AS THE efficient NS Dutch train system carries me effortlessly across the country, I look out to the distant horizon. The flat landscape makes the blue sky seem even higher, causing my thoughts to soar, while the many waterways reflect and soften the light. This is the light that has inspired so many Dutch painters and I am on a journey to visit the homes of some of the most famous.
At Haarlem, former home to Frans Hals, the water penetrates to the very heart of the city. I cross the large Nieuwe Gracht on my walk from the wonderful Art Nouveau station to its center on the bank of the River Spaarne. Narrow streets end with a glimpse of the masts and funnels of small working boats. The roads and sidewalks are made from the same dark clay brick as the buildings, giving an impression of a town that has grown organically out of the earth. Bicycles lean crazily against walls in alleys – and huddle together on parking ranks on the main streets. Above the modern shop fronts, I glimpse an older city: here the sculpted head of a lion, there the bust of an angel. Down the side streets, many houses have no curtains and I can look into lives that proclaim their openness.
A cluster of small buildings clings to each side of the Grote Kerk (“Great Church”), medieval in their appearance. Those on the shady north side were built as a fish market but now house a gallery of modern art, while the southern ones serve as tiny shops. The church has a soaring whitewashed interior, an ornate organ played by Mozart when he was ten, and Frans Hals’ tomb.
In the nearby Frans Hals Museum, a detailed painting of the church and fish market by Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde dates to 1692 and brings the past vividly into the present. Apart from the odd clothes, and the absence of cars and bicycles, little seems to have changed in nearly four centuries. Berckheyde was born and died in Haarlem and may have been a pupil of Hals. Both lived during the Dutch Golden Age, when Haarlem was wealthy from textiles, shipyards and beer breweries that drew their water from the canals. Nowadays, it is better known as the heart of the Dutch tulip industry – and for giving its name to the former Dutch colony of Harlem in New Amsterdam, now New York.
“This wealth helped create an environment where at least 100,000 paintings were produced in Haarlem between 1605 and 1635 alone,” says art historian Marie Hoedemaker. “Frans Hals came to the city as a child and, in a career lasting more than half a century, rarely left it. He died in this building, an old peoples’ home before it became a museum.”
One room in the museum holds Hals’ portraits of the civic guard, a theme that is perhaps most famous from Rembrandt’s so-called Night Watch. ”The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard was the work that launched Hals’ career in 1616, as well as setting a style to which Rembrandt was later indebted,” says Marie. “Unlike the Catholic Flemish and Italians, Protestant Dutch painters were freed in choice of subject by the Calvinist ban on the idolization of religious or biblical figures, so they focused on ordinary people, landscapes and still life.”
From a distance, the works look amazingly lifelike but as conventional as their subjects, pillars of the community. A detailed look shows a more spontaneous painting style. “Up close his strokes are almost abstract,” says Marie. “His brushwork is not perfect but it looks perfect and that may be the most remarkable thing about him. He was a strong influence on the Impressionists, such as Van Gogh who said Hals must have had 27 blacks. He did not flatter his subjects but he captured personality and character like no other painter.”
Perhaps the most poignant painting in the museum is the Regentesses of the Old Men’s Alms House, which dates to 1664 and is one of Hals’ last works. Painting with almost savage economy and unflattering truth, the 84-year-old master allows the character of each woman to live through the centuries.
A walk through the back streets of Delft is also a walk through history. If Disney were to recreate a picturesque 17th-century Dutch town, I doubt it could do better than the townscape of narrow canals, high-arched bridges and cobbled streets that I explore on my way from the train station to the Markt Square. One of the largest squares in Europe, made famous by the film of Girl with the Pearl Earring, it is dominated by the towering Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). Dating to 1496, the church’s 109 meter-high tower offers a great panorama of Delft – and as far afield as The Hague – to those who climb the 376 steep spiral steps.
