At the heart of Paris, in a former monastery dating back to the Middle Ages, lives an unusual institution full of surprises whose name in French — le Musée des Arts et Métiers — defies translation.
The English version, the Museum of Arts and Crafts, hardly does justice to a rich, eclectic and often beautiful collection of tools, instruments and machines that documents the extraordinary spirit of human inventiveness over five centuries — from an intricate Renaissance astrolabe (an ancient astronomical computer) to Europe’s earliest cyclotron, made in 1937; to Blaise Pascal’s 17th-century adding machine and Louis Blériot’s airplane, the first ever to cross the English Channel (in 1909).
Many describe the musée, which was founded in 1794, during the French Revolution, as the world’s first museum of science and technology. But that doesn’t capture the spirit either of the original Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, created to offer scientists, inventors and craftsmen a technical education as well as access to the works of their peers.
Its founder, the Abbé Henri Grégoire, then president of the revolution’s governing National Convention, characterized its purpose as enlightening “ignorance that does not know, and poverty which does not have the means to know.” In the infectious spirit of égalité and fraternité, he dedicated the conservatoire to the “artisan who has seen only his own workshop.”
In 1800, the conservatoire moved into the former Saint-Martin-des-Champs, a church and Benedictine monastery that had been “donated” to the newly founded republic not long before its last three monks lost their heads to the guillotine. Intriguing traces of its past life still lie in plain view: fragments of a 15th century fresco on a church wall and rail tracks used to roll out machines in the 19th century.
What began as a repository for existing collections, nationalized in the name of the republic, has expanded to 80,000 objects, plus 20,000 drawings, and morphed into a cross between the early cabinets de curiosités (without their fascination for Nature’s perversities) and a more modern tribute to human ingenuity.
The museum’s collection has evolved over time, with acquisitions and donations that reflected the tastes and technical priorities of each era. The focus shifted from science in the 18th century to other disciplines in the 19th: agriculture, then industrial arts, then decorative arts.
Mostly French but not exclusively, the approximately 3,000 objects now on view are divided into seven sections, beginning with scientific instruments and materials, and then on to mechanics, communications, construction, transport, and energy. There are displays of manufacturing techniques (machines that make wheels, set type, thread needles, and drill vertical bores) and then exhibits of the products of those techniques: finely etched glassware, elaborately decorated porcelain, cigar cases made of chased aluminum, all objects that could easily claim a place in a decorative arts museum.
The surprising juxtaposition of artful design and technical innovation pops up throughout the museum’s high-ceilinged galleries — from the ornate, ingenious machines of 18th century master watchmakers and a fanciful 18th century file-notching machine, shaped to look like a flying boat, to the solid metal creations of the industrial revolution and the elegantly simple form of a late 19th century chainless bicycle.
Few other museums, here or abroad, so gracefully celebrate both the beautiful and the functional — as well as the very French combination of the two. This emphasis on aesthetics, particularly evident in the early collections, comes from the aristocratic and royal patrons of pre-revolution France who placed great stock in the beauty of their newly invented acquisitions. During this era, people wanted to possess machines that surprised both the mind and the eye.
From this period come such splendid objects as chronometers built by the royal clockmaker Ferdinand Berthoud; timepieces by the Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet; a finely crafted microscope from the Duc de Chaulnes’s collection; a pneumatic machine by the Abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet, a great 18th century popularizer of science; and a marvelous aeolipile, or bladeless radial steam turbine, which belonged to the cabinet of Jacques Alexandre César Charles, the French scientist and inventor who launched the first hydrogen-filled balloon, in 1783.
Before the revolution, new scientific inventions appeared on display at fairs or in theaters. The sciences were part of the culture of the period, they were attractions, part of the spectacle. This explains some of the collection’s more unusual pieces, such as the set of mechanical toys, including a miniature, elaborately dressed doll strumming Marie Antoinette’s favorite music on a dulcimer; or the famous courtesan Madame de Pompadour’s “moving picture” from 1759, in which tiny figures perform tasks, all powered by equally small bellows working behind a painted landscape.
A threshold moment occurred in the decades leading up to the revolution, when French machines began to shed embellishment and become purely functional. A prime example is a radically new lathe — a starkly handsome metal rectangle — invented by engineer Jacques Vaucanson in 1751 to give silk a moiré effect. That same year Denis Diderot and Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert first published their Encyclopedia, a key factor in the Enlightenment, which among many other things celebrated the “nobility of the mechanical arts.” The French Revolution further accelerated the movement toward utility by standardizing metric weights and measures, many examples of which are found in the museum.
When the industrial revolution set in, France began to lose its leading position in mechanical innovation, as British and American entrepreneurial spirit fueled advances. The museum honors these foreign contributions too, with a French model of James Watt’s double-acting steam engine, a 1929 model of the American Isaac Merritt Singer’s sewing machine and an Alexander Graham Bell telephone, which had fascinated visitors to London’s Universal Exhibition in 1851.
Even so, France continued to hold its own in the march of industrial progress, contributing inventions such as Hippolyte Auguste Marinoni’s rotary printing press, an 1886 machine studded with metal wheels; the Lumière brothers’ groundbreaking cinematograph of 1895; and, in aviation, Clément Ader’s giant, bat like airplane.
Although the museum contains models of the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 rocket and a French nuclear power station, the collection thins out after World War II, with most of France’s 20th-century science and technology material on display at Paris’s Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie.
Few sights can top the Arts et Métiers’ main exhibit hall located in the former church: Léon Foucault’s pendulum swings from a high point in the choir, while metal scaffolding built along one side of the nave offers visitors an intriguing multistoried view of the world’s earliest automobiles. Juxtaposed in dramatic midair hang two airplanes that staked out France’s leading role in early aviation.
For all its unexpected attractions, the Musée des Arts et Métiers remains largely overlooked, receiving not quite 300,000 visitors in 2013, a fraction of the attendance at other Paris museums. That, perhaps, is one of its charms.
Parisians know it largely because of popular temporary exhibits. But the museum’s best advertisement may be the stop on Métro Line 11 that bears its name. Its walls feature sheets of copper riveted together to resemble the Nautilus submarine in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, complete with portholes.
For anyone looking for an unusual Paris experience, the station—and the museum on its doorstep—is a good place to start.
Ader Avion No. 3
Six years before the Wright brothers’ famous flight, French inventor and aviation engineer Clément Ader won a grant from France’s war office to test his bat like Avion No. 3 flying machine at the Satory army base near Versailles. Powered by two alcohol-burning steam engines, which moved two propellers, each with four feathery blades, the monstrous creation stood no chance of flight, even though an earlier version had lifted slightly off the ground. Underpowered and lacking a flight control system, the No. 3 swerved off the base’s track when hit by a gust of wind while taxiing and stopped. The war office withdrew its funding.
Ader did not quit aviation, going on to write an important book that presciently described the modern aircraft carrier. He donated Avion No. 3 to the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in 1903, the year the Wright brothers achieved controlled, heavier-than-air flight. It hangs above a classical 18th century staircase, a testament to Victorian curiosity and inventiveness.
Pascal designed the machine in 1642 when he was 19. He was spurred to it when participating in the burden of arithmetical labor involved in his father’s official work as supervisor of taxes at Rouen. First called the Arithmetic Machine, Pascal’s Calculator and later Pascaline, his invention was primarily intended as an adding machine which could add and subtract two numbers directly.
Pascal went through 50 prototypes before presenting his first machine to the public in 1645. He dedicated it to Pierre Séguier, the chancellor of France at the time. He built around twenty more machines during the next decade, often improving on his original design. Nine machines have survived the centuries, most of them being on display in European museums. In 1649 a royal privilege, signed by Louis XIV of France, gave him the exclusivity of the design and manufacturing of calculating machines in France.
Lion and the Snake
A giant snake wraps threateningly around the life-size figure of a lion, an arrestingly lifelike statue made—surprisingly—of spun glass. Master French enameller René Lambourg finished the eight-year project in 1855, then wowed both the jury and visitors at Paris’s Universal Exposition that same year. Lambourg fashioned glass threads between one- and three-hundredths of a millimeter in diameter, then heated them, which created strands as workable as fabric. A long tradition of émailleurs ended with Lambourg’s death, much of the enameling tradecraft disappearing with him, but the museum was fortunate to acquire the masterpiece in 1862.
Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, is shown (right) with his wife, Marie-Anne Paulze, in an 18th century painting. At the museum, visitors can see Lavoisier’s wood-panelled laboratory, in which he recognized and named the terms “oxygen” and “hydrogen,” discovered the law of conservation of mass and created the first extensive list of elements, eventually leading to the periodic table. He also invented scales precise enough to measure the equivalence of a kilogram, a gasometer and a calorimeter capable of measuring body heat. Lavoisier used some 13,000 instruments in his laboratory.
Under the ancien régime, Lavoisier served as an administrator of the Ferme Générale, a tax-collecting operation on behalf of the king, a position that led to his execution by guillotine in 1794, the year the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers was founded.
His widow not only served as an able assistant but also made important contributions by translating critical English treatises for her husband. She continued his legacy by preserving the laboratory and its instruments, on full display at the museum.
Émile Gallé Vase
Master glassmaker Émile Gallé created the striking crystal vase “La Nigelle” in 1900, an exemplar of the art deco movement, which he greatly influenced. He originated a technique for cutting and incising plant motifs onto heavy, smoked glass or translucent enamels, often in multiple colors.
“La Nigelle” and multiple other Gallé pieces reside in the museum within a display case specially created for the collection, which includes a base decorated in marquetry that shows glassblowing, molding, and acid engraving scenes from the Gallé crystal works in Nancy. The museum’s Materials section also contains works by other famous French glass masters, such as a delicate, three-tiered Baccarat crystal filigree stand, made in approximately 1850.
In 1851 French physicist Léon Foucault hung his new pendulum, consisting of a 60-pound, brass-coated bob swinging from a 230-foot cable, from the ceiling of the Panthéon on Paris’s Left Bank. Huge crowds flocked to see the invention, the first ever device to demonstrate clearly the Earth’s rotation using laboratory apparatus rather than astronomical observations. The gentle swing remains at a generally fixed point (depending on the latitude where the device is placed) as the viewers and Earth rotate beneath it.
A reconstituted version of the original now swings from the vaulted ceiling of the museum’s exhibit hall (formerly the Saint-Martin-des-Champs priory). Although a simple device, the physics can be challenging, but well-informed guides are available with explanations. The 19th century experiment, now reproduced throughout the world, gained new notoriety with the 1988 publication of the Italian author Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum, speculative fiction with occult conspiracy theories that centers on the pendulum.
Now deemed one of the world’s great painters, Joseph Mallord William Turner wasn’t always so admired. An ill-spoken Cockeny with eccentric manners and a curious style, Turner was a controversial figure in 19th century London, lampooned in Punch and scorned by critics such as William Hazlitt, who said he produced “pictures of nothing”. In 1841, a London farce featured a scene in which a boy carrying jam tarts falls through the roof of a gallery exhibiting Turner’s paintings. The dealer promptly frames the crumbs and tries to flog them for £1000. Much like Damien Hirst today, he was commercially successful, but often derided.
Despite his London upbringing, Turner was famed for his dramatic representations of storms and seas. Critics were not always impressed. His great swirling seascape Snow Storm (exhibited 1842) was described by The Times as “soapsuds and white-wash”, something that aggrieved Turner who, dubiously, claimed to have observed the storm in question first-hand, tied to the mast of a boat.
Later works were dismissed as the product of a mind gone mad and locked in the cellar of the National Gallery like lunatic aunts. These paintings were the subject of an exhibition at Tate Britain in 2014 (Late Turner: Painting Set Free) while the strange nature of the man himself is explored by Mike Leigh’s film, Mr Turner.
