For a lot of Brits the Netherlands (apart from maybe Amsterdam) is still something of a mystery. That’s a shame really because it’s full of beautiful, cool and interesting places to explore, it’s so close AND everyone speaks English too. Getting there is a cinch and getting around once you are there is fast and easy.
Rotterdam, Utrecht, Tilburg, The Hague, Delft and even Eindhoven are all accessible on a day trip from Amsterdam, but take my advice, it’s more fun to stay and stick around these places for a while. I popped on the train to The Hague and nearby Delft to breathe in some regional Dutch culture, oh and to look at some nice paintings too.
A Golden Age for the Netherlands
For lovers of art the Netherlands have been even more of a hot spot than usual for the last 12 months or so. Unless you’ve been living under an artistic rock you will probably know that it is 350 years since the great Dutch Master Rembrandt died. To ‘celebrate’ the anniversary there have been all kinds of special exhibitions happening (like the current new Valaquez and Rembrandt exhibition at the Rijksmuseum) and the Golden Age of Dutch Art has been quite rightly glowing in the spotlight once again.
I’ve written about The Hague before (here), but one of the places I missed last time I was here was The Mauritshuis, it’s a fantastic 17th century house in the heart of The Hague, close to the Royal buildings and one that has since 1774 been home to some pretty famous art pieces.
Nicolaes Maes @ The Mauritshuis
I’m here to visit a brand new exhibition at the Mauritshuis and the first true International exhibition focusing on possibly Rembrandt’s most talented pupil, Nicolaes Maes. It’s a collaboration between the gallery and the National Gallery in London and the set of thirty important paintings on display trace a definitive line through the career of possibly the most successful and talented Dutch artist of the final part of the 17th Century.
From the Darkness, Comes the Light
His earlier pieces perhaps unsurprisingly focused on religious scenes, (in those days the Church had all the money when it came to commissions), Maes has also gained notoriety since for his studies depicting domestic life within the houses of richer noblemen and the most popular works are arguably the six ‘eavesdropper’ paintings he created between 1655 and 1657. Linked by a similar visual style they all show an ‘eavesdropper’ depicted in the foreground listening-in to a private and possibly salacious encounter in an adjoining room. Their secretive and mischievous context was the perfect way for Maes to demonstrate his amazing mastery of painting darkness, shadows and light together. His former teacher Rembrandt, no slouch in that department himself would have no doubt been suitably impressed.
Unlike many of the artists now revered as Masters of the Golden Age, Nicolaes Maes was in his later life, able to live as a successful artist. His talents were broadly recognised and when he moved to Amsterdam he was paid by the wealthy guildsmen and traders to paint family portraits and several of these stunning paintings are also included in the exhibition. If you can’t get to The Hague to see the exhibition, don’t panic it will also be visiting the National Gallery in London from 22nd Feb next year. Nicolaes Maes isn’t the only reason to visit the Mauritshuis, there are some other real superstar paintings here too.
Vermeer and Rembrandt
Possibly the most famous is Vermeer’s ‘The Girl With The Pearl Earring’. For me experiencing it up close for the first time, having seen copies of it for so long gave me the tingles. What really struck me is its breathtaking simplicity. The brush strokes are so delicate but confident – it feels like it was almost dreamt onto the canvas. The earring itself is simply two brush strokes and the girl’s radiance is electrifying. Considering it was painted in 1665 that is something very special indeed.
Incidentally another well-known painting by Vermeer, ‘View of Delft’ is also at The Mauritshuis as is ‘The Goldfinch’, a painting by Carel Fabritius. the Goldfinch has become more famous recently due to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt and the recent film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman. Fabritius like Nicolaes Maes was also a student of Rembrandt and no visit to The Mauritshuis would be complete without also seeing The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, one of his most famous works.
The interesting thing about this painting (apart from its brilliance) is its strange perspective. Look at it from one side and the corpse’s legs appear very short. Look from the other and they are very long. This is because Rembrandt knew that the painting was to be displayed in a certain position in the Anatomical Hall in Amsterdam. Look carefully at the corpses navel and you will see it is in the shape of an ‘R’ (for Rembrandt).
Staying in The Hague
If you want to stay close to the gallery the Stalybridge Suites, are cute little private apartments situated just around the corner. If you’re looking for 5-star luxury The Hotel des Indes is a former city palace complete with Presidential Suite www.hoteldesindesthehague.com and if you want real style, not forgetting a great cocktail Hotel Indigo is the one for you https://www.hotelindigo.com
Pieter de Hooch – From the Shadow of Vermeer
As content as I was with Vermeer’s painting of a view of Delft, I’m heading just down the road to visit the real thing and the place he called home. It was also home to Pieter de Hooch who is the subject of a new exhibition that has just opened at the Museum Prinsenhof in Delft until the 16th Feb 2020.
From the Shadow of Vermeer is actually the first-ever exhibition in the Netherlands devoted to this master of the Dutch Golden Age. Over the past two years, six researchers have looked at his work in detail focusing particularly around his time in Delft and their discoveries form a fascinating addition to the paintings in the exhibition.
There is a lot of new information about the artist ranging from the type of paint he used to his personal life and even new theories about when he actually died.
De Hooch was a fantastic portrait artist, however, I particularly like his street scene paintings of Delft such as ‘A Courtyard of a House in Delft’, painted in 1658 and part of this fantastic new exhibition.
Unfortunately, the house he painted is no longer standing, but the exact plaque stone seen in the picture was kept and is on display at the Museum Prinsenhof. It might seem an odd thing to say, but I especially love the way De Hooch painted bricks. Apparently his Father was a mason, so maybe it was in his genetics. From the shadow of Vermmer – Pieter De Hooch in Delft at the Museum Prinsenhof in Delft until February 16, 2020
There is something so Dutch about his paintings and it’s possible to go out into the City and find some of the places he painted look very similar today. Talking of the city, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many cosy places to have lunch or coffee in one place. Each one seems to be a proud independent and quirkily individual. Apparently they all have a specialty, so one is great for Apple Pie, while another will serve the best Herring and pickles. There are pretty canals, a beautiful market square and town hall and it’s easy to imagine what Delft would have been like 360 years ago when De Hooch and Vermeer were here.
There are also a few nice bars and restaurants too. Once definitely worth visiting (and close to the Museum Prinsenhof is called LEF Restaurant & Bar, I didn’t have anything to eat, but there is a nice selection of local beer and a very typically Dutch friendly and cosy atmosphere. Later in the evening the floor is scattered with the empty peanut shells given out to customers free of charge.
Something else in Delft that is slightly unusual and worth a look if you’re in the area (until 16th February 2020) is ‘Narrow House’, a piece of art by Erwin Wurm which has been constructed in the Old Church in Delft and as the name suggests is in fact a, er, narrow house. It is exactly the same length and height (16 meters long and 7 meters high) as Wurm’s childhood home, but in order to convey the claustrophobic atmosphere of his upbringing, it is constructed extremely narrow (138 cm). www.oudeennieuwekerkdelft.nl