The interior holds a magnificent monument for William I, who was killed in Delft in 1584, the first assassination by a handgun of a head of state. William (see mini feature) is remembered by the Dutch as the man who led the country to independence from Catholic Spain, and the ancestor of their present Royal Family, whose massive crypt lies under the church’s floor.
A few steps away from the Nieuwe Kerk is the former Saint Luke’s Guild, built in 1662 and now a center dedicated to Delft’s most famous artist: Johannes Vermeer. “His 1660 View of Delft was called ‘the most beautiful painting in the world’ by Marcel Proust,” says Marie. “It is also remarkable for being the only real landscape painting of his to survive. Almost all his other works are interiors, and most are thought to have been painted in his home studio.”
The Vermeer Centrum Delft has every one of Vermeer’s 35 known works shown in the order in which they were painted. None are original – you will have to go to Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Paris, New York or Washington D.C. for that – but in the reproductions I can notice how the same details, such as window or a yellow dress, appear in more than one.
“What makes a Vermeer is the special fall of light, the stillness of people – young women reading, sitting or standing, but always still – with the light coming from the left,” says Herman Weyers, director of the Vermeer Centrum. “They tell you what he wants us to be told.” Vermeer is called “The Master of Light’ and I ask why. Is the Dutch light special? “We like to think so, but there are clouds in England too,” he says. “No, Rembrandt was working at the same time and he always showed people in front of a black background. Vermeer set his people in a different kind of light, with a colorful backdrop.”
Professor Arthur Wheelock, curator of Northern Baroque paintings at the National Gallery of Art and author of Vermeer and the Art of Painting, explains why his light was so different. “There is a nuanced color quality that reflects the way light occurs in nature. Vermeer understands that natural light, daylight, has subtle colors to it. In the shadows it has a blue-ish cast.”
I ask him why Vermeer makes the sudden change from his first few paintings of historical scenes to his trademark interiors. “In the 1650s all sorts of things were happening,” he says. “After the Prince of Orange dies, there is a period when there was no court. Paintings of European history or biblical subjects were part of the collective world of people connected to the court. When the court disappears, that type of painting became less sought after and may underline why he made the shift.”
That Vermeer was painting for a market is easy to forget when one becomes wrapped up in his artistry but Professor Wheelock explains the high Golden Age demand for art. “There was not much land in the Netherlands, and almost all was swampy, so people did not invest in it,” he says. “They invested in trading ventures like the Dutch East India Company (VOC) but where else do you put your money? Art became one of the primary places to do that. The Dutch are still very matter of fact about the world about them, so artists who could portray that world were appreciated.
“The Dutch are very proud of the Netherlands, very proud of the fact that this swampy little place has somehow, with the grace of God, been transformed into this very prosperous land. You have a spiritual underpinning of the art, God looking down favorably on who we are and what we do, our hard work and the bounty that comes from that. It was a way to feel good about yourself and what your country stands for. All that added to the desire to own and hang paintings like that on your wall.”
Vermeer was working in Delft when it was a large city compared to Amsterdam and also a wealthy one. It was a headquarters of the VOC and, when the supply of fashionable porcelain from China dried up during its civil war, local potteries stepped in. The blue Delftware “china” they produced only added to the town’s fame and wealth, and still fills its shops today. The Delft University of Technology was founded in 1842, with its origins in the research behind that commercial piracy, and its student body supports a mix of youthful cafes, shops and bars to counterbalance the city’s historic treasures.
Among the latter is the Oude Kerk (Old Church), dominating the skyline with a lop-sided tower that started tilting not long after it was built in 1350. This is where Vermeer was buried in 1675, as well as his friend, physicist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who invented the microscope and may have helped Vermeer with a camera obscura.
In Amsterdam, the recently refurbished Rijksmuseum has five works by Vermeer in its unrivalled collection of 17th-century art. But the star of the show is a 1642 painting by Rembrandt van Rijn called Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. “A coat of very dark varnish, removed in the 1940s, led to it being called The Night Watch,” says Marie. “But you can see by the shadows that the action is actually taking place in sunlight that highlights the three central figures. The varnish was applied later to hide Rembrandt’s brushwork which, like Hals’, is best appreciated from a distance.”