And strange he certainly was. Timothy Spall plays him as a gifted troglodyte, hunched and hook-nosed, communicating in grunts, and that’s not far from the truth. As the critic John Ruskin noted before their meeting, ‘Everybody had described him to me as coarse, boorish, unintellectual and vulgar’. This was partly snobbery. Born in 1775, Turner was the son of a Covent Garden barber and a butcher’s daughter and spoke with such a thick London accent that many in the high-born art world found him incomprehensible. He was eccentric, keeping numerous tail-less cats in a rundown Marylebone house and calling himself Admiral Puggy Booth.
The film shows him visiting brothels, and the artist produces a number of erotic drawings, much to the horror of the National Gallery, who inherited them upon his death in 1851. For decades, it was believed this explicit material had been burnt, but recent research suggests it survived, buried amid the thousands of pieces of paper the artist bequeathed to the nation. The job of sorting through Turner’s 300 paintings and 19,000 drawings and watercolours was given to John Ruskin, a champion of the artist.
As his love of the sea suggests, Turner was a keen traveller. The English and French schools of art were heavily entangled and Turner adored French artist Claude Lorrain, claiming to have cried upon his seeing his ‘Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba’.
In turn, paintings like ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’, ‘Snow Storm’, ‘Sunrise with Sea Monsters’ and ‘Norham Castle, Sunrise’ show the kernel of what became Impressionism. Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro both studied Turner in London and wrote admiringly of his treatment of light.
It’s said that Turner’s hazy skies and seas came from ‘the mistiness and changeability of the British weather’ but they were also a product of the Industrial Revolution (also, he was suffering from cataracts). Unlike the unspoiled cow-drenched idylls of contemporary John Constable, Turner seemed to factor in the atmospheric impact of progress, with skies wreathed in light-changing man-made smoke – as Constable himself noted, Turner seemed to paint with tinted steam’. One of his finest works encapsulates this: ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ shows a barely perceptible steam train emerging from a yellow fog at Maidenhead, London a yolky smudge in the background. It is probably the first railway-inspired masterpiece, the train powering towards us like the future, unstoppable, unflinching.
Late Turner – Painting Set Free is the first exhibition devoted to the extraordinary work J.M.W. Turner created between 1835 and his death in 1851. Bringing together spectacular works from the UK and abroad, this exhibition celebrates Turner’s astonishing creative flowering in these later years when he produced many of his finest pictures but was also controversial and unjustly misunderstood. It is a panoramic survey of a bountiful and significant period of exceptional energy and vigour, maintained despite failing health.
The exhibition was at Tate Britain from September 2014 to January 2015, and since February, the exhibition has been enthralling audiences at the Getty Centre of the J Paul Getty Museum in LA. The exhibition closes on May 24, so if you are in LA and haven’t seen it yet, now it’s the time to go. From LA, the exhibition will travel to the de Young Museum, San Francisco until September 2015. We saw it in London in October last year.
The exhibition brings together more than 60 key oil paintings and watercolours and shows an artist at the top of his game, totally at ease with his media and still keen to push boundaries and challenge assumptions. Turner produced some of his most innovative and challenging work during the last 16 years of his life and the exhibition celebrates Turner as the most innovative and experimental artist of his time.
Highlights of the exhibition include ‘Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus’ and ‘Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino’, rarely reunited since first exhibited together in 1839; ‘The Wreck Buoy’ (1849); and magnificent watercolours like ‘Heidelberg: Sunset’ (c.1840) and the seldom-seen ‘Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland’ (c.1837).
In his later years, Turner’s continuing fascination with the sea reached a zenith. Although he respected existing conventions of marine painting, particularly its 17th century Dutch roots, he consistently moved beyond them, turning the water into a theatre for drama and effect. He confounded viewers with his bold portrayals of modern maritime action – whales and their hunters battling for survival – while striving to capture the mysterious depths and forces of the elements. The London press at the time greeted Turner’s whaling pictures, such as ‘Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!’, with scathing attacks, lambasting their yellow palette and lack of finish.
In addition to the sea, Turner’s insatiable appetite for history, different cultures, and sublime natural scenery, drew him time and again to Continental Europe, where he observed not only spectacular sites such as ancient ruins, medieval castles, jagged mountain peaks and meandering rivers, but also local customs and dress. On such travels he made numerous watercolour sketches, which effectively captured fleeting effects of nature on paper. These works display a complex layering of colour animated through the pulsing energy of turbulent handling. They demonstrate both Turner’s commitment to observed natural effects and his unwavering obsession with the vagaries and delights of watercolour, a medium he had indisputably made his own. Some of the finished watercolours he made for sale after his trips, such as ‘The Blue Rigi, Sunrise’, represent pinnacles in the use of watercolour technique.
Turner was especially captivated by the particular combination of light and colour he found in Venice, and revisited the city several times. He traveled lightly, usually alone, making few concessions to his age or failing strength, and drew constantly in his sketchbooks. Turner’s many images of Venice were among his most potent late works, influencing later artists such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet. For Turner, watercolour was the perfect medium to capture Venice’s aqueous and luminous effects. While based on on-the-spot sketches done in 1840, Turner’s later paintings of Venice drew out the city’s essence and spirit rather than its exact topography.
In later years, Turner was as creative in his approach to media, materials and techniques as he was in his choice of subject matter. He created works that offer some of his most dazzling displays of colour, audacious handling, and complex iconographies. From 1840 to 1846, a smaller canvas for a series of paintings, which were often conceived as pairs expressing opposites. These were principally square, but could also be round or octagonal. Exploring states of consciousness, optics, and the emotive power of colour, they shocked and mystified his audience, who thought them the products of senility or madness. Painted near the end of his life, these inventive works are a coda to Turner’s career, representing a synthesis of his innovations in technique, composition and theme. The exhibition also brings together a group of these unusual square pictures, the first time they have all been shown together.
The episodes Turner picked out from classical myth and biblical fable are boldly reinterpreted when he paints them. With Bacchus and Ariadne, his first square painting, he made no attempt to compete with the ecstatic volatility of the figures in Titian’s painting of the same encounter. Instead the wine god and his tipsy revellers melt in a torrid sensual furnace, a river of molten gold that spills down from a flaring sky. Again Turner evokes something that can scarcely be imagined, let alone made visible: the transfiguration of Ariadne makes her a source of new light, as the jewels in her crown ignite as stars. We are glimpsing a metamorphosis, and Turner therefore paints a metaphor of sexual awakening.
Turner’s watercolours are his most radical works of all. Pale blues and searing pinks touch tiny worlds of feeling into existence. Turner was the first painter who used paint to create a sheer optical rush. When the Tower of London caught fire he captured that as a pure visual thrill in a sequence of watercolours that are barely representational at all.
In 1839, when the painter Paul Delaroche saw the first daguerreotypes (a photograph taken by an early photographic process employing an iodine-sensitized silvered plate and mercury vapour), he said: “From today, painting is dead”. He could not have been more wrong, as Turner’s final works demonstrate. Photography means “writing with light”, but light isn’t necessarily literate, and it doesn’t pencil in outlines or confirm the solidity and separateness of forms. Turner, more perceptively, scribbles, scrawls, doodles and free-associates with light. In his watercolours, composed with “wet-in-wet washes”, a liquid squiggle can suggest a fishing boat, a rapid brush-stroke is able to conjure up a mountain, and a splash of white looks spectral, literally appalling: is the colourless horseman galloping on a stormy beach a glimpse of death, the pale rider?
Perhaps nothing demonstrates Turner’s virtuosity as a painter better than the stories of his performances on “Varnishing Days”. The Royal Academy and the British Institution would set aside a short period of time for artists to put the final touches on their work before an exhibition opened to the public. Turner reveled in the competitive jostling and repartee that occurred on these occasions. In his later years, he would frequently submit canvases with only the roughest indications of colour and form, speedily bringing them to completion on site. Eyewitnesses record that Turner painted most of ‘The Hero of a Hundred Flights’ and “Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons’ on their respective varnishing days. Turner dabbed highlights on his paintings and, to the stupefaction of his colleagues, seemed to animate them by doing so, startling them into life at the very moment when he should have left them fixed and finished.
In late 19th and early 20th century France, the paintings of Turner hovered in the imaginations of artists from Monet to Matisse, who learned from them how colour could be expressive, atmospheric, even abstract. The old cliché that Turner anticipated the Impressionists fades away in this exhibition. Not because it’s untrue, but simply because it is so inadequate to his true influence. If you can see Monet’s ‘Impression: Sunrise’ foreshadowed in his watercolours you can also see how Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst echo Turner’s more surreal moments – his trees that float in the sky like glowing jellyfish or his encrustations of edible-seeming paint.
Art is the exploration of light as it plays on or even sets fire to structure, and of colour as it prismatically opens up the radiance of nature; at its most sublime, it is the art in which sight is intensified and ignited so that it becomes a kind of supernatural vision. Emerging from Turner’s heliocentric cathedral, you have re-accustom your dazzled eyes to the monochrome mock-up we call reality.
The DVD of Mr Turner has been released in Australia today.
The area around Amsterdam Centraal was the beating heart of Amsterdam at the start of its golden age. In place of the crenellated Victorian-era towers of the train station (designed by the architect Pierre Cuypers and opened in 1889) was the harbour itself, a thicket of wooden spikes and sailcloth, constantly alive with pumping, hauling, swabbing, jibing, trimming, augering, sawing, climbing, crawling and cursing. Thus the ships of the harbour would have come right up where they would have nudged little Puffles and Honey’s backsides 🙂 Ouch!
The bridge in front of Amsterdam Centraal was the connecting point between the harbour and city, and as of late August 1602 became the financial district: the de facto stock exchange where shares in the VOC were bought and sold.
Founded in 1602, the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) flourished and survived for two centuries. The company, a combination of commercial organisations in various cities of Holland and Zeeland, traded both in Asia and between Asia and Europe. It was the first public company to issue negotiable shares and it developed into one of the biggest and most powerful trading and shipping concerns. The VOC ran its own shipyards, the largest being in Amsterdam. This spectacular trade with Asia made the Dutch Republic the world’s key commercial hub.
If you wonder around Amsterdam’s fabled canals, especially the Prinsengracht, the outermost central canal, which was specifically designated for commerce, you’ll notice that a lot of the gabled brick buildings that line them have shuttered windows right in the middle of each story. These were warehouses. Indeed, in a sense the whole city became a warehouse. A trader kept his office on the ground floor of his house, the room that connected to the street. His family lived behind. And the upper floors were packed with whatever goods he dealt in. If you turn your gaze upward, you will see a beam jutting right out from the top of each canal house, with a metal hook hanging down from it. Hoist beams are still used, though mostly for moving furniture. In the 17th century, you worked a rope and pulley to haul your crates of goods to the upper floors. Particularly in the case of spices, being able to store quantities kept prices from fluctuating widely which was good for everybody. In 1625, warehouses in the Netherlands contained almost 2 million kg of pepper. The year after, there were nearly 3 million kg of pepper, not to mention warehouses filled with cinnamon, stockfish, tea, whale oil, sugar, salt, soap, sail cloth, silk, beer, tobacco and other goods!
Anyone mentioning the Canal Ring probably thinks of the three canals which are so easily listed in alphabetical and topographical sequence: Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht (gracht is the Dutch word for canal). But in fact the area also includes the Nieuwe Herengracht, Nieuwe Keizersgracht and Nieuwe Prinsengracht (all three to the east of the Amstel), the Singel and the seven transverse canals. The whole area covers some 160 hectares. The total length of these canals is 14 kilometres, crossed by no fewer than 80 bridges! The first phase of the construction was realised from 1610, and the second after 1660.
The city was experiencing its Golden Age in economic, political and cultural terms. The city authorities thus decided to accord the new area an appearance suitable for a rich and powerful trading city. The stately naming of the three main canals was also part of this. The grandeur could be found mainly along the Herengracht (Patricians’ Canal or Lord’s Canal) and Keizersgracht (Emperor Canal). These unusually wide canals with fashionable homes were intended mainly for the prosperous merchants. Industriousness, by contrast, could be found in the transverse streets where shopkeepers were based, as well as on the Singel and Prinsengracht.
