The Netherlands - An Old and New Masters Tour
Come with us on Magic Carpet Journals as Alison Appelbe looks for insight into
Holland's Golden Age of Art
Article by Alison Applebe
From my balcony in the Kurhaus Hotel in the village of Scheveningen, near The Hague, I watch two unsaddled horses proceeding down the seaside boardwalk. Beside them walks a man wearing an old-fashioned black cap with the top folded back and down. Ahead of the trio trots a tiny dog with stick legs. All four break into a trot. Then, again in unison, they fall back to a walk and disappear from sight.
Except for the Holland Casino off to the right of the century-old Kurhaus Hotel, where I was staying, the scene could appear in a 17th-century painting. The Netherlands has its tawdriness—parts of industrial Rotterdam or, if you don't lean to such pleasures, Amsterdam's Red Light District. But by most appearances, the Dutch have extended their Golden Age of exploration and art—a period that produced Rembrandt, statuesque canal houses, blue Delft tiles and tulip mania—into the 21st century.
Another influence? The Dutch language, with its distinctive click-clacking intonation, is understood by only about 15 million people. Why not then, Dutch thinking goes, exploit forms of expression universally understood? And so they have. Amsterdam alone boasts no fewer than 42 museums and 141 commercial art galleries—not to mention hundreds of shops so sublimely turned out they qualify as exhibit spaces.
Museum-going in The Netherlands is what movie-going is to North Americans. Hague tour guide Remco Door believes that the Hollywood movie about the creation of Vermeer's most popular painting,, Girl with a Pearl Earring, won't particularly interest the Dutch. After all, Vermeer is their story, and they already know it, he says.
Standing in front of a poster of Girl with a Pearl Earring (the painting) at the Mauritshuis entrance, Dorr comments that Japanese tourists, particularly women, come to The Hague solely to see this painting. "They stand in front of it and titter excitedly. It's the only thing they want to see, actually." They may change their mind when the get inside.
The rooms in this former home of Count Maurits, a once-time Dutch governor of Brazil, are chock-a-block with Vermeers (including a View of Delft), Rembrandts, as well as the works of Jan Steen, Hans Holbein, Frans Hals and other Dutch Masters.
The Mauritshuis is un-gallery-like—as if the count had gone out for the day and invited strangers to look around. I stumbled across Girl with a Pearl Earring in a location that suggests the curator considers it no big deal. Many paintings, some in their original frames, are unidentifiable but for the cryptic signatures, although cards describing all the works in a particular room are discreetly available from a rack by the door.
A short walk past a 13th-century knights hall (the Ridderzaal), and along a cobble road lined with grand houses called Lange Voorhout, leads to Escher in Het Paleis, a gallery-museum in the former palace of Queen Emma, who died in 1934.
You'll immediately recognize the woodcuts and etchings of staircases that seem to go nowhere, and angels that morph into bats and visa-versa. These are the collected works of M.C. Escher (1898-1972). Says museum spokeswoman Micky Piller: "People know the works but they don't know the artist. Then they see them and say, 'Ah, it's Escher.'" Also in the Hague is the largest collection of works of modern Dutch master Piet Mondrian at the Gemeentemuseum.
Prepare for a crush at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Year-round, there are lineups. Yet so well displayed is this collection of more than 700 paintings and drawings that sheer numbers aren't a problem.
Standouts include "Wheatfield and Crows" and "Bedroom at Arles," and there are always clusters of people around these works. All the more reason to hang out with lesser-known pieces, like the lopsided "Farmhouse" or "A Glass of Absinthe and a Carafe."
For postcard fiends, the museum shop choice staggering. As you leave the museum and walk towards the penultimate Dutch gallery, the Rijksmuseum, are more stalls and stores catering to the van Gogh phenomenon. They sell van Gogh lunch-boxes, puzzles, earrings inspired by "Irises" and rings embossed with a wheat field with crows (about 200 Euro). Also mugs, plates, silk ties (fishboats), T-shirts, towels (apple blossoms), umbrellas and a huge selection of books and prints.
More van Goghs, including the glamorous "Café Terrace at Night," hang in the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Hoge Veluwe National Park in eastern Holland. A train to Apeldoorn, and a public bus from the station, will get you there in a few hours. At the park entrance, you can pick up a bike and ride the seven kilometres or so to the museum.
The single-story complex was built in the late 1930s by art patron Helen Kröller-Müller and her industrialist husband to display her expanding collection of modern artists and Old Masters. A favorite was van Gogh, who she described as "one of the great souls of our modern art on whom the spirit of the times had no grasp." At her death in 1939, she had acquired a collection that is now second only to the Van Gogh Museum.
The Rijksmuseum, opened in Amsterdam in 1885 to house the Dutch national art collection of more than 50,000 works, is currently undergoing "renovations." The project , to be completed by mid- 2008, will cost 272 million Euro ($334 million US)—evidence of what Dutch taxpayers are willing to cough up for their national treasures.
Until then, the museum is showing 400 works in the Philips Wing. Entitled "The Masterpieces," the exhibit revolves around "the miracle of the Golden Age." There are 15 Rembrandts (most famously "Night Watch") and four Vermeers. Other celebrated works include "Winter Landscape" by Hendrick Avercamp and the "Merry Family" by Jan Steen.
A painting of my foursome on the North Sea shoreline would be right at home.
Article By Alison Appelbe
1. Kurhaus Hotel Photo courtesy of Alison Appelbe
2. River Maas Photo courtesy of Alison Appelbe
3. Rijksmuseum Photo courtesy of M. Maxine George
4. Visitors view Rembrandt's Night Watch Photo courtesy of M. Maxine George
Thumbnail photos of paintings courtesy of the Rijksmuseum
For more on information about The Netherlands go to www.goholland.com.
Museums and galleries:
The Rijksmuseum: "The Masterpieces" runs until 2008.
The Van Gogh Museum
Escher In Het Paleis
The Kröller-Müller Museum
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