Letter from the Netherlands

Dear H,

Wednesday: I’m in the Netherlands, with a group of art critics, to preview the exhibition “Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes from the Golden Age.” The show will be at the National Gallery, Washington, until early May, but a smaller version is now at the Mauritshuis, The Hague. It examines a painting genre that developed in the wake of the Netherlands’ hard-won independence from Spanish rule, as the small country, with its international trading networks, grew increasingly prosperous. Burgomasters, stadtholders, and other prominent citizens, proud of their indomitable country and proud, too, of the civility and amenity of their burgeoning cities, had an appetite for “portraits” of their urban centers, their town halls, churches, and private houses, their public spaces and monuments, their harbors and fortifications. The cityscapes they hung in their homes—along with maps—like the large city and harbor views they commissioned for their town halls, were affirmations of status, identity, and the importance of particular places.

We’ll visit The Hague, Delft, Haarlem, Hoorn, and Amsterdam to see the show at the Mauritshuis and, elsewhere, paintings that will be added to the Washington exhibition. More important, we’ll view many of the still-existing sites recorded in those paintings. There are ten of us: seven art writers from New York and Washington, a staff member of the National Gallery, an escort from the Netherlands Board of Tourism, and our guide, Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., the eminent American scholar of Dutch Golden Age painting, co-curator of the show.

It was drizzling and still dark when we boarded the train for The Hague from Schiphol. At dawn we were in an expanse of sodden fields neatly divided by narrow drainage ditches and widely spaced, tree-lined dykes; damp sheep punctuated the fields. The flat terrain, with its distant horizon, seemed vast. A low sun broke through occasionally, back- lighting the cloudbanks in the enormous sky and turning everything into a seventeenth-century landscape, the busy highway beside the railroad track, the high-tech windmills, and the power pylons notwithstand- ing. We’ll see this again and again: the seemingly limitless vistas, in defiance of the intimate scale of the country, and the coexistence of modernity and views we recognize from art historical sources.

Our hotel in The Hague is a fantasy of marble, columns, grand stairways, and elaborate light fixtures, built by a mid-nineteenth-century Dutch baron who used it for entertaining. After his death, his heirs turned the mansion into a hotel with the grandly colonial name “des Indes.” Mata Hari and Josephine Baker were guests and Pavlova died here. Recently renovated, the hotel retains its over-the-top beaux-arts charm. We leave its comforts for a walking tour of the city, dodging puddles. Our extremely flamboyant Dutch guide, born, he makes sure we know, on the “right” side of The Hague, is less interested in the remnants of the Golden Age than in Jugendstil shop fronts—admittedly spectacular—and the palace that serves as a royal office; he’s expert, too, it seems, in the nuances of Hague society. Wheelock politely interrupts, pointing out buildings and views recorded in the paintings we’ve come to see, using the exhibition catalogue for helpful comparisons.

We abandon the Jugendstil enthusiast for the Historical Museum and Jan van Goyen’s enormous 1650 view of The Hague with a pastoral foreground that is a paean to purposeful activity; haymakers, fishermen, canal-boatmen, cowherds, and more go about their tasks, watched over by the distinctive rooflines and church spires of the town, syncopated by patches of sun and shadow, beneath a sky filled with the piled-up clouds we’ve been seeing all day. Apart from its atypical size, the fifteen-foot-wide canvas is a textbook example of the “city portrait” pictures commis- sioned for town halls—we’ll see many of them in the next days. Too large to enter the Mauritshuis, the painting will join the exhibition in Washington, beginning its journey to the U.S. via a second-story window of the HistoricalMuseum. Wheelock grins as he tells us this; the museum curator looks resigned.

We’re near the Mauritshuis, a small, refined building beside an embanked pond, part of a tight-packed row of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century—and earlier—buildings, opposite a wide tree-lined boulevard where trams and cyclists compete for precedence. From where we stand, the view echoes a painting by the cityscape specialist Gerrit Berckheyde—except for a trio of recent buildings in The Hague’s World Bank zone, looming distressingly above the historic center; a narrow red tower by Michael Graves, pointy as a witch’s hat, is supposedly inspired by the steep gables of traditional Dutch houses. Maybe.