Amsterdam’s canal ring, when completed, was the greatest urban feat of the age, a model for cities from England to Sweden. Peter the Great set himself up in the city for a time, studying the engineering and urban planning techniques and then put them to practice in constructing St Petersburg, which was likewise built on marshland. For four centuries Amsterdam’s canal ring has been a wonder, worthy of tourism and imitation, for reasons that UNESCO identified when in 2010 it named the district a World Heritage site: “It is a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, town planning and a rational program of construction and bourgeois architecture”. In other words, the reason early modern Europeans marveled at Amsterdam’s golden age urban core was that it served people, extraordinarily well. And the people it served were not princes or popes, but merchants and tradesmen.
In the family of European capitals, Amsterdam is one of the younger siblings. Even if we set aside Romulus and Remus, archaeological evidence suggests that Rome started with herders and farmers settling the cluster of hills around the Tiber around 900 BCE. Athens goes back staggeringly further than that, into the Neolithic predawn. Amsterdam, by contrast, with its inhospitable geographic position discouraging human settlement, began life circa 1100 CE, when, in an effort to stop the sea from remaking the shoreline every year, a few hundred farmers set to heaping up earthen dikes along the edge of the marshy wilderness they had chosen to call home.
Early humans, in their migratory roaming, sensibly stepped around the whole corner of Europe known as the Low Countries. What is today Netherlands, is one vast river delta. Three of Northern Europe’s largest rivers – the Rhine (12th largest in Europe – begins in southeastern Swiss Alps, forms part of Franco-German border, flows through Germany and empties into the North Sea in Netherlands), the Meuse (oldest river in the world – begins in France and flowing through Belgium before reaching the North Sea) and the Scheldt (begins in Northern France and flows through western Belgium and southwestern Netherlands) – having swept down from the Swiss Alps, rolled across German plains and twisted through Northern France and the forests of the Ardennes in Belgium, reach here to meet the sea.
Starting around 1100 CE, the early inhabitants of what became the province of Holland began to interfere with nature and set off a never-ending struggle against nature, one that continues today. This – the water, the perils, the bravery, the absurdity of the geographic position and the development of complex communal organizations to cope with the situation – explains much of Amsterdam’s history and provides a backdrop for the development of liberalism.
Sometime after the year 1200, in order to control flooding, the inhabitants of a region of marshy soil at a juncture of two bodies of water, build a dam on the Amstel river. The dam would ever after mark the center of the city, and it gave the community a name: Amstelredamme. Perched on the far northwestern flank of the continent, soaked by rains, beaten by winds, ravaged by tidal currents, it was destined to remain a distinctly minor urban hub, home to farmers who grew barley and rye to make their porridge and bread and to fishermen who caught pike, eel and carp in the marshy inlets, all of them living in wooden huts with straw roofs and clay floors sloped to let rainwater flow through rather than puddle. Even among other cities of the Dutch provinces it was a, well, backwater. In part because of the rivers connecting Germany and central Europe to the North Sea, other cities had long-held a certain strategic importance. Utrecht was the bishopric of the region; Nijmegen and Maastricht to the east had been population centers since the Roman era.
But in the year 1345 a miraculous change overtook Amsterdam. The adjective should be taken literally, for on a frigid Tuesday night before Palm Sunday in that year, the ordinary circumstance of an old man quietly dying at home took a strange turn. Shortly after the man was given the sacrament of Holy Communion, he vomited, and the women who were attending him were confounded to see that the Eucharist reemerged from his mouth whole. They threw the vomit on the fire, presumably reasoning that flames offered the least sacrilegious way of disposing of its holy contents, but the wafer did not burn. The town’s clergymen processed to the church bearing the wondrous wafer – which seemingly behaved with a supernaturalness akin to the body of Christ that Catholics believed the Eucharist to be – and a miracle was declared. An imposing church was built on the site of the man’s house, and when it later burned to the ground, not once but twice, and each time the wafer survived the fire, the “miracle of Amsterdam” became a medieval phenomenon.
If you were to look at a typical map of Europe circa 1400, you would probably find it traversed by inexplicable meandering lines, which in turn would probably be the most intelligible thing about the map to a person of the time – for holy pilgrimages held more meaning than latitude and longitude (the latter of which of course did not exist then). People did not go on the Grand Tour, they didn’t see the sights or travel for the experience of foreignness. They sought out holy places in search of relief for their suffering and forgiveness of their sins. The rocky hillroads of Wales were dotted with markers guiding the way to Shrewsbury and Llandderfel. The shrine of the murdered saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury was the obvious goal of English pilgrims. People believed that walking prescribed routes to Jerusalem and the holy city of Santiago de Compostela absolved virtually any sin.
The miracle of Amsterdam put the city on the map. Thousands came from all over the continent, bearing their sick. According to one story, the city’s popularity ratcheted up to another level following a celebrity cure: Maximilian of Austria, the ailing son of the Holy Roman emperor (Frederick III) and himself a future emperor (from 1508 to 1519), arrived at the shrine as a pilgrim in 1489 and was healed. Through marriage of his son Philip the Handsome to the eventual queen Joanna of Castile in 1498, Maximilian helped to establish the Habsburg dynasty in Spain which allowed his grandson Charles to hold the throne of both Leon-Castille and Arangon, thus making Charles V the first de jure King of Spain. Since his father Philip died in 1506, Charles succeeded Maximilian as Holy Roman emperor in 1519 and thus ruled both the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish Empire simultaneously.
Amsterdam grew up around its miracle. Its first canals were dug – to control the ever shifting waters, channeling them into navigable courses, turning a threat to advantage. The still-tiny city, hemmed in from the forbidding sea by its dikes and its dams, filled with religious professionals. The city’s original, modest church, dating from 1306, was rebuilt in 1369 as a lavish, three-aisled Gothic structure and named for St Nicholas. Just four decades later, with the population growing and the number of religious tourists continuing to swell, another parish church was built on the dam in the city centre. It was called, with Dutch practicality, the New Church, whereupon the St Nicholas Church was called (and today is formally known as) the Old Church.
That was only the beginning. A certified miracle in medieval Europe brought on the equivalent of a gold rush. Religious professionals of every stripe flocked to Amsterdam. In little more than a century, no fewer than nineteen monasteries and convents set up shop inside the city, with two others just outside the walls.
In one of those odd twists of history that defy fiction, the site of the miracle – what was once one of Europe holiest spots – is today the home of a hypercheesy tourist attraction called the Amsterdam Dungeon. While the names of the streets in the center of Amsterdam linked with the rise in Catholic piety (Monk Street, Paternoster Alley, Prayer Without End) happen to be in the red light district today. The ‘blood’ in Blood Street does not refer to a street crime, but to the blood of Jesus. Surely few patrons of the prostitute windows in the area realize (or care) that the name of the alley called Kreupelsteeg refers to the crippled pilgrims who came this way, their hearts filled with hope and desperation and prayer – looking for, you might say, a different kind of transcendence.
Talking about Amsterdam’s central red light district, De Wallen, it is a sort of alternate universe Disneyland, noisy and with a certain ragged cheer, visited not only by drunken male tourists, but also couples strolling arm in arm and even families. But not little bears! The city has between 5000 and 7500 licensed prostitutes in a given year, most working in street side windows, the rest in authorized brothels, and if you are nervous and confused as to how to engage a prostitute in the red light district, you can ask one of the police officers on the beat for help! Prostitution is legal and regulated (only EU citizens can prostitute themselves, since, as with any other job, a work permit is required).
Meanwhile, another industry coincided with the rise of religious worship, contributed equally to the city’s growth, and arguably plays a greater role in its culture today than does religion. For centuries prior to the miracle of Amsterdam, Dutch fishermen had plied coastal waters for the rich, oily, strongly flavoured fish of the species harengus and genus Clupea, aka herring. The fish were caught, hauled ashore, gutted and packed in brine to preserve them. The Dutch had no monopoly on the herring trade – it was a common activity in many different northern European lands and the Dutch for a time were regular customers of Swedish-caught herring.
But roughly around the time that the miracle of the fire-retardant wafer took place in Amsterdam, Dutch fishermen developed an innovation that would transform Europe and, in particular, play a role in the rise of Amsterdam. It was the tiniest of things, and it was probably discovered by accident. Fish such as herring have little pouches in their stomachs called pyloric caeca, which contain enzymes that aid digestion. If, instead of gutting the fish entirely, you leave these pouches, as well as the pancreas, in the brine mixture, the result is fish that keeps for a much longer period of time and, as a bonus, has more flavour.
This discovery gave Dutch fishermen – theoretically at least – the ability to move away from the coastlines and into the deep, icy waters of the North Sea. More or less in the middle of that body of water lay Dogger Bank, a broad and relatively shallow region of sea that held a mother lode, for it was thick with the muscular, silvery bodies of shoaling herring.
But such a journey required a new kind of vessel. In 1416, shipbuilders in the town of Hoorn, to the north of Amsterdam, developed a long, stout, eminently seaworthy boat with bulging sides and a cavernous interior. Along with it came modifications that made it possible to do the gibbing (the technique of gutting and curing herring) aboard the ship. Thus the herring buss – essentially a factory that could plow through rolling seas – came into being. Instead of immediately needing to get caught fish ashore, where they then had to be quickly processed and shipped off, the Dutch boats were able to stay at sea for five weeks or more at a stretch, fishing, gibbing and fishing some more, and when they returned to port their hulls were packed with market ready barrels of cured herring that would last for a year and that, to boot, were tastier than the fish that had been cured in the old manner.
Within a few decades, the Dutch had cornered the market. They shipped tons of herring to Poland, to France, up the Rhine into Germany, even as far afield as Russia. At the high point of the industry, fishermen of the province of Holland caught about 200 million herring per year. New wealth came to Amsterdam. And dominance in one field led to success in others. In order to build herring busses, Amsterdam bought timber from Germany and processed it into planks. They city’s sawyers, and later saw mills, produced so efficiently that England’s shipbuilding industry bought processed wood from Amsterdam and the surrounding area. The city’s own shipyards expanded, producing barges for working the region’s rivers as well as seagoing vessels. And the city’s merchants in turn became savvy international traders; they paid top dollar for information about faraway events that they could earn money on and adjusted their cargo accordingly. When harvests in southern Europe failed, the city’s vessels returned from their herring runs to the Baltic port of Danzig laden with rye and wheat, so that Dutch vessels provided Polish grain for tables in Spain and Italy. The ships likewise carried wine from France to the Baltic and brought beer from Germany for Dutch consumption.
While the cities of Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges in the so-called southern Netherlands (today Belgium) were among Europe’s glittering jewels, cornering the refined trades in spices and rare fabrics, their great artists – from Jan van Eyck to Hieronymus Bosch – as fully a part of the Renaissance as Italian masters, Amsterdam came of age by pursuing an altogether rougher market. While the later city would have a high gloss of luxury to it, the late-medieval Amsterdam was still one of rough wooden houses swirling with the acrid smoke of open-pit fireplaces.
Circa 1500, at the high point of Renaissance, as Michelangelo was beginning to work on his David statue and Copernicus was getting serious about astronomy, Amsterdam was both a lively shipping center and one of the most intensely Catholic cities in Europe: a grittily holy place of fish guts and church incense, of bilge, tar, dung, and sour beer; a town of narrow alleys and slanting rainfall, of cursing seamen and scheming abbots.
About 20 years before Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Saxony, Desiderius Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, about 70km south of Amsterdam. The exact year of his birth is debated, with most biographers citing the year as 1466, and although there is no sufficient record confirming this, it is generally believed he was born in Rotterdam. He is known to history as Erasmus of Rotterdam, though he spent only his first four years in the city. He studied in France, Italy and England, and became the great Latin stylist of the Renaissance Church. His fame however came from substance, not style. While he remained an obedient Catholic all his life, Erasmus mounted a sustained assault on the structures of the Catholic Church, insisting that the essence of Christianity was not be found in observance of the sacraments, or in the power of the Vatican, or even in the person of the pope, but in the individual: in the study and awareness of the holy scripture.
