Fleece. Illustrious guests indeed!
This beautiful hotel ticks all the boxes: it is quiet, central (near the ancient core of the city), and the rooms have tea and coffee-making facilities, a safe and hairdryer, comfortable beds and pillows, blankets on request (for an “English bed”), air-conditioning or heating, plenty of soft towels, sunblock curtains, and – above all – unlimited free Wi-Fi.
Utrecht was also the site of a significant Treaty, in fact a series of 23 treaties which included the Peace of Utrecht, marking the end of the wars of the Spanish Succession. The countries involved were Spain, England, France, Portugal, Savoy and the Dutch Republic, all of whom helped to end a war initiated by Louis XIV’s ambitions of hegemony in Europe, and who restored a system based on a balance of power between the nations. A stone marking the 300th anniversary of this event is located on the Oude Gracht.
A walk through the old town yields more musical sounds: the tinkling of pianos and the piping of woodwinds can be heard floating from the windows of the Conservatorium, and I was reminded of my own student days when such manifestations of ardent aspiration emanated from a corridor of practice rooms in the music department at my university in Johannesburg. How many, I wondered, would make it onto stage and disc?
I had always wanted to see the smaller towns in the Netherlands, where the famous painters had lived and worked – Haarlem, Delft and Utrecht, and this tour was the best way to do so, accompanied by an expert art historian guide, Dr. Guus Sluiter. Guus wrote his doctoral thesis on the work of a pupil of Rembrandt’s: Arent de Gelder of Dordrecht. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aert_de_Gelder .)
The Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem was first on our itinerary – directly after landing at Schiphol Airport – and here we saw more paintings by the creator of The Jolly Toper and The Laughing Cavalier, whose rich costumes and merry smiles have brought joy to viewers for centuries.
Haarlem is one of the most attractive towns in the Netherlands, with picturesque canal-side houses and white draw-bridges, old churches and windmills. A peek into the narrow gabled houses reveals idyllic inner courtyards, and a glimpse into what life in Haarlem must have been like centuries ago. Flanking the Spaarne River, it was granted city status in 1245, although the first city walls were only built in 1270. It lies about 20 km west of Amsterdam on a strip of land above sea level known as the strandwal (beach ridge, or wall.) For centuries the people living on this narrow strip struggled against the waters of the North Sea to the west and the IJ and the Haarlem Lake to the east.
The city’s history is similar to that of many others in Europe in the ensuing centuries:
The Black Death swept through in 1381, decimating nearly half of the population, and again in 1657. In 1576 much of the city was destroyed by a fire which started in a brewery near the weigh house by the river. German mercenaries who used it as a guardhouse had been warming themselves by a fire there when it became out of control.
Later, during the 17th century, Haarlem became wealthy from the toll revenues collected from the ships and travelers using this busy North-South route, as well as the industries of brewing and bleaching, linen and silk. The Golden Age created an upper middle class of merchants and well-to-do small business owners who patronised the arts, and this attracted painters such as Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Jan Molenaer, Jan van Scorel and Jacob van Ruysdael. Religious tolerance towards both Catholics and Huguenots also drew many French and Flemish immigrants to Haarlem, who were fleeing Spanish Catholic domination of their own cities. But as the centre of trade gravitated towards Amsterdam during the 18th century, Haarlem declined.
The Frans Hals Museum was originally founded in 1862, in the former Dominican church cloisters behind the Haarlem City Hall, and was called the Prinsenhof. When space was needed for expansion, the collection was moved to the town orphanage in 1913, a building originally established as an almshouse for elderly men in 1607-10. The most notable art works from the Oude Mannenhuis are the two group portraits by Frans Hals (1582-1666), depicting the regents and regentesses who governed the almshouse.
The stipulations for entering this institution are interesting to us today, as they provide an insight into the care of the elderly in 17th century Holland. The men had to be “at least 60 years old, honest Haarlem residents, and single.” Each had to provide his own household goods, such as “a bed, a chair with a cushion, a tin chamber pot, three blankets, six good shirts and six nightcaps.” The green inner courtyard was a delightful place for smoking a pipe, having a chat, and drinking a small beer (no more than two beers per day were allowed, according to the house rules.) Women were accommodated in a different building.
