An Autumn Feast of Culture in Holland

This year marks the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death and to mark the occasion museums are holding exhibitions to showcase the master and other painters’ skills and talents. Peter Morrell was in awe of the works

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The Dutch Golden Age left a priceless legacy of artwork which is all readily accessible in the profusion of Dutch galleries and museums. The other good news is that many of them are concentrated in a 60km diameter circle which encompasses Amsterdam, Den Haag (The Hague). Rotterdam, Utrecht. Leiden, Haarlem and Delft. The tightness of this circle gave me the opportunity to see three world class exhibitions (five if the permanent exhibitions are counted) in two days.

After the 40 minute hop from City Airport to Schiphol I was soon on the train to Amsterdam Centraal station, an elegant building designed by P J Cuypers who was also the architect of my first destination, The Rijksmuseum. This art gallery owns the largest number of Rembrandts in the world, more than four hundred. So it was natural that in this 350th memorial year they should hold a special exhibition, it’s called Rembrandt – Velázquez: Dutch and Spanish Masters. The exhibition has been curated to juxtapose works to show the differences and similarities between the religion, culture, wealth and art of Holland and Spain.

During the time of the Golden Age Holland was fighting for its independence from Spanish rule. The former was a boisterous energetic new republic while the latter a monarchy steeped in tradition. Although many exhibits compare Rembrandt and Velázquez other artists of the period are also featured. One of my favourite pairings was Francisco de Zurbarán’s St Serapion hanging next to Jan Asselijn’s The Threatened Swan (slides 1 and 2 above). Another comparison is Velázquez’s, View of the Gardens of the Villa Medici, Rome and Johannes Vermeer’s View of Houses in Delft. (slides 3 and 4). A third, self portraits of the two masters (slides 5 and 6).

The curation gave a real insight not only into the different ways wealth and Catholicism versus Protestantism were portrayed but the similarities of artistic style and composition.

While at the Rijksmuseum I couldn’t resist a quick tour of the permanent exhibition to look at more Rembrandts and the works of many other artists. I also saw Operation Night Watch, an exciting project currently underway to microscopically analyse Rembrandt’s most famous work, The Night Watch. Using the latest imaging equipment it will unlock, after years of overpainting, the secrets of the original painting.

Time was short, so next stop was The Mauritshuis in Den Haag. This museum must be one of the most beautiful in the world. Its symmetrical design is an eye pleasing delight. A new entrance hall has been built under the courtyard that maintains the integrity of the front facade.

To commemorate Rembrandt’s passing a new exhibition is being shown, Nicolaes Maes – Rembrandt’s Versatile Pupil. Rembrandt’s style is very evident in Maes’s work. He excelled in three genres, historical scenes, everyday life and elegant portraits. In this exhibition we are given examples of all three. The historical paintings have a religious theme running through them. We see in his Sacrifice of Abraham skilful use of light and composition to make a dramatic impact. Amongst the portraits is Girl with a Deer, where Maes uses the cloth of the girl’s dress to showcase his talent and again uses light to great effect.

Maes really comes into his own with his depiction of everyday life. His portrait of a Young Woman Sewing has great beauty in its simplicity. This theme is brought to its pinnacle by Maes in the tableaux of young servant girls eavesdropping on illicit scenes. In one, we are treated to a look of devilment on a young girl’s face as she listened from behind a door to a liaison between a couple. The girl’s well lit visage looks straight at the viewer as if to share the secret.

This was an excellent exhibition and really showed the legacy left by Rembrandt via the work of his pupil. This exhibition is being staged in collaboration with The National Gallery and it will be coming to London in 2020.

Like the Rijksmuseum I couldn’t resist the lure of going to see the permanent exhibition at the Mauritshuis. This was my fourth visit and I never tire of seeing Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, the Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius and Paulus Potter’s The Young Bull. Also in the collection is the last Rembrandt self-portrait, completed in the year of his death. This searingly honesty self depiction shows the great man in all his sorrow. His wife and children had all died, he had been made bankrupt and was destined to be buried in a pauper’s grave.

It was late and I travelled to Delft, less than 15 minutes away by tram. I was staying the night at the Best Western Museumhotel in a period building next to the Old Church (Oude Kerk). There was just time for a nightcap, a beer in a bar popular with students. The cobbled streets and houses had a timeless quality about them that I would fully connect with the following day.

With the Old Church bell acting as my alarm clock I was out bright and early for the 100 metre stroll to the Museum Prinsenhof to see the continuum of the Rembrandt style.

Two artists associated with Delft are Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch. They were both heavily influenced by Nicolaes Maes. The Prinsenhof is running an exhibition lauding the latter artist, Pieter De Hooch in Delft – From the Shadow of Vermeer. This exhibition will undoubtedly raise De Hooch’s profile and allow people to fully appreciate his talent.

The painter’s early work featured scenes of beer swilling soldiers in taverns served by attractive girls, A Seated Soldier with a Standing Serving Woman being a good example. De Hooch was living in Delft at the time and as he matured his focus moved to groups of characters and children observed in plain rooms. De Hooch was a master of perspective and this, along with the occasional cat or dog, brought authenticity to the scenes. Woman with a Child in a Pantry illustrates this well. His clever use of light was a Rembrandt hallmark. His painting evolved, still capturing everyday themes, but there was a further dimension. This came in the form of passages and alleyways in the background populated by people and adding mystery to the composition. A Woman and Child in a Bleaching Ground being one of my favourites.

In about 1660 he moved to Amsterdam where his patrons were rich merchants. The people in his group paintings were better dressed and the rooms had marble floors and were hung with rich fabrics.

This exhibition shows De Hooch’s artistic journey and the sheer technical quality of his work.

The Prinsenhof was originally a monastery before becoming a palace. It was the home of William I, Prince of Orange who was the leader of the revolt against Spanish Hapsburg rule. In 1584 an assassin, loyal to the Hapsburgs murdered the Prince in the palace. The killer used two pistols and bullet holes are still visible in the wall. Next to them in a display cabinet is one of the pistols and a death mask of the Prince.

At the end of the exhibition, I took a short tour of Delft. This unspoilt city is a gem, in the town square is the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), the tower designed by P J Cuypers. It’s the burial place of William I and has subsequently become the necropolis for the Dutch Royal Family. As I walked through the quaint cobbled streets I understood the sense of timelessness I had felt the night before. Many of the scenes in De Hooch paintings were still there, the clothes people wore are now different but in essence, I was walking through history.

I reluctantly left Delft for the short train ride back to the airport. As I touched down at City I had been away for 36 hours but in that short time had seen the very best of Dutch Golden Age art.

Fact Box

Rembrandt-Velázquez – Dutch & Spanish Masters
11 October 2019 until 19 January 2020

Nicolaes Maes – Rembrandt’s Versatile Pupil
Mauritshuis, Den Haag – 17 October 2019 until 19 January 2020
National Gallery, London – 22 February until 31 May 2020.

Pieter De Hooch in Delft – From the Shadow of Vermeer
Prinsenhof, Delft – October 11 until February 16, 2020

Amsterdam Tourism

Den Haag Tourism

Delft Tourism

More information on visiting Holland