His brand of Christian humanism – a learned, honest, individual approach to faith – became a sensation in his homeland. The Dutch were, and are, a practical, no-nonsense people, traits that Dutch writers have linked to their involvement with water and the need for a society in which strong individuals cooperate with one another to get things done on their own, as opposed to the medieval model that prevailed elsewhere in Europe, in which a nobleman ruled an estate and serfs. What struck Dutch Christians most deeply was Erasmus’ focus on the application of individual human reason. The Dutch were among the earliest adopters of a new technology – the printed book – and it proved to be an ideal instrument for advancing this new focus on the individual.
Dutch editions of Erasmus’ works were best sellers at bookshops in Amsterdam, Leiden, Antwerp and other cities and became the basis for a whole new curriculum in Dutch schools. Erasmus himself had a term for this new approach to learning, he called it liberal studies. He never intended it to be anything but a means for correcting faults within the Church. But other people felt differently. In 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five These to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, he set off a tidal wave that rolled west and crashed head-on into the medieval town walls of Amsterdam. It was the era in which popes issued business licenses to brothels (from which they then received revenue), openly fathered illegitimate children and were so flagrant in manipulating their power that Sixtus IV appointed an eight-year-old as bishop of Lisbon. As a major centre of Catholic worship, Amsterdam was as steeped in the excesses and corruption that Erasmus railed against as anyplace.
Like other Europeans, Amsterdammers had become fed up with such activity. If Erasmus, the great Dutch theologian who had inspired them, was not willing to take the full step and sever ties with Rome, his German colleague was. Great numbers of Dutch Christians were ready to follow Luther in breaking away from the Church. It all happened in the course of a few years. The Church moved quickly to combat the challenge to its authority. Luther was excommunicated in 1521. Church officials in the Dutch provinces issued orders to city officials to crack down on dissent. The Dutch provinces were also part of the Holy Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Emperor (Charles V) also issued orders along the same lines. The phrase “slap on the wrist” might have been invented to describe Amsterdam’s official crackdown on Protestant dissent. The municipal leaders paid lip service to the commands of higher authority to punish dissent and continued to tolerate a wide variety of nonstandard behaviour in the streets – including behaviours that directly challenged the authority of church and monarchy. At the same time, in 1523, in Brussels, two Augustinian monks who had followed Luther’s teachings that forgiveness of sin is a power not of the Church but of God, were burned at the stake – the first of what would be a long line of Protestant martyrs.
As a trading city, the leaders did not want to disrupt the flow of business. The city was used to things foreign – accents, tastes, beliefs. People made money on differences, so to speak. The Dutch provinces were relatively complacent components of the empire, however they contributed a large percentage of the taxes that kept the empire afloat. The Dutch people had no national identity as such, they related not to a sense of ‘being Dutch’ but rather to their province, seeing themselves as Hollanders or Zeelanders or Friesians.
The geography of the Low Countries ensured that they would develop in a crucially different way from the rest of Europe – a difference that would lead eventually to violent and world-historic upheaval. One of the defining elements of medieval Europe was the top-down structure of society, called the manorial system, which had a lord who oversaw an estate and peasants who worked the land and paid rent in the form of labour or produce. The lord provided protection and served as the court of law for his peasants, so that the manor was a complete economic and political unit. The Dutch provinces did not become manorial, and the reason, as with everything else, related to water. Since much of the land was reclaimed from the sea or bogs, neither Church nor nobility could claim to own it. It was created by communities (hence the Dutch saying “God made the earth, but the Dutch made Holland”). Many Amsterdammers owned land just outside the city, which they farmed or rented out for extra income. Therefore it was individuals at all levels of society who were invested in the land. This situation meant that ordinary Dutchmen were less inclined to adopt the posture of obedience that serfs and peasants elsewhere were forced into. The Dutch of the 16th century were their own bosses.
This independence was a factor in how rapidly the Dutch took to the liberal humanistic approach to renovating Catholicism, and ultimately to the Protestant Reformation. A people largely independent of the main social organisation through which Catholicism dominated became the most eager to bolt from Catholicism.
The lack of fealty together with a theology of independent thinking in a vigorous trading city resulted in a culture of tolerance, through a policy of looking the other way. This has a lot in common with the modern Dutch notion of gedogen, or toleration of illegal activity. The marijuana trade falls under the Dutch classification of gedogen, which means “technically illegal but officially tolerated”. If you want marijuana, you go to a ‘coffee shop’ (as opposed to a café), where you order marijuana and hashish from a menu, and where products may be divided into categories such as Indoor, Outdoor, and Foreign, and from there into varieties with names like Shiva, White Widow, and Elephant. Owners must apply for permits and pay taxes just like any other business owners, even though the product they sell is technically illegal. Marijuana was legalised in 1976, and there is the logic that says it is better to legalize and regulate activity that will happen anyway. No one claims that the approach has been entirely successful.
In the 16th century, tolerance in Amsterdam was more about “putting up with”, a concept born of necessity and practicality. The Dutch notion of tolerance – which would have such a broad influence on history, colouring the thinking of men like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson – would come into its fullest form a century later.
A crisis between the Catholic authorities and the Protestants built up in the ensuing decades, which would give people in various Dutch provinces a national identity and would transform Amsterdam into the most powerful city in the world. But the crisis was not just about religion, it was equally political and economic.
Another event came into play on October 25, 1555, in Brussels. Dozens of European nobles had gathered to witness Charles V, perhaps the most powerful man in the world, whose titles included Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, abdicate the throne in oder to live out his days in the warmth of the Spanish sun. Charles had modeled himself and his reign on ancient Rome (his court followers referred to him as Caesar) and he wanted to orchestrate his departure from the world stage as a kind of classical drama. He would not live long enough to appreciate how well he succeeded.
Before Charles stood his replacement, his 28-year-old son, Philip, who was about to be known as Philip II and who was about to unleash systematic torture and violence on thousands of people through the Spanish Inquisition. Also present at the gathering was Willem of Nassau, who, through a twist of fate, had become one of the richest noblemen in Europe. When his cousin, René of Châlon, Prince of Orange, died childless in 1544, the eleven-year-old Willem inherited all Châlon’s property, including the title Prince of Orange, on the condition that he receive a Roman Catholic education. Willem’s uncle and Charles had been childhood friends and when 11-year-old Willem inherited all the wealth from his cousin, including large land holdings in France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Low Countries, Charles had him brought to his court at Brussels. The move was not out of kindness to the family, but as a strategic move on the chessboard of Europe. Willem’s German parents had converted to Lutheranism, and Charles wanted to raise the boy himself and so personally take him, and his wealth, out of the play for the Protestants and make it a part of his empire. Willem dutifully grew up Catholic, regal and “Spanish”.
As Philip began his reign, he quickly discovered that his adventurous, war-loving father had left vast problems behind. Foremost among these was money. The interest payments on the government’s debt were crippling and Philip had to raise money. The Dutch cities – money producing engines without parallel in Europe – were the only option. Needless to say, the Dutch provinces were less than thrilled with the plan.
In 1559, Philip appointed Willem as governor of the provinces Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. In June, Philip sent Willem to France as part of a delegation of three ‘royal hostages’ to negotiate a peace treaty with Henry II, the King of France, following the Hispano-French war. During a royal hunt in the Chantilly forest, Henry started to speak of the future. Like everyone else, he had taken a liking to Willem, and of all those in King Philip’s delegation, he preferred to discuss the matter with him. What had brought the French and Spanish kings to the negotiating table was the foolishness of the situation, in which two Catholic kingdoms were at war with each other while the faith itself was being undermined across Europe. As the king talked, Willem realised he was speaking of ideas that Philip and his closest advisers were in the process of hatching, which had been kept from him, but about which Henry assumed he knew. The plan was for a full-scale suppression of Protestantism in the Low Countries – in particular Calvinism, which had overtaken Lutheranism in just a few years to become the main threat to the Catholic faith. Under the oak canopy of the forest, the French king prattled on – systematic torture, mass beheadings, an impressive preview of coming attractions – and Willem kept his alarm hidden, pretending he was already aware of the plan, playacting that would result in the nickname history has given him: William the Silent.
Willem became convinced that Philip was ready to take measures against the Dutch provinces that could not be tolerated, and he determined to take action.
In late July 1559, King Philip appeared in Ghent at a meeting of the representatives of all the Dutch provinces to announce that he was leaving the Low Countries, moving his court to Spain, and stationing his soldiers in the provinces for their protection. During an adjournment, the Dutch representatives prepared a response – unless the king withdrew the Spanish soldiers, they would suspend payment of the nine years’ tax. Philip was furious, but he also had no choice. He was desperately short of funds and he had to relent. He needed the money and he needed it at once. Among the surprises to Philip in this affair was a signature that stood out prominently in the formal complaint: Willem, Prince of Orange.
Willem tried to unite the various provinces in the struggle against Spain; that was his dream. Eventually he succeeded in 1576 – for a short while. That year, when the Spanish soldiers had again not been paid their wages, they went on the rampage in Antwerp, killing and plundering. Even die-hard Spanish supporters withdrew their sympathy. This was the height of the prince’s diplomatic success. In the States General, all seventeen provinces combined against Spain. Willem was the hero of the day, he was welcomed in triumph, even in Antwerp. Yet that unity was short-lived. Three years later, the seventeen provinces broke apart into a Catholic south and a Protestant north. The North continued under the prince of Orange, and the Spanish army launched a new campaign to subdue the secessionist provinces.
More years of religious and political struggle ensued until, on the 26th of May 1578, Amsterdam’s Catholic leadership finally caved in. Technically, it was the day the city became Calvinist, but it might be more pertinent to say it was the day the city became liberal. Ahead was staggering growth, a stock market, a harbour bristling with masts, streets filling with immigrants from all points of the compass, and the separation of the Northern and the Southern Netherlands. Amsterdammers refer to this day as the Alteration.
Two years later, Amsterdam celebrated this rite of passage with a thoroughly medieval ceremony. The ‘princely entry’ had been a staple by which monarchs knitted control and loyalty via pageantry. The last ruler to enter Amsterdam in state had been Charles V. In March of 1580, Willem of Orange resuscitated the tradition, standing on the foredeck of a galley draped with his noble colours (orange has been the Dutch national colour, used for everything from the annual Queen’s Day and King’s Day celebration to the national soccer team’s jerseys, ever since), at the head of a flotilla that entered the harbour and sailed majestically into the city centre. That same year the Spanish king declared him an outlaw.
The city’s civic guard, its mayors, and its real nobility – the merchants and shipping magnates – greeted Willem in front of the City Hall, on Dam Square, the spot where the dam had been built that gave Amsterdam its name. In the evening there was a performance of flaming arrows, and, as a climax, a mock battle between two wooden citadels representing the fortresses of the Prince of Orange and the Duke of Alba, which culminated with Alba’s burning to the ground. It may have felt like an armistice celebration, but the fighting was far from over. Eventually history would come to know it as the Eighty Years’ War. The Netherlands’ struggle for independence would carry on through much of its golden age. Willem himself would die four years later, at his headquarters in Delft, from an assassin’s bullet (the supposed bullet holes are still lodged in the wall), after King Philip, with whom he had once cavorted as a boy, offered a financial reward for any good Catholic who could eliminate the man he called the “sole head, author, and abettor of the Revolt”. Willem is the founder of the branch House of Orange-Nassau and the ancestor of the monarchy of the Netherlands.
We’ll skip any details of the war and fast forward to 1648 when despite many misgivings, the Dutch Republic decided to enter the Peace of Westphalia talks. This was a series of peace treaties signed between May and October 1648 in Osnabrück and Münster. These treaties ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) in the Holy Roman Empire, and the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) between Spain and the Dutch Republic, with Spain formally recognizing the independence of the Dutch Republic. The treaties involved the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand III, of the House of Habsburg; the Kingdom of Spain; the Kingdom of France; the Swedish Empire; the Dutch Republic; the Princes of the Holy Roman Empire; and sovereigns of the free imperial cities.