At the Mauritshuis, we discover that Wheelock and his Dutch co-curator have interpreted “cityscape” broadly. There are profiles of cities seen from a distance, like the van Goyen—a tradition that Wheelock links to mapmaking—as well as closer views of churches, town halls, markets, the narrow streets along canals, shaded by the trees so prized by local citizens, courtyards and their inhabitants. The mansions going up along the new canals ringing rapidly-growing seventeenth-century Amsterdam are recorded; so is Amsterdam’s grandiose new town hall, a replacement for the more modest original destroyed by fire in 1652. The most thrilling inclusion is Johannes Vermeer’s legendary View of Delft (c. 1660–1661) from the Mauritshuis’s own collection, which will not, alas, travel to Washington. As always, the generously scaled, luminous painting is surprising and compelling, with its limpid reflections and moist light. As always, Vermeer’s apparently truthful depiction of roofs and walls, towers and water, seems like an excuse to explore the relationship of blue, yellow, red and cream, but the iconic canvas gains new resonance in the context of the exhibition. Seen among the cityscapes in “Pride of Place,” View of Delft begins to appear less as a wonderful anomaly in Vermeer’s surviving oeuvre and more as an inspired riff on the cartographic tradition—yet another accounting of a Dutch city’s characteristic rooftops, spires, gates, and façades, seen from a canal outside the walls, albeit “another accounting” whose color, light, structure, and space make most of the related works in the show look tentative by comparison.

Some pictures hold up to the challenge. Jacob van Ruisdael’s city profiles in landscapes dappled with cloud shadows are impressive, especially one from the Mauritshuis collection, showing Haarlem from the linen bleaching fields outside the city—a frieze of windmills, gables, and spires, dwarfed by an enormous church. Arresting, too, is a rose, mauve, and warm gray view of Hoorn painted by Abraham de Verwer about 1645. A recent acquisition of Wheelock’s for the National Gallery, the picture shows the city as if from a small boat in the harbor: a narrow band of spiky verticals—towers and the masts of anchored ships—laces together the radiant sea and sky.

Proust echoing through our minds, some of us search the View of Delft for Elstir’s “patch of yellow,” weighing, too, the current vogue for attributing the excellences of seventeenth-century Dutch painting to the use of optical devices against what we see. Our conclusions? That, pace Proust, there’s no single dominant patch of yellow, and that while Dutch painters may have experimented with the special lenses produced at the time, that’s not the whole story. We’re startled when imminent closing is announced. We’ve seen nothing of the permanent collection. Then Wheelock performs the first of what will be a series of small miracles, throughout the trip, based on his deep connections with his field of scholarship. The Mauritshuis’s new, young, Dutch-American director is happy to keep the museum open for her former mentor and his guests, so we can savor such disparate masterworks as Rembrandt’s seductive Susanna, Carel Fabritius’s—Rembrandt’s student—enchanting goldfinch on a perch, and Paulus Potter’s imposing bull. Susanna, small, intense, and deeply felt, is as mysterious as I remembered. The Fabritius, one of the few extant works by this gifted, tragically short-lived painter, is deceptive simplicity itself, the unassuming image, with its nuanced creams, greys, and dull golds, is broadly handled and brilliantly adjusted to the rectangle. Interesting for other reasons, is a double portrait of Constantijn Huygens, the remarkable poet/statesman/connoisseur /poet/secretary to the Prince of Orange—Huygens was the first to write enthusiastically about the young Rembrandt—and his wife, the inspiration for his poems. The painting was misattributed and the subjects remained unidentified until they were recognized as Huygens and his “Stella” by Julius S. Held, a former professor of mine, when he was well into his eighties. My connection with Held, an important Rubens scholar with great expertise in Dutch painting, establishes my credentials with Wheelock and he asks me to tell the others the story of the Huygens portrait.

It’s dark again and drizzling when we finally leave. Crossing the boulevard, we forget about cyclists in the bike lanes and Wheelock, who has lived for extended periods in the Netherlands and is perfectly used to bicycle traffic, has to shout warnings to avert disaster. Our destination is the gallery of a celebrated dealer in Dutch art. Entering the eighteenth-century mansion, we step into another era. Our elderly host—a friend of Wheelock’s, of course—is tall, lean, silver-haired, impeccably tailored, and courtly. The setting is the architectural equivalent. We sit around a splendid table, admire the period furnishings and the paintings on the walls—the effect is “elegant home,” not “place of commerce” —and listen to anecdotes about the restoration of the house and the finding of notable paintings, while a gallery assistant pours wine and passes cheese biscuits. Civility and amenity, indeed.