They were locked in every night at 8 in the summer and at 7 in the winter. They also had to make a weekly collection with a poor-box, and a statue of a man holding such a box can be seen in the entrance hall of the Museum. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frans_Hals_Museum)
Guus our guide led us to several military group portraits by Frans Hals, which had become almost black with age, but were cleaned in the early 20th century under the watchful eye of the expert Gerrit David Gratama. The skillful grouping of these men is around a table, each beautifully dressed in black, with orange silk sashes (representing the House of Orange), large black feathered hats, and white ruffs. They are rendered in powerful, loose brushstrokes – a free and lively style that gives a sense of movement, and which inspired the impressionist painters many years later. Each sitter had to pay the master several guilders to be included in the painting. This he needed, in order to support his fourteen children by two successive wives. He even included himself in one of these pictures.
Some of the older paintings in the collection, mostly with religious themes, date from the time of the Reformation, when all Catholic art was formally seized by the city council in 1648.
Frans Hals was the first official city-paid restorer for some of these pictures. The city council then purchased several large pieces with which to decorate the city hall, telling stories such as the legend of the capture of Damiatte by Haarlem crusaders – according to the legend of the Haarlem Shield. It is interesting to note that, at a time before the concept of an art museum existed, the city hall began to function as a semi-public museum. The first signs of an official museum with a curator occurred when the Dutch Society of Science, founded in 1752, started to rent the Prinsenhof room of the City Hall in 1754 for its meetings, and began to furnish it as a “Cabinet of curiosities” (such as stuffed animals and prepared specimens.) They hired a woman for the dusting and serving tea, and in 1768 they hired a man to be the curator. He became responsible for the entire collection, as well as the
medical Hortus garden in the yard.
Apart from several works by Frans Hals, which include his Civic Guards group portraits, the collection of over 750 works also includes 16th and 17th century paintings and decorative arts such as ceramics, glass and silverware.
Attempts to break free from the influences of Catholic Spain, and a preference for less religious subject-matter is evident in the production of more secular work – still lifes and portraits, with more attention given to the landscapes that are sometimes wrought in the background. World exploration by sea led to the emergence of the seascape, and the wealth derived from trade gave painters scope for more well-paid secular commissions.
Ever the champion of women composers and women artists, I sought out the pictures by Judith Leyster (1609-60) who, like most women painters of her age, focused on genre paintings: still lifes and portraits.
The textures of Peter Claesz’s cheeses and nuts, fruits and breads in his Fruit Still Life with Basket of Cheese (c.1624-5) are so skilfully wrought that we can almost smell them, and feel tempted to reach out and taste them. Such luxurious scenes, depicting pewter jugs, olives, mature Gouda cheese, hothouse fruits, smoked herrings and oysters, speak of the wealth of the Haarlem gentry of those days.
On a more amusing note is the Proverbs (1627) picture by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1637/8). Here we see an imaginary village teeming with people and animals. Each tiny scene depicts an old Dutch (or Flemish) proverb. I bought an illustrated folder of this picture, which includes a black-and-white reproduction with numbers, each of which links to a proverb and its explanation, both of which are in English. 82 proverbs are thus picked out and explained, although there are probably more that have not yet been discovered in this busy piece. Here we are shown what people must not do – a “world turned upside-down”.
Pieter Brueghel copied this picture from one by his father, Pieter the Elder. Indeed, the Brueghel family made many versions of this scene; it was evidently a popular subject.
Examples of the proverbs include Kill two flies with one stroke (kill two birds with one stone), Shave a fool (to make fun of someone), Bell the cat (to carry out a difficult task yourself), to carry daylight in a basket and to gaze at the stork (to waste time), to have the roof tiled with tarts (to live in the land of plenty), and to throw roses to the pigs (to cast pearls before swine.) I wonder how many are still in use today?
See: https://www.franshalsmuseum.nl/en/collection/collection/collection/search- collection/proverbs-316/
On the coach trip to Amsterdam the next day, the patchwork of farmland and villages criss-crossed with canals, edged with a thin strip of beach, that I had seen from the air the day before, could now be seen in another dimension. The landscape of Holland is flat, with a low horizon of meadows and dams, pastures and vegetables, and a vast open sky filled with masses of painterly clouds. But for the wind farms, and the pylons striding single-file across the land, one feels in the midst of an Old Master’s landscape. The skyline is broken only by a steeple here, a windmill there, and plump black-and-white cows lie amongst the dandelions, munching contentedly.
Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, and the most populated city, although the seat of government is at The Hague. Amsterdam has also become home to people from Suriname, the Dutch Antilles, Morocco and Turkey. The name derives from Amstelredamme,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amsterdam ‐ cite_note‐Britannica_Eleven‐
14 from the city’s origin as a dam created on the Amstel River.
It began as a fishing village in the late 12th century, and, during the 17th century, due to innovative developments in trade, became one of the most important ports in the world. This period came to be known as the “Dutch Golden Age.” Today visitors flock to see the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum, the Hermitage Amsterdam, and Anne Frank’s House and the red light district, the many cannabis coffee shops, and the picturesque canals (a UNESCO World Heritage site) lined with crooked houses, shops and cafés – all of which have survived floods and fires, the Plague and Spanish domination.
The Rijksmuseum was founded in The Hague in 1800, and relocated to Amsterdam in 1808. Here it was initially housed in the Royal Palace, and then in the Trippenhuis. The main building we see today was designed by Pierre Cuypers in 1885. More recently, after ten years of extensive renovations which cost € 375 million, it was re-opened by Queen Beatrix in April 2013.
This brilliantly refurbished cathedral of art, with its stained glass windows and rib-vaulted corridors, displays 8,000 items from a collection of a million objects dating from 1200 to 2000, including masterpieces by Rembrandt and Vermeer, and their great contemporaries.
The Rijksmuseum also has many magnificent objects d’art on display:
There is also a small Asian collection which is on display in the Asian pavilion.
Of course it was not possible to see all the great masterworks in a morning, most displayed according to themes, so Guus picked out for us works of particular interest and significance.
In a hall titled The Dutch Abroad we admired the fanciful Brazilian landscapes of Frans Jansz. Post (1612-80) – a printer, painter and draftsman from Haarlem – which feature local buildings and strange animals, and exotic lush vegetation. These pictures boast of Dutch expansionism and trade in foreign lands, and the quest of the Dutch East India Company (founded in 1602) for pepper, cloves, nutmeg and mace – and slaves.
Hendrik Trip’s Canon Foundry in Julitabruk, Sweden (1650-75), was of special interest to me (currently based in Stockholm), and is significant for its unusual choice of subject – a factory.
Gallery 2.8 shows us The Young Rembrandt (1606-69)’s work, a favourite of which for me was the allegorical Musical Company (1626), with Rembrandt’s detailed depiction of the viol, the lyre and the overturned lute, the piles of scores and the decorative exotic clothing. The beautiful young woman is juxtaposed with a wrinkled crone. Is this a memento mori, warning of the shortness of life?
Such vanitas pictures were popular at the time, along with the honourable themes of history, mythology and religion. Viewers of the day were familiar with the symbolism therein, and did not need it explained, as we do today: a snuffed out candle, peeled or worm-eaten fruit, a wilted flower – all these symbolised the transience of life.
Portraiture was how Rembrandt made his living, especially large group portraits such as the incomparable Night Watch (1642.) This vast painting is a fantastic feat of artistic genius, and carries all the drama and stagecraft of a Baroque opera. Significant members are bathed in light, those less important have less of the limelight.
This priceless work of art has its own “escape hatch” set into the gallery floor just beneath it, through which it can be lowered into a waiting truck below and spirited away to a secret location in the event of war or fire. It enjoys pride of place in the Gallery of Honour. Sharing this room is Rembrandt’s The Wardens of the Drapers’ Guild known as The Syndics (1606- 9), featuring the men who monitored the quality of dyed cloth. It is as if we, the viewers, have disturbed their private meeting. We can almost feel the texture of the rich Oriental rug on the central table. This late work demonstrates the Master’s boundless creativity, and popularity with the prominent citizens of Amsterdam. Such large pictures were created by stitching together pieces of canvas.