On 30 January 1648, Spanish and Dutch representatives signed the Peace of Münster, which was officially ratified in Münster on 15 May 1648. For the Dutch Republic this represented more than just an end to the Eighty Years War, it meant a definitive recognition of national sovereignty. When news of the peace broke, exuberant celebrations were held around the country.
The great cities of the southern Netherlands – Ghent, Bruges, Brussels and especially Antwerp – lost money and influence during the war. After the Spanish soldiers sacked Antwerp in 1576, they laid siege to it in 1580. By the time the siege was over, the city that had once been the center of European finance was a shell. Its wealth, and more importantly its professions – the bankers and merchants and artisans – left by the tens of thousands, in one of history’s great brain drains, and headed to the new power center in the north.
By the 17th century, the Dutch economy was flourishing. The centre of economics had shifted north from Antwerp to Amsterdam, and trade with the West Indies and East Indies brought spices, gold, ivory, silk, porcelain and sugar to the lively port city. The hugely successful East India Company (VOC), established in 1602 and with markets in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and America, employed a significant proportion of the population. Closer to home, the Dutch relied on industries such as fishing, the processing and export of herring, and the production of fine textiles and ceramics. The Dutch economy, based on trade and industry, gave rise to a modern, mostly urban society in contrast with the predominantly rural social structure of the rest of Europe.
The merchants, burghers, traders and government officials – the middle classes – of this modern society developed a seemingly insatiable demand for paintings and decorative arts to fill their homes, often as status symbols. An English visitor to Amsterdam observed in 1640. “As for the art off Painting and the affection off the People to Pictures, none other goe beyond them … all in general striving to adorne their houses, especially the outer or street roome, with costly pieces… Such is the generall Notion, enclination and delight that these Countrie Natives have for paintings”.
While the Dutch society generated an environment that encouraged a thriving arts industry, Dutch painting of the 17th century reflects that society with an accuracy rarely equalled in any other period. The people, the interiors, the country and the city sights are recorded so completely that the paintings provide us with a window to a world that existed over 300 years ago.
Dutch painting of the 17th century is often referred to as the Golden Age of Dutch art. It was the age of Rembrandt van Rijn, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer. These great artists are household names, but behind them is an extraordinary number of artists of exceptional quality, painting in such diverse areas as portraiture, landscape, seascape, genre, still life, flower pieces, cherries 🙂 and architectural interiors. This varied and energetic artistic tradition flourished in the particular political, economic and religious conditions that defined the unique phenomenon of the Netherlands in the 17th century.
The specific political and economic conditions created an art market and conditions of patronage unique in Europe at that time. Living in a republic, the citizens and not the nobility were in charge. In contrast to the rest of Europe, where the church, wealthy cardinals and the aristocracy were the major patrons of the arts, in the Netherlands the growing upper and middle classes bought paintings on an unprecedented scale. In particular the urban governing class of each city – the mayor, city councillors, leading merchants and manufacturers, known as the “regents” – commissioned works and were the subject of a great many portraits.
The Dutch Republic relied on trade by sea for its exceptional wealth, had naval wars with Britain and other nations during the period, and was criss-crossed by rivers and canals. The genre of maritime painting was enormously popular, and taken to new heights in the period by Dutch artists.
The importance of Dutch exploration and trade emerges from portraits celebrating individuals involved in these fields, while the organisation of urban society in the Republic of Netherlands is reflected in portraits of groups or individuals in connection with their position or work. Portraits of silversmiths, ship builders, preachers and doctors were produced alongside portraits of the more powerful magistrates, signalling the uniquely democratic nature of this society. So the nature of 17th century Dutch society is found in the portraits of the very people who created it – the burghers, local government officials, the explorers and the traders, expressing both their individual and corporate identity.
The word ‘genre’, originally a French word, in the context of 17th century Dutch art, refers to ‘scenes of everyday life’. No society had focused on itself, painting scenes of domestic life, interiors and tavern scenes, to the extent that the Dutch did in the 17th century. Scenes of daily life had been painted before, but not for their own sake – more often they were used to illustrate a moral or an allegory, or the cycle of the seasons. Dutch genre painters, and the public with its intense demand for these works, were fascinated with their own world. These paintings celebrated the textures and colours of the possessions which they valued – their tiles, pewter, glass, carpets and the clothing they wore.
The 17th century was also the time of the tulipmania. While tulips were introduced in the Netherlands in the 16th century, the tulip’s popularity reached unprecedented, even excessive, heights, in the 1630s. This gave rise to a veritable tulipmania, which held many Dutchmen in its grip in 1636 and 1637. If the flower had initially roused largely scientific interest, from around 1630 on tulips became attractive financially. Tulips and tulip bulbs were bought and sold actively, frantically in fact, and this trade deteriorated into speculation in 1637. Countless people jumped on the bandwagon buying options they could pay later, some even putting up their homes as collateral. The market crashed suddenly in February 1637; prices plummeted and many investors were left penniless.
In the course of the 17th century, special vases were even designed for tulips. They were usually round with small spouted openings on the top; sometimes the vases had more extravagant shapes. Each opening could hold only a single flower. The full bunches of tulips found nowadays were unimaginable in earlier times.
Amsterdam is famous for one thing (besides canals, cannabis cafes and prostitutes): the tattered, ancient, much-misunderstood word liberalism. Amsterdam is by most accounts the most liberal place on earth. It is often laughably liberal or shake-your-head-in-disbelief liberal. In this instance liberal is synonymous with free, open and permissive.
Liberal comes from liber, the Latin word for free, which also underlies liberty, libertarian, and libertine. Liberal is one of those words that through history have been mercilessly pulled in various directions. A difficulty that the word suffers today is that it has seemingly opposite meanings in the US and Europe. That is because its root meaning – free – can apply to different things. The 19th century Europeans who took to using liberalism as a term for their politics were businessmen who wanted freedom from tariffs – that is, limited government involvement in public affairs. In the US, it was more vigorously and specifically applied to social causes and individual freedoms and so meant more government involvement to enforce those freedoms. The free-market platform of the Dutch Liberal Party would thus be considered more or less the opposite of liberal in the American context.
Add the -ism to the word and it becomes something broader still, an umbrella of grand ideas each of which ties to other, no less grand concepts. What all uses of liberalism go back to is the centrality of the individual. The word describes our break with the Middle Ages and from the philosophy that has knowledge and power centered on received wisdom from the Church and the monarchy.
A remarkable number of forces came together in Amsterdam in the century or so beginning in the late 1500s that would spawn a new way of thinking about people and their relationship to one another and the state. The story of the city’s golden age is one of history’s classics, on the same level with the classical period of ancient Greece. The city’s rise was so sudden, it startled even those living through it. The elements and individuals that constituted it are iconic, but more than that they are linked: there are natural tendons connecting the founding of the world’s first stock market, the development of secular art with Rembrandt and his contemporaries, the crafting of a groundbreaking official policy of tolerance, the fostering of an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that brought thinkers from all over Europe and that created the world’s most dynamic publishing center, and the physical transformation of the city: the digging of Amsterdam’s famous canals.
Underlying all these various breakthroughs – conceptual or physical – is the unleashing of the individual, which has its origins in the Protestant Reformation and the first wave of scientific experimentation and which relates as well to Amsterdam’s geographic and social conditions. These ingredients went to make up a new kind of place: a breeding ground for liberalism.
These forces coalesced in the mind of a young Amsterdam Jew of the 17th century. Probably more than any other major philosopher, Baruch Spinoza is looked to as a guide by serious thinkers today: theologians, computer scientists, philosophers, people who dare to grapple with the really big questions. Just as Shakespeare could only have emerged at his time – after the English language had absorbed the Latin of the High Middle Ages, the medieval French of the Norman invasion and other influences that made it so richly expressive – so too Spinoza’s revolutionary philosophy, which has influenced modern political thought, ethics and theology, could arise only in the Amsterdam of the late 17th century, after the city had forged its principles of tolerance, of the placement of secular powers over church powers and of the first truly modern free-trading culture. Spinoza took part in the philosophical debates that raged in the coffee shops and bookstores, he was fascinated by public anatomical demonstrations, by the sight of the bending lines of fluyts and yachts beating sail from the harbor toward all points of the globe, by the idea of popular representation. All of this was boiled, condensed and distilled into his philosophy and from there, and other sources, it made its way into the wider world.
The breadth and importance of Spinoza’s work was not fully realized until many years after his death. By laying the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism, including modern conceptions of the self and, arguably, the universe, he came to be considered one of the great rationalists of 17th century philosophy. His magnum opus, the posthumous Ethics, in which he opposed Descartes’s mind–body dualism, has earned him recognition as one of Western philosophy’s most important thinkers.
Amsterdam’s prosperity declined during the 18th and early 19th centuries. The wars of the Dutch Republic with England and France took their toll on Amsterdam. During the Napoleonic Wars, Amsterdam’s significance reached its lowest point, with Holland being absorbed into the French Empire. However, the later establishment of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815 marked a turning point.
The end of the 19th century is sometimes called Amsterdam’s second Golden Age. Rijksmuseum (1885), Stedelijk Museum (1895), the Centraal Station (1889) and the Concertgebouw (1888) were built. Also built was the Stelling van Amsterdam, a unique ring of 42 forts and land that could be inundated to defend the city against an attack.
The Museumplein is the public space between the three major museums – the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Stedelijk Museum – and the concert hall Concertgebouw. The area was the location of the International Colonial and Export Exhibition in 1883. The Museumplein was reconstructed after a design by the Swedish/Danish landscape architect Sven-Ingvar Andersson in 1999. In the winter, the pond can be transformed into an artificial ice skating area.
Today it was the location for a pleasant stroll to admire the Baubles Parade, a mosaic exhibition…
We couldn’t leave Amsterdam without another visit to our favourite place, De Vier Pilaren, Stadhouderskade 11, for our favourite desert, poffertjes!
We LOVED Amsterdam, definitely a very beary place!
This time, little Puffles and Honey are right at the centre of the action and at the centre of the Rijksmuseum! And everyone else, very politely, moved out of the way! Make way, make way, little bears are out to play!
Besides allowing visitors to take photos, the Rijksmuseum has made available some 172,000 high-resolution images for download via its Rijksstudio webplatform, with plans to add another 40,000 images per year until the entire collection of one million works is available. You can use the images to create other works, so next, Puffles and Honey will be in The Night Watch painting 🙂
The Rijksmuseum was founded in The Hague in 1800 as the National Art Gallery and moved to Amsterdam in 1808, where it was first located in the Royal Palace and later in the Trippenhuis. It received its present name in 1815 from the Dutch King Willem I. The Trippenhuis turned out to be unsuitable as a museum and the historical objects were split between the Mauritshuis in The Hague, and the Paviljoen Welgelegen in Haarlem, while more suitable accommodation was sorted out.
In 1863, there was a design contest for a new building for the Rijksmuseum, but none of the submissions was considered to be of sufficient quality. Pierre Cuypers also participated in the contest and his submission reached the second place. In 1876 a new contest was held and this time Pierre Cuypers won. The design was a combination of gothic and renaissance elements. The construction began on 1 October 1876. On both the inside and the outside, the building was richly decorated with references to Dutch art history. Another contest was held for these decorations. The winners were B. van Hove and J.F. Vermeylen for the sculptures, G. Sturm for the tile tableaus and painting and W.F. Dixon for the stained glass. The museum was opened at its new location on 13 July 1885, in the presence of members of the Dutch royal family.
When it was first unveiled in 1885, it was regarded with horror. Cuypers’ choice of a highly decorated mixed Gothic/Renaissance style proved controversial. The enemies’ view was that the result was far too Gothic, which meant also far too Catholic – how Catholic with its stain glass windows … its resemblance to a cathedral. The decoration depicts an extraordinary range of historical and emblematic subjects, as well as artists and artisans, and its various materials, scope and prominence vividly illustrate two things. Most obviously, it demonstrates Cuypers’ belief that different forms of art should be united in their service to architecture; concerned at the lack of skilled craftsmen at this time, Cuypers opened the Quellinus School of Applied Arts in 1879. But more generally it was an outward and visible statement of the redefinition of the Netherlands as a nation, in which groups like the Catholics themselves (however much others might demur) were now integrated.