Thursday: Delft. We pass more wet fields and wet sheep en route to the city where Vermeer and Fabritius painted and where the thirty-two-year-old Fabritius died in 1654, when the cataclysmic explosion of a powder magazine leveled a huge area of Delft, killing and injuring hundreds. We meet the director of the Museum den Prinsenhof, a good friend of Wheelock’s, an articulate woman with a no-nonsense air who recently spent a year walking from Delft to Santiago de Compostela, on a pilgrimage. She leads us on a less ambitious but informative tour of Delft. Feeling that we’ve entered a Pieter de Hooch painting, we move past brick houses with generous, multi-paned windows and arched entrances to hidden courtyards, along brick sidewalks flanking a tree-lined canal. The scale is domestic, even cozy. As if right on cue, a sturdy woman scrubs her doorstep as we pass. We stop to study a stone plaque, familiar from de Hooch’s paintings of people enjoying drinks within a courtyard. But we’re outside, on the street, looking in, which confirms something that we already sense, as we compare actual views to the catalogue images. The painted cityscapes are so apparently accurate, their textures and light so convincingly rendered, that we believe this is how it was—or should have been. Yet, as we are increasingly aware, seventeenth-century Dutch cityscape painters took enormous liberties with their subjects, moving things around, changing sightlines, correcting infelicities, in order to make better pictures or to make the places they depicted look cleaner and better maintained. We turn to look at the landmark tower of Delft’s Oude Kerk, with its distinctive bulge and corrective backward lean; in all the paintings in which it appears, the tower is properly vertical.

Just what constitutes truth becomes more elusive when we study the Nieuwe Kerk from the viewpoint Fabritius adopted in his tiny, perplexing View of Delft (1652, National Gallery, London). We note the architectural features of the church, seen from its apse end, and acknowledge several depicted buildings, surviving on a flanking street, over a canal bridge, to our right. But Fabritius played havoc with scale, angles, and perspective. The transformations suggest the use of a lens, but the picture is not just an optical tour de force. The spatial irrationalities are expressive, intensifying the mood of melancholy evoked by the figure seated to the left, amid musical instruments that burst the confines of the canvas, making us participants in this eerie little picture.

Things get even stranger in the town hall when we find ourselves in a familiar space with an interior arcade and a bold black-and-white tile floor. We’ve seen the floor and the arches in the exhibition’s 1663 view of Delft by Daniel Vosmaer, but in the painting, they are not within a room but form an outdoor loggia from which we view the distant town. The painted vista includes the towers of the Oude Kerk, the Nieuwe Kerk, and that of the town hall we’re standing in. Vosmaer’s apparently innocuous exercise in urban pride and perspectival virtuosity turns out to be a fictional image of a real view, framed by a space that actually exists but has been relocated outdoors, to a place from which the building in which the loggia is located can be seen. Or something like that. (Vosmaer’s viewpoint is easily located and the accuracy of everything but the loggia verified.) Our sense of reality nicely disrupted, we are not surprised to learn that the reverently roped-off floor plaque marking Vermeer’s grave in the Oude Kerk has been located arbitrarily; all that’s certain is that he was buried in the church. Lunch distracts us from these tests of perception—Dutch nouvelle cuisine, which orchestrates such traditional ingredients as tiny, briny North Sea shrimp or herring as tantalizing contrasts of texture and flavor; we are intrigued by miniature bowls of savory “mustard soup,” which, our Board of Tourism friend says, is “very easy to make”—heavy cream and mustard, heated slowly. The cholesterol conscious among us are glad the bowls were minuscule.

We return to the Prinsenhof, where William I, Prince of Orange, was assassinated by a fanatical Spanish loyalist. Visiting schoolchildren in period costumes, with impressive weapons, false mustaches and beards, are reenacting the assassination on the very staircase where it happened. They’re having a splendid time, especially the prince and his assailant, who keep repeating the murder. Soldiers rush in to seize the assassin, slightly impeded by slipping foil helmets. The court ladies giggle. Only after the murder has been definitively committed can we climb the stairs to see the collection.

On to Haarlem. The abrupt difference between city and countryside so vividly recorded in the paintings we’ve seen has been replaced by modern suburbs, industry, and the discreet Dutch version of the commercial strip. Vermeer’s view of Delft no longer exists. Highway interchanges have replaced the fields and the fortifications are now a ring road. That the historic center is largely intact and vibrantly alive seems all the more notable and precious. Similarly, while Ruisdael’s linen bleaching grounds are nowhere to be seen as we approach Haarlem, the long, straight streets lined with low brick buildings are pure seventeenth century. We walk past the immaculate front doors of miniature houses to reach the FransHalsMuseum, in one of the charity homes whose governors Hals painted. Male residents lived in the little houses; widows and spinsters lived on interior courtyards, safe from threats to their virtue. Hals’s bravura group portraits of the socially prominent men and women who ran these homes are among the jewels of the collection, the snowy linen and sober black of severe clothing providing the painter with a pretext to indulge his ability to manipulate and orchestrate pigment, from transparent white highlights to inky depths; no wonder Manet was so interested in these paintings.