Thick impasto conveys the textures of fabrics in Isaac and Rebecca, known as The Jewish Bride (c.1665-c.1669). We see the marks of the palette knife on a textured sleeve, and can sense the textures of smooth satin, curling hair, and the rich gems and luminous pearls of this wealthy couple dressed as Biblical characters in historical garb. A tender embrace and loving caress are the focal point of this poignant picture, an essay on love.
In Rembrandt’s portrait of Haesje Jakobsdr van der Cleyburg (1634), the wife of a wealthy Amsterdam brewer, he has not made her more beautiful than she was, but portrays her honestly and accurately, with wrinkles beneath her eyes which are topped with bushy eyebrows. Her costume is fashionable but sombre, her greying hair scraped back into an unflattering starched white cap. But the Master softens her middle-aged face with a gentle smile, and tiny specks of red paint enliven her features. What, after all, is beauty? The Ancient Greeks knew, and sculpted nothing but the ideal, beautiful body. Will this forever be the standard, the rule of thumb for physical perfection?
Rembrandt knew all the techniques and tricks of the trade for painting skin, water, glass, ruffs and fabrics, but bettered them with unequaled skill. Like his Protestant contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach, who knew the musical formulae of his day, he mastered and utilised them, and took them to even greater heights. This is the mark of great talent – the ability to take the known forms and styles of the day, and make of them something extraordinary.
Rembrandt’s Tobit and Anna with the Kid (1626) is a masterful study of elderly faces and hands, and the textures of cloth and fur, hair and skin. His Self Portrait of c.1628, painted when he was about 22, is a study in light and shade, and one of nearly fifty such portraits painted throughout his life – a significant aspect of his oeuvre.
Rembrandt painted few landscapes, and those he did paint are mostly imaginary scenes – magical and dramatic. In his Landscape with a Stone Bridge (c.1638), a beam of light breaks through the clouds, rendering the approaching storm even more menacing. He was influenced by Hercules Segers (1589-1638), whose River Valley (1626-30) features a castle ruin in a rocky landscape, entirely impossible in the flat fields of Holland.
Since art with religious themes was no longer popular in Protestant Holland, painters turned to portraits and still lifes, landscapes and interiors. Wealthy patrons paid painters for pictures of themselves, of their castles and their estates, and the interiors of their homes.
An endearing piece is A Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair, known as A Mother’s Duty (c.1558-c.1660) by Pieter de Hooch. The child kneels obediently, and the little dog waits patiently in a beam of light from the open door for the master to return home. A kakstoel (toilet chair), a box-bed, and two woven baskets complete this simple domestic scene. Pieter de Hooch specialised in such “through views”, with a garden just visible through the open door in the background. He is best known for his domestic interior scenes.
Another woman artist, and one of the very few of her time, Judith Leyster (1609-60) paints a lute player in The Serenade (1629). The young lutenist looks up, perhaps to his sweetheart’s window?
Vermeer painted so few pictures, only 35 or 36, each slowly and painstakingly executed, and most illuminated by a window on the left. (See a full catalogue of his paintings here: https://www.essentialvermeer.com/vermeer_painting_part_one.html#.VXNGc8-qqko .)
The Rijksmuseum has but four Vermeers: The Kitchen Maid (1658) – a milkmaid is pouring milk, The Love Letter (c.1669-70) – the lady holds a cittern on her lap, View of Houses in Delft (The Little Street) (1658), and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1664). Is she perhaps pregnant? Sadly this picture was not there for us to see. Perhaps it was being restored.
Vermeer’s meticulous compositions of interior scenes feature one or two figures, usually women. Known as genre paintings, we see people involved in ordinary, everyday activities: various domestic chores, reading a letter, making lace, or playing a musical instrument.
Some of these intimate scenes are framed in a doorway; Vermeer captures the moment.
The Rijksmuseum also houses several large dolls’ houses, beautifully appointed and preserved. These were not children’s toys but display pieces created by wealthy ladies who lavished an enormous amount of time and money on them. Each presents a picture of a well-ordered and prosperous Dutch household. The focus is the world of women, and the behind-the-scenes activities in the attics, cellars and kitchen. A regular feature is a lying-in chamber, complete with a mother doll and new-born baby. Everything is meticulously made to scale, and gives us an insight into the furnishings and activities in Dutch homes of this period. The miniature Delft porcelain and objects d’art are a wonder to behold. As the accompanying wall poster informs us: “In this miniature world, much has survived that has long since vanished from our own.”
