Holland through its Artist's Eyes


by Johnny Lucas


Visiting old friends in the Netherlands

The last time I was in The Netherlands I looked up some old friends. Vermeer introduced me to some enigmatic women in his studio, Saenredam took me to church. With Jacob van Ruisdael and his uncle Salomon I went to the countryside and saw some of the most peaceful scenery anywhere, and Van Gogh took me around Neunen, the little town in which his father used to preach. Just before I left, Mondriaan showed me some metamorphic trees and some windmills the colour of tulips.

Holland is a small country, very easy to get around, I could have gone to any of these places by myself, but these artists are great company. Once you have seen The Netherlands as its artists do, it's hard to see it any other way.

It is typical of Dutch landscape paintings to be one third land and two thirds sky. Holland has no mountains to get in the way of the view, and the sky is always interesting, always changing and important.

Jacob van Ruisdael's "Dune Landscape" (Frans Hals Museum Cat. 257) is one of the many paintings which keep to this proportion. The dunes he painted are still to be found in Holland 300 years later, nothing has changed about the way he saw the light and sky in the 17th Century, the Golden Age of Dutch art.

Historical Amsterdam comes alive at the Amsterdam Historical Museum and at the Nederlands Scheepvaart Museum.

Let's not get too involved in the word "Scheepvaart", but I suppose it bears mentioning that it has nothing to do with woolly animals. It's "scheep" as in ship, and "vaart" as in the root word for faring, as in sea-faring. You can call it the Maritime Museum.

Amsterdam's Centraal Station is an interesting Victorian building, used by thousands of commuters and long-distance train travellers every day. But because I've been to the Scheepvaart Museum, I have the feeling that it's really a Johnny-come-lately interloper on the face of the city. In 17th century paintings the massive Dutch fleet is anchored in the exact spot now occupied by Centraal Station!

Over at the Historical Museum there's 1538 "birds-eye view" painting of Amsterdam by Cornelis Anthonisz. The 16th century city is a ring of canals surrounded by fields and a few windmills. Today, that city of 1538 is the core of modern Amsterdam, the fields having become suburbs.

This remarkable painting intrigues me: How did Anthonisz get a birds-eye view of anything back in 1538? KLM says that it's the world's first commercial airline company, but even it does not go back that far. Did a bird or a hot air balloon pick him up? Was there a forerunner of the CN tower that historians have forgotten to tell us about?

At the Amsterdam Historical Museum there are no the dusty drawers and books. This museum uses its art and artefacts to get visitors involved and thinking about life the way it must have been for Amsterdammers over the eight centuries of the city's life. It's a terrific and sophisticated museum.

The treasures of the Rijksmuseum could be displayed in a cold barn lit by a few fluorescents, and they would still be eye-openers, worth the trip to the Netherlands to see them alone.

The Rijksmuseum is the single most important museum in the country and definitely among the top five in the world. Pieces which would each warrant a museum to themselves rub shoulders: Rembrandt's Night Watch (now restored to it's original colours shows that it was painted on not such a dark night), Vermeer's exquisite, small canvases, Saenredam's churches, Hals portraits, landscapes by the Ruisdaels... The building explodes with these powerful pieces.

In this treasure house there's also floors of period furniture, a collection of historic Delft blue ceramics (that includes a blue & white violin that has to produce a sound even more ridiculous that it's appearance - if that's possible) and a cafeteria that's got the best apple pie I have tasted in any museum.

There is so much art and so many museums in Holland that any must-see list soon gets crowded. In this country which is less than half the size of New Brunswick there are over 800 museums. Why?

Partly because the Dutch middle class was the first middle class anywhere to adorn their homes with paintings. The middle class, the aristocracy, and the merchants becoming rich on international trade paid the bills of geniuses like Rembrandt and of more than a few schlockmeisters whose names have been mercifully forgotten.

At one time there was an "art" industry in Holland whose assembly line turned out grand portraits, complete except for the face of the "subject". When a client with the right ratio of money to taste was found, then and only then did the ready-made painting have the face painted in. Equestrian poses were a favourite.

There is one such painting in one of the finest collections in Holland: the Six Family Collection. In it the horse seems to have more sense than its rider. Jan Six was a wealthy merchant, politician, and patron of the arts; his family's collection shows taste over the centuries ranging from idiosyncratic, to be kind, to superb.

Much of this collection is still intact in the Six House in Amsterdam, and open to the public - sort of. In order to be admitted, you must first present yourself with your passport to the Rijksmuseum and ask for an invitation to visit the Six House. You'll get a card, in French, asking you to attend at a certain hour. It's possible that you could be given a time as soon as the next day but if you really want to go, make your booking early; numbers are very limited in order to protect this private venue.

In the Six House there is one 17th century family portrait in which the table and inkstand that is in front of the sitter in the painting is now standing in front of the painting, looking like a message from a time machine.

Over the years the Six family have had to surrender some of their prizes to the state in lieu of taxes (Vermeer's "The Little Street", not at the Rijksmuseum was once theirs).

La piece de resistance is a portrait of Jan Six by his friend, Rembrandt van Rijn. The last room on the walk through Jan Six's house leaves you in the room where this portrait hangs. No electric lights, no glass covering to glare back at you: Jan Six himself seems ready to walk out of Rembrandt's painting and talk to visitors.

The Six Family have moved house a few times, taking not only their collection with them, but in the case of the Rembrandt portrait, they have moved the whole room, walls, doors, fireplace and all - because it suits the portrait so well.

This masterwork is one of the few Rembrandts whose authenticity has never been questioned. The painter's work and the sitter's personality exude a sense of masterful certainty. I guarantee that when you stand in front of this painting you may find some questions forming in your mind, but the authenticity of the painting or of the experience won't be among them.