If you look high up on the right side of the museumplein entrance, you can see the architect Pierre Cuypers looking furtively around the corner – I’m a Catholic in a Protestant world. Have I got away with it?
The Rijksmuseum houses the largest collection of Dutch artwork, with many treasures from the country’s 17th century Golden Age and beyond. The museum has on display 8,000 objects of art and history, from their total collection of 1 million objects from the years 1200 – 2000, among which are some masterpieces by Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer. The unique position Rijksmuseum has gained in the world throughout the centuries, comes not only from the possession of these many masterpieces but also from the collections of antique objects of Dutch culture, of prints, of drawings and of classic photography.
In December 2003, the main building of the museum closed for a major renovation. During this renovation, about 400 objects from the collection were on display in the ‘fragment building’ (or Philips Wing), including Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and other 17th century masterpieces.
The restoration and renovation of the Rijksmuseum was based on a design by Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz. The renovation would have initially taken five years, but was delayed and eventually took almost ten years to complete, at a cost of €375 million.
The tortuous story of the renovation of the Rijksmuseum is too long and tedious to revisit here, involving unbelievably mad negotiations with the Dutch cycling lobby (who have preserved their right to freewheel across the main atrium of the building, at least until – as the local black joke goes – the first Japanese tourist is mown down); several million euros spent diverting tracts of the sea, not to mention moving a couple of canals to enable below-sea-level expansion; and protracted arguments with the architects from Spain. So protracted, indeed, that at certain times in the past decade some have feared a second outbreak of Dutch-Hispanic animosity: another Eighty Years’ War.
After the renovations to the main building were complete, all 400 works were moved back from the Philips Wing. The same group of art handlers who had removed The Night Watch more than a decade earlier, when the Rijksmuseum was closed for renovation, had been rehired for the occasion – all of them working for different companies, some in different jobs. Rembrandt’s painting was winched through the roof of Cuypers’s 19th-century architectural masterpiece and it was hung in pride of place in the newly restored Night Watch Gallery.
On 13 April 2013 the main building was reopened by Queen Beatrix.
During the ten years, from 2003 to 2013, the museum has been reimagined and reinvented. The 19th century building’s red-brick exterior, which resembles a fairy-tale castle, has been restored but left intact.
Inside, twin central courtyards that had been gradually filled with extra floors as the museum grew over the years have been reclaimed. The clutter has been stripped away to let natural light flood into the center of the museum. Despite reopening the courtyard, the museum preserved as much exhibition space as before by reclaiming some areas which had been used for offices.
From hand-painted details on every pillar, to newly laid mosaic floors and stained glass windows, to revitalizing the displays themselves, every part of the museum has been restored or rethought. Every single one of the 8,000 artifacts and pieces of art on display is in a different spot — with one exception: The Night Watch itself. The floors are now organized chronologically by era, the displays have been crafted to integrate artwork with artifacts that tell the story of the country’s history and culture at the same time. The relationship between different art objects is used to tell the story of the Netherlands. Before the renovation there was one room for paintings, a room for glass, a room for silver, and so on, while in the new museum, you take a walk through the period. The intention is to create a feeling for beauty of Dutch art and a feeling for the time. The displays were arranged by French designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who also helped design the interior of the Louvre in Paris.
Visitors approach Rembrandt’s painting through the cathedral-like entrance hall, filled with jewel-toned stained glass and extravagant wall decorations, and the restored Gallery of Honor, home to the Rijksmuseum’s collection of 17th century works.
The Gallery of Honour is an extended corridor directed towards a clear focal point: the Night Watch Gallery. The Gallery of Honor is a kind of basilica that ends not with a Christian display, but a civilian display: Rembrandt’s Night Watch. The symbolism is that there is no one king that has the power, that the Netherlands is a country where an early republic decided a group of people would have power in their hands. On view in the side alcoves are masterpieces by the great artists of the seventeenth century. Framing the alcoves are cast iron beams inscribed with the names of the famous painters of the age. Semi-circular wall sections above display the coats of arms of the eleven provinces of the Netherlands and their respective capital cities. In the original building, the side alcoves were screened off with heavy curtains that served – akin to a church – to draw visitors towards the ‘high altar’ of The Night Watch at the end. This shows how important this painting is to the Dutch nation. It is THE national treasure. And there’s another hint as to just how well-loved the priceless painting is on the floor beneath it: the outline of a trap door. The Night Watch is the only picture in the gallery to have its own “escape slide”, designed in 1934, to allow it to be swiftly moved out of danger in case of fire, or other threats.
The Gallery of Honor is a who’s who of Dutch masters, from landscape masters to portraitists. Highlights include Vermeer’s delicate, quiet “Milkmaid”, in which the act of pouring milk becomes an almost religious act; as well as larger and more raucous works like Steen’s ” The Merry Family” and Frans Hals’s “The Merry Drinker”.
And of course it includes paintings and sketches by Rembrandt, including several self-portraits and masterpieces such as one of his most-loved works, “The Jewish Bride” (1669), which shows a tender couple lightly touching.
In the two antechambers, located to the left and right of the museum’s Night Watch Gallery, are two artworks featuring complex patterns with more than 47,000 thousand hand-painted black stars on a white background, inspired by the by the original 19th century decorative wall and ceiling paintings designed by Pierre Cuypers. They are the work of Richard Wright, the British Turner Prize-winning artist, and they will be a permanent feature, unlike the artist’s earlier paintings, which are often short-lived, only surviving the length of an exhibition and then painted over.
The Night Watch Gallery was specially designed to showcase Rembrandt’s famous civic guard portrait – a painting that has gone down in history as marking the turning point in his career and as the superlative example of his creative genius. The sculpture in this gallery, which includes several gilded female figures – known as ‘caryatids’ – surmounting the columns that support the vault, allude to Rembrandt’s masterly depiction of light and dark. The frieze commemorates key moments in Rembrandt’s life. The painting’s placement reflects Dutch history, a crowning achievement of the Golden Age when the Netherlands was a major naval power and Amsterdam was one of the world’s most influential and wealthy cities.
The room of the ship models also displays the stern of HMS Royal Charles which was captured in the Raid on the Medway, and the Hartog plate.
In keeping with the ethos of the new-look museum, The Night Watch is surrounded by other militia portraits of the era, giving the piece context but also showing just how innovative Rembrandt’s work was. In the same gallery are Militiamen of the Company of Captain Roelof Bicker and Lieutenant Jan Michielsz Blaeuw (Officers and other Marksmen of the VIII District in Amsterdam before the De Haan Brewery at the Corner of the Lastaadje) by Bartholomeus van der Helst (1639) and Militia Company of District XI under the Command of Captain Reynier Reael, Known as ‘The Meagre Company’ by Frans Hals and Pieter Codde (1637). A commission for a civic guard portrait was rarely granted to a painter from outside the city. Quite exceptionally, Frans Hals – from Haarlem – was asked to paint this group portrait. However, he soon found himself at odds with the guardsmen, and the Amsterdam painter Pieter Codde had to step in to finish the seven figures on the right. Known for his small-scale, very smoothly and finely executed works, Codde nevertheless imitated Hals’s loose style as best he could.
The most frequently produced professional group portraits of the time represent officers of civil militia companies. With origins in the 15th century, these organisations of male citizens, commanded by members of the urban elite, helped patrol and defend their cities. To this end, each company had the right to carry firearms. All men who could afford the dues served in these civic guards. In the 17th century, companies were still mobilised in times of peril, but they rarely performed actual military services. They continued to fulfill significant social functions in their neighbourhoods, where they met in company halls, most of them decorated with portraits and insignia related to the militia’s history and privileges. The portraits of these companies, or rather their officers, are different from the professional guild portraits, as militia members could have any type of respectable job. Militia portraits could be more celebratory, even swaggering, in keeping with the guards’ military and festive roles.
Rembrandt’s largest painting (4.35m wide and 3.79m high), the Night Watch of 1642, represents an Amsterdam company in a ceremonial role, gathering for a procession. It was one of six group portraits painted between 1639 and 1645 of militia companies that shared a prestigious, recently expanded assembly hall, Kloveniersdoelen. The decoration of this social space, opposite the street from the shooting range, constituted the most significant public commission in Amsterdam before the new town hall. The central man in The Night Watch is Captain Frans Banning Cocq (1605 – 1655). His family album records the painting’s theme: the captain summons his lieutenant… to order his company of citizens to march. Banning Cocq indeed has his mouth open and hand extended in a speaking gesture. The shadow of his hand significantly falls onto the golden costume of his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch. Both men stride ahead, and the company is starting to follow. Behind them, the company’s colours are carried by the ensign, Jan Visscher Cornelissen. Strikingly, the caption in Banning Cocq’s album focuses on the painting’s momentary action, rather than its portrait status. The remarkable hierarchy of portrayal, with its emphasis on the captain and the lieutenant, led later observers to believe that the other 14 sitters had been dissatisfied, but Rembrandt was paid full price, each sitter paying a share depending on his prominence in the painting. The myth does indicate Rembrandt’s departure from the militia portrait norm, in which the highest officers stand out but never condemn the others to oblivion. Rembrandt subordinated the likeness to a central action that expresses the ceremonial function of the civic guard. The nuanced pattern of light and dark unifies the company, in a pictorial metaphor for its harmony. His masterful use of light reveals that indeed Rembrandt is the Shakespeare of painting. Like Shakespeare he breaks all the rules and what breaks through the surface is the profound, unruly, raucous sense of humanity. He is the painter of human beings.
Two small, spotlit girls and a helmeted youth stride to the right, against the company’s flow, and their divergent path marks their allusive significance. The most prominent maiden has a fowl suspended from her belt, a curious ornament to her brocaded dress. Its noticeable claw refers to the company’s traditional emblem of a claw. The helmeted character fires a musket, to the surprise of the guardsman between the captain and the lieutenant. That officer’s restraining gesture evokes the company’s rules governing the exercise of its muskets: unlike the rogue figure, the company officers know when to wield their arms. Rembrandt visualised the company’s command of musketry by letting two officers handle weapons: at left one primes his musket, and at right another blows the pan after firing. Together with the central firing, these actions demonstrate the firearm’s use. Arms drill was a highly developed practice, elucidated in a manual first published in 1607 and illustrated by Jacques de Gheyn II. Rembrandt may have referred to its prints as he painted the figures wielding muskets, for their poses conform strikingly with those in the illustrations.
By structuring The Night Watch as one action in the company’s history and by articulating its tradition and rights, Rembrandt blended the conventions of portraiture and history painting. The Night Watch seems an almost deliberate synthesis of the two genres that formed the backbone of his career. The painting also has a theatrical look.
For much of its existence, the painting was coated with a “dark varnish” which gave the incorrect impression that it depicted a night scene, leading to the name by which it is now commonly known. This varnish was removed only in the 1940s.
In 1715, upon its removal from the Kloveniersdoelen to the Amsterdam Town Hall, the painting was trimmed on all four sides. This was done, presumably, to fit the painting between two columns and was a common practice before the 19th century. This alteration resulted in the loss of two characters on the left side of the painting, the top of the arch, the balustrade, and the edge of the step. This balustrade and step were key visual tools used by Rembrandt to give the painting a forward motion. A 17th century copy of the painting by Gerrit Lundens at the National Gallery, London shows the original composition.
For all things Rembrandt, one must go to the Rembrandt House Museum.
Rembrandt van Rijn was born on 15 July 1606 in Leiden. His family was quite well-to-do; his father was a miller and his mother was a baker’s daughter. Religion is a central theme in Rembrandt’s paintings and the religiously fraught period in which he lived makes his faith a matter of interest. His mother was Roman Catholic, and his father belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church. While his work reveals deep Christian faith, there is no evidence that Rembrandt formally belonged to any church, although he had five of his children christened in Dutch Reformed churches in Amsterdam: four in the Oude Kerk (Old Church) and one, Titus, in the Zuiderkerk (Southern Church). Titus is the only child who survived, and Rembrandt outlived him by a year.