Lunch was an overpriced sandwich made with “country” bread (dry and tasteless) and cheese, in the all-too-small Rijksmuseum restaurant – “Wait to be seated!”
It is an easy walk from the Rijksmuseum across Museum Square to the Van Gogh Museum. This shrine to the work of a brilliant but tragically disturbed man (1853-90) opened in 1973, and is largely comprised of the paintings safeguarded by his brother, Theo. No-one wanted to buy them during his short life of only 37 years; they were too violently expressive and avant garde. Such is the fate of genius ahead of its time.
The Museum was designed by Gerrit Rietveld and Kisho Kurokawa, and holds the largest collection of Van Gogh’s paintings in the world. There are also works by other Impressionists, such as Monet (Tulip Fields Near The Hague.)
Unlike in the Rijksmuseum, photography is strictly prohibited in the Van Gogh Museum. His paintings can be viewed here: https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/vincents-life-and-work .
Guus took us first to the Self Portraits, where we struggled through the crowds of visitors to see experiments in colour, light and textures. Van Gogh had no money to pay models, so he looked in the mirror, and painted himself instead – around forty times. We see the different faces of the man with the gingery beard and hooked nose, and disarming, intense gaze: dark, colourful, naïve, childlike, fragmented and smooth, solemn, never smiling, some in natural tones, others bristling with streaks of blue and green.
The son of a priest, Van Gogh only began painting in 1882, at the age of 29, his chosen profession having initially been that of the priesthood.
The Museum is organised chronologically, into the categories of Van Gogh’s work, his letters alongside accompanying the pictures. As in the Rijksmuseum, everything is beautifully labelled in Dutch and English.
First we saw the work of the Painter of Peasant Life – an idealised world that was rough and raw, redolent of the smell of soil and toil. The Potato-Eaters (1885) is reminiscent of Rembrandt’s trick of seating his subjects around a table, except that these are not wealthy merchants, they are poor peasants – starving, rough, and endearing in their coarseness: https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0005V1962
More pleasant on the eye is Garden with Courting Couples, Square Saint-Pierre (1887). Inspired by the pointillists, Van Gogh used small brushstrokes applied in different directions. It is a study in greens, painted sous bois – conveying the loamy fecundity of the forest floor. The effect is bright and happy, perfectly matching the romance of the two loving couples: https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0019V1962 .
The Paris to Arles room displays pictures lighter in mood and colour; energetic brushwork and powerful colour contrasts are indicative of his vivid perception of the world, his ebullience when in a manic phase. “Instead of trying to render exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour in order to express myself forcefully”, he wrote to his brother Theo. The Harvest (Arles 1888) is one such example of his enthusiastic experience of life and nature. In Wheatfield with a Reaper (1889), the reaper is barely visible; he is subsumed in circling yellow heatwaves of ripe wheat.
Van Gogh’s obsession with a subject is illustrated in his many sunflower pictures – studies in textures – and those of the iconic yellow Langlois drawbridge.
In another room we saw his portraits of his artist friends: Paul Signac, Charles Angrand, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin and Charles Laval.
The Dreaming of Japan room includes the iconic Almond Blossom (1890,) now decorating coffee mugs, silk scarves, bags and T-shirts, in the amply-supplied Museum Shop.
Regarding his view of himself – and on this topic he was always most verbose and articulate, self-obsessed even, in his letters – here is a most revealing quote:
Letter to his brother Theo, Neunen c. 16 December 1883:
My dear Theo,
Mauve said to me at that time, “you’ll find yourself if you keep on working at art, if you go into it more deeply than you have done so far.”
I think a lot about those words of his these days.
I have found myself – I am that dog.
…The shaggy sheepdog I tried to get you to understand in my letter yesterday it’s my character, and the animal’s life is my life, if, that is, one leaves out the essentials, and simply gives the essentials.