The recently retired museum director—tall, bony, silver-haired, impeccably tailored, and aristocratic, like the Amsterdam art dealer—leads us on a city walk, joined by his successor, a young, bright woman, like the director of the Mauritshuis. (Both are good friends of Wheelock’s, naturally.) The former director makes the seventeenth-century city come alive, from the charitable institutions that Hals’s governors ran to the luxurious barracks of the civic guard whose captains he painted. Serving in the guard, we learn, was a social, rather than a military honor, a necessary step for anyone who aspired to public office; attendance at banquets, rather than musket practice, was required. We see the site of Hals’s studio and shop, near a busy corner, where clients could buy finished works or commission others. As it grows dark, we mystify passers-by by crowding into an arched doorway to check a view of the enormous church of Saint Bavo against a Berckheyde painting made from that spot, shielding our eyes against the streetlights to appreciate the painter’s exaggerations of the height of the building and the monumentality of the tower. Then off to a “brown café,” so-called because of the deep staining on the walls from generations of smokers, now mercifully smoke-free. Plied with cheese, sausage, and local beer, we hear about the revival of Haarlem’s artisanal breweries, celebrated since medieval times, later subsumed by large enterprises. We learn about reconstructing ancient methods, ending with an offering of stout brewed from an antique recipe that impresses us all.

Friday: to Hoorn, a former shipping port on the Zuider Zee, once so prosperous that its branch of the East India Company funded Henry Hudson’s explorations, now, because of land reclamation begun in 1932, a picturesque resort town on the freshwater Ijselmeer. It’s cold and windy, so we’re glad to enter the sturdy Baroque town hall that now serves as the WestfriesMuseum. We admire the massive beams of the main meeting room, with its wall-to-wall, life-sized group portraits of civic guards. The rest of the museum has a homemade charm, but the painting we’ve come to see, which will travel to Washington, is quite spectacular—a large view of the city, from the water, by Hendrick Vroom, a marine painter who filled the foreground with obsessively detailed ships, festooned with cheerful flags. We brave the wind to walk around Hoorn’s harbor, with its enormous lighthouse tower, tracing the successive expansions of the anchorage made by cannibalizing canals; former warehouses from the shipping days have been turned into rather over-designed living spaces. Thoroughly chilled, we head for Amsterdam.

Our hotel, the Amrath, by the harbor, is the former Shipping House, the offices of the leading shipping companies of the city, built between 1912 and 1916 and considered the first major building in the AmsterdamSchool style. Marine motifs dominate the elaborate wrought iron door handles, railings, and light fixtures, set against exotic wood paneling. You seize a trident to open a door. The main stair, tightly folded on itself, is lit by a stained glass “dome”—also folded and angled—whose undersea themes are reprised elsewhere. We are given a tour of this amazing building, to see meeting rooms and private suites in which the original furnishings, carefully restored, restate the motifs we’ve seen in the public spaces. We are entranced.

It gets even better when we embark on a tour of the city from the water in a small wooden “salon boat” originally used by tax collectors. Our guide is a young curator of the AmsterdamHistoricalMuseum, a contributor to the exhibition catalogue, a friend of Wheelock’s, and like the other art historians we’ve met, personable, articulate, and very smart. We quickly maneuver out of the harbor, checking what remains of the views of the city from the water depicted in paintings we’ve seen, and then move along the three “new” canals constructed in the seventeenth century, on the eastern side of the city, then as now the Upper East Side of Amsterdam. Our guide has prepared images of relevant paintings for us, so we eagerly note what has remained, what has been changed, and what adjustments the artists have made. We discover notable alterations of viewpoint and scale, unsurprising, at this point, but nonetheless interesting. A church constructed in the period has been made more imposing than it appears in reality, for example; distances between bridges have been exaggerated. One of the most engaging comparisons comes when we enter the so-called Golden Bend of the Herengracht, which Berckheyde painted about 1672, showing pavements under construction and some building sites still vacant. The painting turns the alternation of elegant houses and spaces into a near-abstract pattern of light and dark, reflections and shadows. We see nothing so dramatic, but we recognize many of the buildings Berckheyde recorded, some still unchanged.

We leave the salon boat and walk, dodging cyclists, to the AmsterdamHistoricalMuseum, a fascinating building with a notable collection, from which a number of very choice cityscapes will travel to Washington. Others will not. Wheelock and the curator wrangle amiably about this. A special bonus is the presence of Rembrandt’s uncanny 1632 masterpiece, The Anatomy of Dr. Tulp, on loan from the Mauritshuis. As we leave the museum, a vintage street organ, part of the collection, wheezes out a Gershwin tune, appropriate for its period, perhaps, but not what we expected. It’s a reminder that we will be leaving tomorrow. Still, there’s the Washington incarnation of “Pride of Place” to look forward to.


Karen Wilkin