12 February 2015

Amsterdam and The Hague - The Netherlands - Part 2 - Golden Age

Musées des Beaux Arts....

My visit to Den Haag (The Hague) is singleminded. I have not come to watch the Dutch Parliament in session; to attend the application of the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide (CROATIA v. SERBIA) at the International Court of Justice; to visit one of the largest Apple Stores in the oldest shopping arcade in the Netherlands, nor to take a dip off the beach at unpronounceable Scheveningen (apparently this was the word used to get German spies to give themselves away)..... This is a lightning raid on The Mauritshuis, a recently renovated jewel in the crown of the Dutch Golden Age.

Meisje met de parel,
Johannes Vermeer, c 1665

As the publicity says, the girl is back in town, and I have a date.....  Her home was designed and built in 1644 by Jacob van Campen, the most famous architect of his time (who also provided Rembrandt with his grand home in Amsterdam). Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679) commissioned it, hence its name, but he was not at home when I called.  

The new main entrance to The Mauritshuis (or you can take the glass lift)

The museum has recently undergone extensive refurbishment and modernisation which provide an airy and bright entrance lobby, as well as extended space for new exhibitions.  But the original interior, even when lit with LED systems which are calibrated to blend daylight with candleglow is as designed in the seventeenth century.  As Laura Cumming wrote in The Observer, the Mauritshuis is the ideal museum.  It's a home from home for art.  The rooms are on a human scale.....  Vermeer's Girl, for all her Mona Lisa fame, is in a modest wood-panelled chamber..... 

Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens,
The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man, c. 1615

Primary Art - a teacher and her rat instruct young minds....

It is a place to muse, and to amuse. The Greek origin of the word museum denoted a place or temple dedicated to the Muses. Hence it has come to mean a building set apart for study and the arts. One of the more famous pictures on show here is itself of a lesson - Rembrandt's justly acclaimed The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp (1632).....

Dr Tulp's Anatomy Lesson: Aris Kindt, armed robber, executed by hanging

As Jonathan Jones commented in The Guardian, the eye is led irresistibly into a dark tunnel between the arm's exposed muscles - and into the body itself. Rembrandt leads the onlooker from the visible world to the invisible darkness within. What lies there?

Self-portrait with Lace Collar, 1629

As Rembrandt himself looks confidently out at the viewing public, I muse on what it is that I am seeing. Why have I come all this way? Jonathan Jones suggests that, the true reason to come here is to encounter some of the world's most profound works of art. Perhaps I should have spent more time in Den Haag, and visited the International Court of Justice. It is fitting perhaps that the Mauritshuis and the Peace Palace are near neighbours. Somehow I feel that Vermeer and Rembrandt still work as ambassadors for peace, and that whatever else we gain from great art the very act of admiring such works is in itself an act of peace:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

But I hasten to Amsterdam.....

And go straight to the also recently refurbished Rijksmuseum, a great palace of art, exhausting in its dimensions and in its scope. 

The Rijksmuseum is the museum of the Netherlands.  It was first opened in 1800 (ironically in Den Haag), but moved to Amsterdam in 1808 and then to its current location in 1885. It has recently been extensively refurbished, and when I was last here, about five years ago, less than half the collection was on view.  

Rembrandt's De Nachtwacht, 1642

Now there is more than enough.  I mean, much more.  From the Middle Ages through the Golden Age, to Dutch Colonialism, to (almost) now.  Guess who I find looking a little uneasy beneath all the pomp and splendour?

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat (1886-87)

Everywhere there are talking points, pictures to amuse, artefacts, sculptures, allegories, portraits.  Sometimes, I almost feel the models are here to admire themselves....

But what leads me out, takes me from myself here are the pictures of life....  In the Mauritshuis there were wonderful pictures of life, by Jan Steen for example, and here, with David Teniers, in his Peasant Kermis (1665), you get an impression of the world as it is.  I particularly like the complex visions of village activity in winter, like this:

Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters
, Hendrick Avercamp, 1608

But I also enjoy the pictures that you could almost walk out into, like this Amsterdam canal scene, though there are fewer cars (or bicycles!) and more leaves on the trees in this picture than now.....

Jan van der Heyden, Amsterdam View with Houses on the Herengracht.... (1670)

And outside, this elegant city is a museum in itself. The canals reflect the buildings and light fills the windows, and the shifting shapes of the narrow-fronted houses bring to mind the world with which de Hooch and Vermeer might have been familiar.

And the waters of the canals, the bridges and boats, cannot have changed that much.....

And the sky, the sense of space and the vanishing points, are still in the air.....

It is not difficult to dream a little in Amsterdam. Musing in the galleries and then wandering one way or another, time hangs lightly draped across your shoulders. The canals seep an atmosphere of quiet. At the Vishuisje Herengracht I have a snack of oysters and a delicious herring broodje (sandwich) and feel that the world is not such a bad place after all.

And in the Cafe Bouwman, close by, I make a new friend (though I understand that felines are no longer allowed in bars by law....)

In the Vondelpark, the willows do not so much weep as relax, their tendrils hair-like in the winter cool....

And on the canals themselves, as dusk gathers, the lights glow warm and welcoming.....

My trip to Amsterdam was not singleminded. I was not only there for the Museum.  Even when ice and snow gather and life slows to winter rhythms....

And over the water sails a boat, just like back then

Though it is cold outside, Peace comes dropping slow in this most picturesque of places.....  And the evening closes with supper with a family of old friends who live overlooking one of the quieter canals. On the third floor of what once was a convent school we eat and drink and discuss the politics of museums, the nature of the Netherlands, and the passing of time. 

Good night, Amsterdam......  Let's drink to another Golden Age!

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating 
On a pond at the edge of the wood....

W H Auden


  1. Thank you. I love the sense of space and light you communicate.

  2. Thanks a ton for sharing a lot historical facts with us.I really enjoyed it.As I have been in a deep search on thesis Netherlands and found your blog very useful.