…For the sake of analysis, no personalities involved, just as a character study, I refer to you once more to last summer impartially as if I spoke about strangers rather than about you me and Pa. I see two brother walking in The Hague (view them as strangers, other people, don’t think of yourself or of me or Pa.)
One of them says, “I’m becoming more and more like Pa – I have a certain position to keep up – a certain affluence (very modest in both your case and Pa’s) I must stay in the trade, I don’t believe that I’ll become a painter.” The other says – “I’m becoming less and less like Ps – I’m becoming a dog, I feel that the future will probably make me uglier and rougher, and I see “a certain poverty” as my lot – but – but – I WILL BE A ÖPAINTER and, man or dog, in short a being with feeling.
…I tell you, I choose the said dog’s path, I’ll remain a dog, I’ll be poor, I’ll be a painter, I want to remain human, in nature.
To read more, see: https://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let414/letter.html.
Last but not least on our second day was a visit to the narrow, multi-storeyed Rembrandt House Museum near Waterloo Square, where the Master lived and worked for twenty years (1639-58). It was built in 1606 in what was then a new part of the city, where many successful merchants and financiers also dwelt.
Beautifully restored, and furnished as it was during Rembrandt’s period there according to an inventory of the time, visitors can climb the narrow wooden staircase to his well-lit studio on the top floor where most pf his portraits were painted, and watch a demonstration of oil paints being ground and prepared with the same tools and materials his assistants would have used in the mid-1600’s.
The etching process is demonstrated in another studio, and etching, at no extra cost, is offered in a workshop in the Museum.
Also displayed in the house are some 250 prints by Rembrandt, as well as sculptures and a few paintings by of his contemporaries. Annoyingly, these were not labelled.
The next day we set out for The Hague, the administrative capital of The Netherlands (the government and Parliament, Supreme Court and Council of State), which has a population of around half a million inhabitants. King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima live there, as well as the foreign ambassadors. Along with New York, Geneva, Vienna and Addis Ababa, The Hague is one of the major cities hosting the United Nations.
The city originated in around 1230 when Count Floris IV of Holland purchased land beside a pond, the present-day Hofvijver, to build a hunting lodge. During the 15th century the name des Graven hage – literally meaning “The Count’s Wood” – came into use.
Again we passed more well-preserved antique windmills, pastures with brown-and-white cows and plump woolly sheep, and toy-train settlements with neat farms and vegetable patches. Cycle paths and Hobbema-style avenues of beech trees line the canals and highways, or lead to impressive homesteads. People work in their allotments in fine weather, and store their tools in cute gabled Wendy-houses. Patches of vermilion poppies and bright yellow dandelions flank the highway, and there is water, water everywhere – canals and lakes, dams and ponds, all a-gaggle with ducks and geese and proud sailing swans.
Ploughed fields speckled with crows reveal the source of Van Gogh’s inspiration. Today many Dutch panoramas resemble the Old Masters’ landscapes – rendered through different eyes, in different eras.
Once in the capital, we followed avenues of flowering chestnuts to the Mauritshuis (Maurice House) – my favourite art museum in the Netherlands. This Classical, two-storey Dutch mansion was built between 1636 and 1641 for Prince Johan Maurits when he was governor of Dutch Brazil. The strictly symmetrical layout was designed by Jacob van Campen and Pieter Post, and included four apartments and a great hall.
Each apartment was designed with an antechamber, chamber, cabinet, and cloakroom. After the Prince’s death, the Maes family took over the house, but much of the interior was destroyed by a fire in 1704. It was restored between 1708 and 1718. In 1820, the Mauritshuis was bought by the Dutch government to house the Royal Cabinet of Paintings and Rarities. In 1822 it was opened to the public, and in 1875 the entire museum became available for paintings, including some of the best Dutch masterpieces from the Golden Age. It was privatised in 1995, but is now the property of the State, from whom the museum rents it. It is listed in the top 100 Dutch World Heritage Sites.
Today the collection is currently called the Royal Picture Gallery, and consists of almost 800 paintings by Dutch and Flemish painters, such as Pieter Brueghel, Paulus Potter, Rubens, Rembrandt, Jacob van Ruisdael, Johannes Vermeer, Jan Breughel I, Rogier van der Wyden, the German-born Hans Holbein II (the Younger), and woman painters Clara Peeters and Rachel Ruysch.
