Bored by travelling? As if! I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days in The Hague last week. Although for many, the Dutch city may conjure up images of international criminal courts and embassies, for me it was the art that lured me there. I had really missed spending time in museums and looking at art while I was in South East Asia. Yes, I saw captivatingly carved temples and sensational statues; but there was not much in the way of paintings (unless you count the extremely tacky paintings of the glittering Angkor Wat, the sun rising behind it producing a sky of bright blues and protruding purples) but it wasn’t really the same. Below are a few of my highlights.
My first stop was evidently going to be the Mauritshuis. The Mauritshuis is a perfect size: not big at all, but absolutely stuffed with fine artworks. Best known for Vermeer’s View of Delft and Girl with a Pearl Earring along with Fabritius’ The Goldfinch and Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, I spent my time exploring parts of the collection that perhaps are often overlooked.
Roiger van der Weyden, The Lamentation of Christ, c. 1460-1464
Although described as ‘Flemish primitive’ this is an extremely emotionally intense scene of grief and mourning. A particularly engaging feature of the painting is the arch towards death and decay: starting with the pitiful Mary down to the dead Christ and then finally ending with the skull on the floor, almost touched by Christ’s limp arm.
Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life, 1630
A tipped over, empty glass, a watch, a snuffed out candle, a skull. All are symbols to remind us that we will die – momento mori. The skull almost appears to be alive, gazing over all of the symbols into the abyss, the emptiness of the left-hand side of the canvas.
Rembrandt, The Laughing Man, c. 1629-1630
A very charming little oil sketch of a man laughing; crooked teeth show through his hearty smile, eyebrows raised to expose his glistening eyes. A jovial portrait to remind us of the joys of life – a delightful diversion from the Vanitas Sill Lifes!
Adriaen Coorte Still Life with Five Apricots, 1704 and Still Life with Wild Strawberries, 1705
I had never heard of Coorte before seeing two of his works at the Mauritshuis. The were absolute little gems. In the latter, a little baby strawberry hangs over the edge of the table whilst a white flower stretches up, rising over the mound of strawberries.
Willem Kalf, Still Life with Fruit and Wine Glasses on a Silver Plate, c. 1659-1660
Kalf has always been one of my favourite sill life painters. It’s the way he is able depict the glistening of half-peeled lemons and render the thinness and fragility of glass – both of which are a wonderful presence in this painting. Also, the sumptuous portrayal of the luscious velvet tablecloth is tantilisingly tangible.
Although I had heard of Jan Steen before, I would not be able to have pointed a painting of his out. His paintings were among my highlights of the Mauritshuis (and indeed of the Rijksmuseum at the end of my trip) because of his humerous approach to genre scenes.
i. “As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young”, 1665
The significance of this proverb is that a bad example by the adults leads to bad conduct among the children. The proverb is both literally and figuratively represented: the old sing, and a young boy on the right plays the pipes. There is also an added pun with the pipes: another young boy is seen to be smoking a pipe. This boy is being taught to smoke by his father, also the father on the baby being baptised. The baby in the centre of the scene is being christened – it is therefore amusing to see a glass of wine being poured over its head. Steen obviously saw himself as a bit of a joker and as a bit of ‘banter’ he actually paints himself as the father!
ii. Girl Eating Oysters, c.1658-1660
I was intrigued by this little oil panel. Although at first it might be seen as another genre painting, the young girl smiles sensuously at the viewer, as if trying to seduce us. The fact that she is eating oysters is a hint that she is trying to induce sexual desire (oysters are known as an aphrodisiac).
This museum was a charming little treasure with really wonderful works of art – and not another person there! It holds the collection of Dr Abraham Bredius (1855-1946), an art historian and director of the Maurithuis. Most of his collection was acquired between 1890 and 1930 and it features many works from the Dutch Golden Age, including several Jan Steen pieces.
As I was flying home from Amsterdam in the evening, I decided to spend the rest of my day in the Rijksmuseum. I found it quite a difficult building to navigate which was not helped by the imprecise map. None-the-less, there were some magnificent masterpieces (often besieged by the hoards of people that were unparalleled in The Hague). Again, I here I am going to focus on some of the art that perhaps gets less attention and on paintings from the Dutch Golden Age.
i. Children Teaching a Cat to Dance (“The Dancing Lesson”), 1660-1979
The children are up to mischief (a common theme in Steen’s work): two children are with pipes, both the musical and smoking kind – perhaps a reference to his seemingly favourite proverb ‘As the old sing, so pipe the young’. The old man looking down, out of the window looks rather disapproving.
ii. Interior with a Woman Feeding a Parrot (“The Parrot Cage”), c. 1660-1670
There is so much going on in this scene – the primary focus being the woman feeding a parrot in a cage. There are three men playing a game – gambling perhaps; a boy on the floor feeding a cat; and some oysters on the floor – maybe being cooked by the older woman standing over the fire.
iii. The Feast of St Nicholas, 1665-1668
The Feast of St Nicholas takes place on 6th of December and is the day that the Dutch celebrate Christmas (even today). I think this scene is probably relatable to almost everyone: an extremely comical depiction of family life on Christmas day. There are tears (disappointment at gifts perhaps); a slightly brattish possessiveness over new toys; and above all an element of joy – if somewhat artificial.
iv. The Merry Family, 1668
I include this painting as an interesting comparison with Steen’s “As the Old Sing, sSo Pipe the Young” at the Mauritshuis. The proverb is actually present in the top right-hand corner of this painting.
Gabriël Metsu, The Sick Child, c. 1664-1666
A scene of suffering painted after the Plague had ravaged Amsterdam in 1663. The Crucifixion sketch in the background gives the painting religious undertones – in fact the mother and child are perhaps reminiscent of a Pièta.
Adriaen Coorte, Still Life with Asparagus, 1697; Four Apricots on a Stone Plinth, 1698 and A Bowl of Strawberries on a Stone Plinth, 1696
As I alluded to earlies, I find Coorte’s sill lifes an absolute pleasure – so simple and charming. The fruits or vegetables he depicts are treated with such scientific precision, against dark backgrounds so they stand out. His subjects are always treated in isolation in order to focus on the very essence of that particular fruit or vegetable.
i. Woman Reading a Letter, c. 1663
The geometric composition of the tables and chairs captures the stunning silence of a young woman, dressed in blue (lapis lazuli) reading a letter.The wonderful rendering of light, illuminating the woman’s face evokes a semi-religious mood – to me it could almost be an allegory the Annunciation. This is also partly because of the use of lapis lazuli, often used to depict the Virgin, and also because the woman looks as if she could be pregnant.
ii. View of Houses in Delft (“The Little Street”), c. 1658
I thought this was quite an unusual painting from Vermeer. Although it is painted in a similar style to View of Delft, it is a lot more intimate and could almost be classified as a genre scene. Every brick is painted with such awareness for precision they are almost palpable. The composition is beautifully balanced – again the geometric structures evoke a sense of silence. The open doorways are what give this work an almost genre-like quality – it is as if we, the viewer, are spying in on the goings on of the private sphere of the home.