As a boy he attended Latin school and was enrolled at the University of Leiden, although according to a contemporary he had a greater inclination towards painting; he was soon apprenticed to a Leiden history painter, Jacob van Swanenburgh, with whom he spent three years. After a brief but important apprenticeship of six months with the painter Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, Rembrandt stayed a few months with Jacob Pynas and then started his own workshop. Rembrandt opened a studio in Leiden in 1624 or 1625, which he shared with friend and colleague Jan Lievens. In 1627, Rembrandt began to accept students.
In 1629 Rembrandt was discovered by the statesman Constantijn Huygens, the father of Christiaan Huygens (the Dutch mathematician and physicist), who procured for Rembrandt important commissions from the court of The Hague. As a result of this connection, Prince Frederik Hendrik continued to purchase paintings from Rembrandt until 1646. In a letter to Huygens, Rembrandt offered the only surviving explanation of what he sought to achieve through his art: the greatest and most natural movement, translated from de meeste en de natuurlijkste beweegelijkheid. The word “beweechgelickhijt” is also argued to mean “emotion” or “motive.” Whether this refers to objectives, material or otherwise, is open to interpretation; either way, critics have drawn particular attention to the way Rembrandt seamlessly melded the earthly and spiritual.
At the end of 1631 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, then rapidly expanding as the new business capital of the Netherlands, and began to practice as a professional portraitist for the first time, with great success. He initially stayed with an art dealer, Hendrick van Uylenburgh, and in 1634, married Hendrick’s cousin, Saskia van Uylenburgh. Saskia came from a good family: her father had been a lawyer and the burgemeester (mayor) of Leeuwarden. In the same year, Rembrandt became a burgess of Amsterdam and a member of the local guild of painters.
When Rembrandt signed on the dotted line to buy the large, impressive town house in the smart Breestraat area of Amsterdam, it seemed life could not get any better. It was 1639 and his work was celebrated throughout the city. He earned good money, but the purchase price of 13,000 guilders was still an enormous sum for the day and he arranged to pay it off in installments.
Rembrandt lived and worked in this house at Jodenbreestraat 4 between 1639 and 1658. His own work and that of other artists hung on the walls, as he also worked as an art dealer. He used a large, airy room chosen for its unchanging light as his studio and here produced many of his finest works, aided by assistants preparing paints and canvases. Today, the house is a museum devoted to recreating his life within its walls and celebrating his art – many of the fine etchings he created here are on display and the museum offers etching demonstrations and etching workshops. The studio is set up as he might well have had it, as are rooms such as his bedroom and a refined anteroom where he received clients as a dealer.
During the 16th and 17th century in the Netherlands, closet-beds were very small indeed. Lying down was associated with death, and therefore sleeping was done in a half-upright position. These closet-beds held two people, and beneath them were often drawers “rolkoetsen” that pulled out and provided beds for the children.
Sadly, Rembrandt’s fortunes turned. His beloved wife, Saskia, died prematurely in 1642, probably from tuberculosis. She was only 29 years old. Defeated partly by poor money management, Rembrandt slid into bankruptcy. Rembrandt had lived beyond his means, buying art (including bidding up his own work), prints (often used in his paintings), and rarities, which probably caused a court arrangement to avoid his bankruptcy in 1656, by selling most of his paintings and large collection of antiquities. The sale list survives and gives us a good insight into Rembrandt’s collections, which apart from Old Master paintings and drawings included busts of the Roman Emperors, suits of Japanese armor among many objects from Asia, and collections of natural history and minerals. The prices realized in the sales in 1657 and 1658 were disappointing forcing Rembrandt to sell his house and his printing-press and move to more modest accommodation on the Rozengracht in 1660. The authorities and his creditors were generally accommodating to him, except for the Amsterdam painters’ guild, which introduced a new rule that no one in Rembrandt’s circumstances could trade as a painter. To get around this, Hendrickje and Titus set up a business as art dealers in 1660, with Rembrandt as an employee.
For the next 200 years, his former grand home was occupied by a succession of families. In the early 1900s it was purchased by the City of Amsterdam and opened as a museum in 1911. Work to restore the house to its original 17th century glory was not completed until the late 1990s. Researchers used his own paintings together with the sale list from the auctions as their main source of information.
No, we’re not talking about the discotheque in the city of Aguilas that opened under the name of La Meca, amid protests from Muslim individuals and organisations, we’re talking about the Museo del Prado and Las Meninas, a 1656 painting by Diego Velázquez, the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age.
The Museo del Prado is the main Spanish national art museum, located in central Madrid. It features one of the world’s finest collections of European art, dating from the 12th century to the early 19th century, based on the former Spanish Royal Collection, and unquestionably the best single collection of Spanish art. Founded as a museum of paintings and sculpture in 1819, it also contains important collections of other types of works. The numerous works by Francisco de Goya, the single most extensively represented artist, as well as by Diego Velázquez, El Greco, Titian, Peter Paul Rubens and Hieronymus Bosch are some of the highlights of the collection.
The collection comprises around 7,600 paintings, 1,000 sculptures, 4,800 prints and 8,200 drawings, in addition to a large number of other works of art and historic documents. Some of them are on display, some are on loan to other museums and a large number are in storage.
The Museo del Prado was first opened to the public on 19 November 1819 under the name of the Museo Real de Pinturas (Royal Museum of Paintings), having been created at the behest and under the patronage of King Ferdinand VII (reigned 1808 – 1833). The Louvre Museum, the first public museum and the model for all those created afterwards, had been inaugurated in 1793. Although it was a royal museum, the Museo del Prado shared the Louvre’s objective of exhibiting the art treasures which had until then been known and enjoyed only by a very small group of members of the royalty, the aristocracy and the church. The notion of making art public had its roots in the Enlightenment and its development in the Revolution, and like many other ideas, it was spread through the whole of Europe by the Napoleonic Invasions.
Although the museum dates from the early years of the 19th century, the history of its art collections begins four centuries earlier. It is the history of royal collecting since the 15th century, when Ferdinand and Isabella, with their preference for Flemish painters, laid down some of the precepts that would be followed by future royal collectors.
Their grandson, Emperor Charles V, continued to collect works by the principal Flemish artists, such as Van der Weyden, Van Eyck and Anthonis Mor, but his attention was also drawn to Italian artists like Titian, who became the portraitist of both the emperor and his son, Philip II, under whom the royal painting collection received its first great impetus in the 16th century. Thanks to these two monarchs and to Mary of Hungary (1505 – 1558), the sister of Charles V and governor of the Netherlands, the Museo del Prado possesses an exceptional collection of works by Titian, an artist who subsequently had an enormous influence on the path taken by the Royal Collection and on the development of Spanish painting as a whole. Philip II also inherited his predecessors’ taste for Flemish art, purchasing works by Van der Weyden, Bouts, Patinir, Campin, Gossaert, David, and above all Bosch, of whose work the Museo del Prado has the finest collection in the world. Also in the collection are works by his portraitist Anthonis Mor and Sanchez Coello created a characteristic type of official portrait whose influence lasted until the 18th century, and the works of many artists, mainly Italians, working on the most important artistic project of the age, the decoration of the monastery of El Escorial.
The other great milestone in the history of the Royal Collection came with Philip IV, whose reign, from 1621 to 1665, coincided with one of the climactic moments in Spanish painting. Not only was Philip IV the patron of Velázquez, but he was also an indefatigable collector who commissioned numerous works expressly for the decoration of his royal palaces. Large decorative cycles were created for the Torre de la Parada, with major contributions from Rubens and Velázquez, and for the new Buen Retiro Palace. Philip IV’s passion for collecting is clear from the works he acquired at the sale of the estate of King Charles I of England, another of history’s great collectors, whose collection was auctioned off in London after his execution in 1649. During the 1640s and 1650s, Velázquez served as both court painter and curator of Philip IV’s expanding collection of European art. He seems to have been given an unusual degree of freedom in the role. He supervised the decoration and interior design of the rooms holding the most valued paintings, adding mirrors, statues and tapestries. He was also responsible for the sourcing, attribution, hanging and inventory of many of the Spanish king’s paintings. By the early 1650s, Velázquez was widely respected in Spain as a connoisseur.
After the death of Charles II, the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, the arrival of the new dynasty also led to a change in artistic taste. The Bourbons, who reigned in Spain from 1700 onwards, brought French artists and a greater interest in the more classicist Italian art. Philip V purchased the important collection of the painter Carlo Maratta, with works by the Carracci, Sacchi and Poussin. His second wife, Isabella Farnese, was responsible for enlarging the Royal Collection with works by the 18th century Flemish and Dutch painters and Italian artists. While the court was resident in Seville (1729 – 1733), she purchased a large number of works by Murillo. In 1742, Philip V and his wife also bought the set of sculptures which had been assembled in Rome in the second half of the 17th century by Queen Christina of Sweden. Together with works acquired in Rome by Velázquez under commission from Philip IV, these were to form the basis of the Museo del Prado’s collection of classical sculpture. With the Bourbons, the last two great masters of the late Baroque in Europe, Corrado Gianquinto and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, also came to Spain to work on the decoration of the royal palaces. Tiepolo’s time in Spain coincided with that of another of the great artistic figures of the day, Anton Raffael Mengs, who introduced classicist academicism in the country.
The reign of Charles IV was another great period for the painting collection. Besides having Goya and Paret under his patronage, he enriched the Royal Collection with works by Barocci, Andrea del Sarto and Raphael, also adding pieces by Spanish artists like Ribera, Ribalta and Juan de Juanes. Charles IV was succeeded by Ferdinand VII who was the founder of the Museo del Prado.
If the Museo del Prado were to be identified with a single artist, it would surely be Diego Velázquez. Exhibited at the museum are some fifty of the approximately one hundred and twenty paintings known to be by the artist, including his most outstanding and ambitious works. Velázquez is literally at the centre of the museum, in the great basilica-style hall on the main floor where Las Meninas is displayed. Velázquez not only provided the Museo del Prado with his own works, but his keen eye and sensibility were also responsible for bringing much of the museum’s fine collection of Italian masters to Spain, now the largest outside of Italy.
Velázquez studied the Royal Collections and in them he assimilated the ‘Spanish taste’ created by the Habsburg monarchs. Thanks to the very works by Mor, El Greco, Titian, Tintoretto, Ribera and Rubens, which now hang alongside his own in the Museo del Prado, he was able to enrich his painting to a prodigious degree, creating his own personal style characterised by free and subtle brushwork and a new manner of interpreting pictorial genres.
Velázquez’ importance, aside from his personality, lay in his enormous capacity for mastering all the great pictorial genres throughout his long career. A portraitist par excellence, he was nevertheless able to uphold his standards when painting genre, mythology, landscape, religious and allegorical subjects.
The evolution of his portrait painting is astonishing, as all his portraits lack the affectation characteristic of the other artists that cultivated this genre. After his return from Italy in 1629, his royal portraits become more realistic and less idealised. Contemporary with the Flemish portraits which Van Dyck painted for Charles I of England, his realistic characters were set on virtually abstract landscape backgrounds. Velázquez did not paint his models as he wanted to, but as he actually saw them. His series of members of the royal family in hunting dress, commissioned for the Torre de la Parada and the Hall of the Realms, bear out Velázquez’ penchant for realistic portrayal.
Diego Velázquez was born in Seville in 1599. He trained in the workshop of his future father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco, and most art historians believe he also spent a brief period in the workshop of Francisco Herrera the Elder. In his early work, known as the Seville period (1617 – 1623), the painted religious and genre subjects, and the occasional portrait. In 1623, he embarked on his period of Court painting. Thanks to his father-in-law’s connections and his growing reputation, Velázquez moved to Madrid and was asked to paint a portrait of the young King Philip IV. The king was so happy with the result, he appointed Velázquez a court painter and would not let any other artist paint him. In 1627, he won a competition – set by the king – to paint an image of the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. Velázquez’ winning picture was destroyed in a fire at the palace in 1734, but it supposedly showed Philip III pointing his baton towards a group of Moors, while the female personification of Spain watches calmly on. The artist was appointed a gentleman usher as his prize and received a daily allowance.