None of the paintings in the Mauritshuis are very large, as the rooms are small. It was sometimes uncomfortably crowded, as Guus again led us to his chosen highlights. These included the Estonian painter Michel Sittow’s Portrait of a Man (c.1510), which gives us a wonderfully clear image of an early 16th century Tallinn resident, (before the age of photography), with his wrinkles delicately wrought and a light growth of beard. His hands rest on the edge of the painting, as if upon a windowsill – a trick Sittow learned from Hans Memling in Bruges. The style is also reminiscent of Van Eyck’s work.
A new acquisition, by Ludger tom Ring II (1522-84) of Münster, is a rare piece: an exceptionally early flower still life dating from c.1562: Narcissi, Periwinkles and Violets in a Ewer. The periwinkle was originally violet, but has lost its bright purple hue over the centuries. A sprig of rue lies on the table beside the ewer; sometimes called “herb-of-grace”, it symbolises regret (to “rue the day”.) Shakespeare introduces this herb in several of his plays, such as the mad Ophelia’s song in Hamlet, Act IV sc.5. Such pictures were rare before 1600, after which flowers became a popular independent subject, and still are to this day.
Rogier van der Weyden’s Lamentation of Christ (c.1460-64) illustrates a mother’s sorrow, and those of His disciples; faces are grief-stricken and streaked with tears. The kneeling bishop to the right of the group is out of place in his ceremonial robes, but he is the commissionaire of this altarpiece. In the background are a strange pavilion, miniature chateaux and a horseman – a Flemish touch.
Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Flowers in a Wan-Li vase (c.1610-15) – narcissi, roses and flamed tulips – stand against a dark background in a special Chinese kendi (water bottle). A tiny ladybird sits in the bottom right-hand corner. Brueghel was the first Flemish painter to paint flower still lifes, and these became very popular with his clients.
In Rubens’s Old Woman and Boy with Candles (c.1616-17) we see a very young face and a very old one juxtaposed, both magically illuminated by the candle in the woman’s hand. The boy intends lighting his unlit candle from hers. Is this simply a charming composition, or does Rubens intend to convey a deeper meaning? After youth cometh old age…and death.
There are several Vermeers in the Mauritshuis: Diana and her Nymphs (c.1653-54), the tranquil View of Delft (c.1660-61), and his most famous painting of all: Girl with a Pearl Earring (c.1665). This is not a portrait but a “tronie” – a picture of an imaginary person. She wears an oriental turban and a large drop-pearl earring. Does she have another on the other ear, we wonder?
Frans von Meiris’s Brothel Scene (1658) shows us a young woman pouring wine into a soldier’s glass. It is a brilliant study in the textures of fabrics – satin, wool, and cotton – and the shiny silver cuirass (breastplate), delicate wineglass, and pewter wine jug. A lute hangs on the wall, its back to the viewer, and a snuffed-out candle stands on the windowsill – momentos mori both. A drunken client sleeps with his head on his arms at a table behind her. Two dogs mate in the background, leaving us in no doubt as to the nature of this house.
Hans Holbein lived at the Tudor court and painted Henry VIII, several courtiers, and his third wife, Jane Seymour.In this painting she wears a crimson velvet gown embroidered with gold thread, and lustrous pearls adorn her neck, collar and waist. She was King Henry’s favourite wife, most likely for bearing him the longed-for son, but sadly died soon after doing so.
Het puttertje (The Goldfinch) (1654) by Carl Fabritius depicts a sprightly little bird sitting chained to its feeder box set high on a wall. These tiny creatures were popular as pets in those days, as they could be taught simple tricks. The wing is wrought in thick brushstrokes of yellow and black paint, and scratched with the handle of the brush. This painting was brought to my attention by Donna Tart’s novel of the same name, and is doubtless how many others discovered this timeless little bird, immortalised for ever in oils on a wooden panel.
The detailed renditions of dozens of insects in the flower still lifes are today a valuable source for entomologists:
Sometimes they are difficult to spot. Other still lifes include shells from foreign lands, and tiny reptiles.
All these pictures may be viewed here: https://www.mauritshuis.nl/en/