It is not just the wealth of the country and patrons such as Jan Six that explains the artistic brilliance of Holland. There really is a distinctive quality to the light that shines there. It affects the way the Dutch, and even tourists to Holland, see the world.

The Gulf Stream runs from the Caribbean to Northern Europe and keeps Holland bearable in the winter, despite being on the same latitude as Churchill, Manitoba. It ensures that even on "clear days", most of the country is covered with maritime air. As the sun filters through this humid mass, light takes on the silver-gold quality found in most Dutch painting.

The diffused light creates no harsh shadows. Vermeer's work shows this well. All but a few of his paintings were made in his Delft studio (which is now a hair salon). The light was always from the leaded-glass window on the sitter's right. The soft dark areas are as essential to the portraits as is the sitter herself.

In Vermeer's landscape painting, The View of Delft, the presence of soft light and soft shadows locate the scene in Holland as surely as the church towers locate it in Delft.

It's not just the quality of light that is distinctive in most Dutch paintings, but also the quantity. Everybody loves sunlight; the Dutch have an extra reason to think it's precious.

Dutch winters are temperate, but they are long and they are dark. Whatever light there is must be captured and savoured. It is said of England that if it had a decent climate it would never have had an empire. Dutch winters in the days before central heating must have motivated generations to maintain Dutch colonies in the East and West Indies.

Visitors to The Netherlands always notice the large, uncurtained, and clean windows in every house. Are they open and clean so that people can look in to be assured that the occupants are living good Lutheran lives, or is it so that the occupants can look out to make sure that everything is in order in their city? Most likely it is just to admit as much light as possible.

Rembrandt is famous for his use of light - his use of darkness is brilliant. To look at a Rembrandt painting you might think that he got the paint and canvas for free but had to pay for the light. A typical Rembrandt has great areas of unfathomable darkness and a few, precious, sparkling spots of light.

In that portrait of Jan Six, the subject seems to be moving towards us out of the darkness. Rembrandt had the genius and courage never to let the subject step all the way out into the light.

A contemporary of Rembrandt who found lots of light indoors was Pieter Saenredam. His church interiors show the strong, simple spaces that are distinctive of Lutheran churches throughout the world.

The peace and serenity of Saenredam's "Buurkerd op Utrecht", for example (also in the Six collection) or of his painting of St. Mariakerk (in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) will calm the receptive viewer better than any prescription tranquillizer.

Many, but not all of the interiors Saenredam painted are well preserved today. I remember carrying my collection of Saenredam postcards into a church he had painted to compare the painting, done in the 17th Century, to the church as I found it in the 20th century. At first I noted a few electrical outlets and some modern pews. I acted like a disapproving grandmother.

Then I was struck, as if by a disapproving great-grandmother, by the realization that looking for small differences was not the issue - the magic of the place which had attracted Saenredam 300 years ago was clearly still there. Now I can't look at a Saenredam painting, even in my postcards, without feeling peaceful and hearing the silence.

Saenredam's church paintings either have no people in them or they have small remote figures, dwarfed by the architecture of magnificent spaces. In Frans Hals' portraits, people are front and centre, showing all the personality and individuality for which the Dutch are still famous. They even show their faults.

Look at Hals' "Militia Company of St. George". These guys have had more than enough to drink, they're eating their hearts' content, you can almost hear the raunchy jokes they're telling, and they each have a personality as distinct as any of your friends. Except for their clothes, these 11 guardsmen could be a bunch of businessmen congratulating themselves on a successful take-over.

Hals portraits were commissions, but his genius is like that of a ballet dancer who trains, works, sweats and suffers to make it all look effortless. Through the portraits Hals seems to say "This is a fascinating person whom I am absolutely delighted to have had the chance to sit with long enough to paint a portrait."

My favourite Hals painting, an image which I could never forget (even if I were to try, which I won't) is the marriage portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen which hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The clear, open and happy faces of this long-gone couple will melt any heart.

Vincent Van Gogh has probably eclipsed Rembrandt as Holland's most famous son. His best known works were painted in France, but his formative years were spent in Holland.

Van Gogh's portraits of the villagers of Neunen, of the "Potato Eaters", of old shoes, of his father's church and vicarage (a nice pen & ink drawing is in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario) prepared him well for the bright, over-saturated colours he would find in Provence. But like a true Dutchman he never took the heat, the abundance of light and colour for granted; his baseline was always the more subtle tones of his native country.

The Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is ablaze with the largest collection of Van Gogh works in the world. His drawings in this museum are not nearly so well known as the paintings, but are a revelation to anyone who thinks he or she knows Van Gogh's work. Most of these remarkable drawings are of Holland.

On my last visit to Holland I had something that I wanted to show Vermeer, difficult since he's been dead since 1675. It was a cartoon based on his portrait of a kitchen maid pouring milk into a bowl. The cartoon showed this woman having dropped the milk pitcher out of the painting and onto the floor of the gallery where she stared at it despondently. Irreverent? Maybe, but I thought Vermeer would have liked it.

As a next best thing, I gave the cartoon to the museum guard who stands in the same room as this painting. At first he looked at me a little officiously, a little suspiciously. Studying the cartoon through his spectacles, he suddenly got it, and broke the appreciative silence that surrounds these masterpieces with his great guffawing laugh. He thanked me heartily and hurried off to show the cartoon to the other guards.

As tour guides Rembrandt, the Ruisdaels, Van Gogh, Hals and their famous countrymen are without equal. They gently show what they love best about a country which they loved well. Most of us have seen their work in reproductions so often that the artists seem like old friends. It's just a little hard to know what to bring them when you visit.

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Page maintained by Johnny Lucas, Travel@JohnnyLucas.com. © J.P.Lucas. Created: June 24, 1996 Updated: January 19, 1997