In 1629 he made his first journey to Italy where he visited Ferrara, Venice and Rome. These cities had a decisive influence on his ongoing artistic development, apparent in Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan with its marked classicist accent and Joseph’s Blood-Stained Coat Brought to Jacob, with conspicuous Venetian overtones. On his return to Court, in 1931, he embarked on a decade rich in pictorial production, ranging from such historical subjects as The Surrender of Breda to portraits full of character, particularly those of the royal family, and superb portraits of jesters, with brief forays into religious painting, such as Coronation of the Virgin (1642) and SS Anthony Abbot and Paul the Hermit (1642).
In his last two decades, at the height of his powers and the summit of his ambition, but juggling multiple commitments to the king, Velazquez’ output dropped to an average of two pictures a year. Yet what pictures!
In 1649, Velázquez went to Italy on official business: that of purchasing paintings for an art gallery Philip IV wished to open. Jusepe Martinez describes Velázquez’ aesthetic leanings through the artist’s reply to the king on how the gallery should be structured: “If His Majesty gives me licence to go to Rome and Venice, I pledge to seek and purchase the finest works by Titian, Paolo Veronese, Bassano, Raphael, El Parmigianino and others of the sort. Very few princes have paintings of this kind, and in such quantities as Your Majesty shall acquire through my endeavours. Moreover, the lower floors must be adorned with old statues, and those that could not be made. They will be voided and the moulds brought to Spain, where they will be suitably cast.”
In Rome he painted the well-known portrait of Pope Innocent X which reveals his enormous facility in portraying a subject’s psychological makeup.
Also from this period, and in keeping with the traditional way of working up to a portrait of the Pope, is a portrait of his Mulatto servant and attendant, Juan de Pareja, of which Palomino said: “All the others look like painting, only this one is real”. Some authors claim that his two views of Villa Medici date from this period, as does the magnificent Rokeby Venus.
He stayed on in Rome for longer than the king had hoped, although this was not related to the acclaim he received from art lovers in that city: he was appointed member of the Academia dei Virtuosi al Pantheon and of Academia di San Luca. However, he was loath to break off relations with the sovereign, as Poussin had done, and set off on the return journey in May 1651. That same year, on the King’s intervention, Velazquez was appointed chief chamberlain of the palace, an office with extensive influence on decoration and style but endless household minutiae as well.
He then entered his late period, in which his brush stroke becomes abstract in the extreme, and his works filled with rich Baroque conceptualism. His portraits of the new queen, Mariana of Austria, and the ill-fated Felipe Prospero, led up to his best known work, Las Meninas (1656), a veritable synthesis of his entire pictorial conception, open to a host of interpretations. This period ends with the Fable of Arachne, better known as Las Hilanderas (‘The Spinners’). Executed towards the end of his life, it appears to mark a return to the realistic style of his Seville period.
Las Meninas has long been recognised as one of the most important paintings in Western art history. The Baroque painter Luca Giordano said that it represents the “theology of painting” and in 1827 president of the R.A. Sir Thomas Lawrence described the work in a letter to his successor David Wilkie as “the true philosophy of the art”. More recently, it has been described as “Velázquez’ supreme achievement, a highly self-conscious, calculated demonstration of what painting could achieve, and perhaps the most searching comment ever made on the possibilities of the easel painting”.
The painting represents a scene from daily life in the palace of Philip IV. In the painting we see Princess Margarita in the centre accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting (“meninas”); doña Marcela of Ulloa who is speaking to Diego Ruíz Azcona; Velázquez himself painting; José Nieto Velázquez in a doorway at the back of the painting; and on the wall at the back there is a mirror reflecting the image of the monarchs King Philip IV and Mariana of Austria.
The painting is one of the most widely analyzed works of art in Western painting. It raises questions about reality and illusion. Is the portrait, in fact, a mirror from the perspective of the King and Queen? Is this why their reflection can be seen in the mirror on the back wall? Since children are “little mirrors of their parents,” perhaps this is what Velázquez meant when he put the King and Queen as reflections in the mirror or the whole portrait as a reflection of a mirror. Much is still speculated today about the questions of reality vs. illusion. Velázquez presents nine figures, eleven with the King and Queen, and occupy only the lower half of the canvas. The upper half is bathed in darkness. There are three focal points to the painting:
•La Infanta Margarita Teresa
•the self-portrait of Velázquez
•the reflected images of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana
Though the accurate handling of light and shade, Velázquez brings these three figures to the front as the focal points. The room in the painting gives the appearance of natural light within the painted room and beyond. There are two sources of light in the room: the thin shafts of light from the open door and the broad streams coming through the window on the right. Velázquez uses light to add volume and definition to each form, but also to define the focal points of the painting.
Light streams in from the right and brightly sparkles on the braid and golden hair of the female dwarf, who is nearest the light source. However, her face is turned away from the light and in the shadow so as not to be a focal point. The light glances on the cheek of the lady in waiting near La Infanta, but not on her facial features. La Infanta is in full light and her face is turned toward the light source even though her gaze is not. Her face is framed by pale blond hair and sets her apart from the rest of the painting. Her decorative clothing and the lighting make her the focal point of the painting.
In the self-portrait of Velázquez, the viewer sees his face is dimly lit by a reflected light rather than direct light. His total face is looking out, full-on to the viewer and draws attention to him and shows his importance. The triangle of light on his sleeve reflects on the face.
The elusiveness of the painting suggests to the viewer that art and life are an illusion. The relationship between reality and illusion was an important concern in Spain in the 17th century. This dichotomy between reality and illusion also comes up in Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes, the great Spanish novel from Spain’s Golden Age and in the Baroque form.
It is said that Philip IV painted the honorary Cross of Saint James of the Order of Santiago on the breast of the painter as it appears today on the canvas.
In 17th century Spain, painters rarely enjoyed high social status. Painting was regarded as a craft, not an art such as poetry or music. Velázquez worked his way up through the ranks of the court of Philip IV, and in February 1651 was appointed chief chamberlain of the palace, however court nobles rejected a mere painter’s claim to parity, the status as the favourite of the king notwithstanding. The art historian Svetlana Alpers suggests that, by portraying the artist at work in the company of royalty and nobility, Velázquez was claiming high status for both the artist and his art, and in particular to propose that painting is a liberal rather than a mechanical art. This distinction was a point of controversy at the time. It would have been significant to Velázquez, since the rules of the Order of Santiago excluded those whose occupations were mechanical.
For an artist-courtier, the knighthood spelled social acceptance which was denied to painters by a status-conscious aristocratic society. Velázquez did not receive the knighthood until 1659, three years after execution of Las Meninas. Even the King of Spain could not make his favorite a belted knight without the consent of the Council of Orders established to inquire into the purity of his lineage. The aim of these inquiries would be to prevent the appointment to positions of anyone found to have even a taint of heresy in their lineage — that is, a trace of Jewish or Moorish blood or contamination by trade or commerce in either side of the family for many generations. The Council found that there was no evidence that Diego Velázquez’ family was conversa (Jewish or Moorish converts to Catholicism), however it also found that there was no proof of blue blood. Velázquez could only enter the noble Order of Santiago with a papal dispensation. Later that year the pope (Innocent X, thoroughly buttered up with the portrait above) issued the necessary brief and Diego Velázquez became a knight in a formal ceremony. Six and a half months later he was dead. After Velázquez’s death, the king wrote “I am crushed” in the margin of a memorandum on the choice of his successor.
Philip IV’s first wife, Elizabeth of France, died in 1644; and their only son, Balthasar Charles, died two years later. Lacking an heir, Philip married Mariana of Austria in 1649, and Margaret Theresa (1651–1673) was their first child, and their only one at the time of the painting. Subsequently, she had a short-lived brother Philip Prospero (1657–1661), and then Charles (1661–1700) arrived, who succeeded to the throne as Charles II at the age of three. Velázquez painted portraits of Mariana and her children, and although Philip himself resisted being portrayed in his old age he did allow Velázquez to include him in Las Meninas. In the early 1650s he gave Velázquez the Pieza Principal (“main room”) of the late Balthasar Charles’s living quarters, by then serving as the palace museum, to use as his studio. It is here that Las Meninas is set. Philip had his own chair in the studio and would often sit and watch Velázquez at work. Although constrained by rigid etiquette, the art-loving king seems to have had an unusually close relationship with the painter.
In the 1966 book Les Mots et Les Choses (The Order of Things), philosopher Michel Foucault devotes the opening chapter to a detailed analysis of Las Meninas. Foucault describes the painting in meticulous detail, but in a language that is “neither prescribed by, nor filtered through the various texts of art-historical investigation”. Foucault viewed the painting without regard to the subject matter, nor to the artist’s biography, technical ability, sources and influences, social context, or relationship with his patrons. Instead he analyses its conscious artifice, highlighting the complex network of visual relationships between painter, subject-model, and viewer:
We are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us. A mere confrontation, eyes catching one another’s glance, direct looks superimposing themselves upon one another as they cross. And yet this slender line of reciprocal visibility embraces a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints. The painter is turning his eyes towards us only in so far as we happen to occupy the same position as his subject.
For Foucault, Las Meninas contains the first signs of a new episteme, or way of thinking, in European art. It represents a midpoint between what he sees as the two “great discontinuities” in art history, the classical and the modern: “Perhaps there exists, in this painting by Velázquez, the representation as it were of Classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens up to us … representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form.”
Now he (the painter) can be seen, caught in a moment of stillness, at the neutral centre of his oscillation. His dark torso and bright face are half-way between the visible and the invisible: emerging from the canvas beyond our view, he moves into our gaze; but when, in a moment, he makes a step to the right, removing himself from our gaze, he will be standing exactly in front of the canvas he is painting; he will enter that region where his painting, neglected for an instant, will, for him, become visible once more, free of shadow and free of reticence. As though the painter could not at the same time be seen on the picture where he is represented and also see that upon which he is representing something.
Velázquez died in 1660, but his influence lives on. Pablo Picasso was so enchanted by Las Meninas that he toyed with it over and over again, playfully, satirically, obsessively, recreating and reinterpreting it, in whole and in parts, he made a suite of 58 paintings titled collectively Las Meninas. He isolated the painting’s various elements and figures, he altered the lighting, changed the colours, and substituted the original mastiff for his own dog, a beloved dachshund called Lump. The series also includes landscapes, paintings of doves and a portrait of Jacqueline, who became his wife four years later. He donated all the paintings to the Museum Picasso in 1968, the only complete series of his paintings to have remained together.
If you want to see Las Meninas, you have to visit the Museo del Prado as the painting is not lent out for exhibitions.
The only flaw in an otherwise perfect visit was that you can’t take photos in the museum, so Puffles and Honey couldn’t be at the centre of it all!
We’re still working up to the post of our Amsterdam and Dutch impressions (it is coming and before Christmas 🙂 ) but this afternoon we have discovered another Dutch event. We missed it since we were still at home, as the parade takes place on the first Sunday of September.
Bloemencorso Zundert is the largest flower parade in the world entirely made by volunteers. The floats are large artworks made of steel wire, cardboard, papier-mâché and flowers. In the Bloemencorso Zundert, only dahlias are used to decorate the objects and it takes thousands of them just to cover one float.
The huge floats are made by twenty different hamlets and each of them consists of hundreds of builders, aged 1 to 100, who are all equally crazy about the bloemencorso. The older members of the hamlet are often responsible for planting and growing the dahlias, while the younger ones build the float in large temporary tents that are built exclusively for the event.
Plenty of photos on the web from the parade, these are a few we have selected:
This is the official website for the parade, in Dutch. They are already planning for next year!