The arquebuses the militia carry gave them their Dutch name of the “Kloveniers”, and the Kloveniersburgwal is a defensive canal built at the end of the 15th century, where they had their headquarters in which The Night Watch first hung. Overtaken as the city expanded outward, this canal was the center of Rembrandt’s life when he moved to Amsterdam from his home in Leiden. His first home is now a café, just off the Kloveniersburgwal, while his later success led to him buying a large house in 1639 that is a few streets away. It is now a museum dedicated to his life and work, with a large display of the prints that were the actual basis for his wealth and much of his fame while he lived.
The Rembrandthuis is vast and, despite the busy modern traffic outside, still quiet inside. Rembrandt overreached himself financially acquiring this home, eventually going bankrupt in 1656, and its size helps me understand why. In contrast, his bed is tiny, a small cupboard that reflects the fashion of the time to sleep upright and in warmth. The bed is poignantly familiar from drawings he made of his beloved wife Saskia lying in it while ill. It is also the bed she died in during childbirth.
“Rembrandt resonates with us because, like Hals, we recognize his subjects as real people,” says Marie. “His fascination with portraits reflects the radical change going on in European philosophy, led by the Dutch, turning their back on the idea that all authority rested with a church or a monarch and laying the foundation of a belief in the individual. He was not just painting their faces; he was also painting their souls. That obsession may also explain his own many self-portraits.”
Off Rembrandt’s airy studio is a study room stuffed with objects similar to those listed in the catalogue that accompanied his bankruptcy. Exotic weapons and feathers, animal skulls and skeletons, busts and armor are among the items Rembrandt bought off the sailors who thronged the canal sides. Props for his paintings, they also reflect a fascination with other peoples, cultures and ideas brought home by the Dutch voyages of discovery.
Across the road, a small café sitting lopsided by the canal delivers a view towards the Kloveniersburgwal that spans the centuries. I wander away from the noisy main road, and instantly disappear into a maze of quiet side streets, tiny canal bridges with bikes locked to their railings and an area of Thai and Chinese restaurants. Never far from a canal, I pop out opposite the Centraal Station and Amsterdam’s busy port; it is still a small city.
Rembrandt came to Amsterdam in his 20s and another painter also made his way here at a similar age in the 1870s. He too wandered the canals and docks, soaking up the atmosphere. The Rijksmuseum was a decade away from completion but he would return. He wrote to his brother after a visit in 1885, soon after it opened: “What particularly struck me when I saw the old Dutch paintings again is that they were usually painted quickly. That these great masters like Hals, Rembrandt, Ruisdael – so many others – as far as possible just put it straight down and didn’t come back to it so very much. If it worked, they left it alone.”
Vincent van Gogh had spent the previous two years in Nuenen, a tiny village some 120km south of Amsterdam, where his father was a pastor. I reach the village by bus from Eindhoven, a 15-minute ride. The few other passengers huddle upfront near the driver and the only sound is the quiet diesel engine, the automatic stop announcement and the bleep of electronic payment chip cards as passengers get on and off.
Nuenen is equally quiet and almost smugly prosperous, with rows of modern apartment blocks on its outskirts giving way to prosperous detached villas. The streets are spotless and the cyclists who pedal quietly by outnumber the few cars. A man comes past on a bicycle, leading two thoroughbred horses at the trot. Shoe shops, opticians and bank machines line the main street, while a Van Gogh café and The Potato Eaters restaurant are empty. Next to them are a tapas bar and a Chinese restaurant.
The VinCentre in the village is dedicated to the artist’s time here, of which The Potato Eaters – his dark painting of peasants sharing a simple meal – was the highlight. “Its darkness and spiritual depth evoke Rembrandt, one of Van Gogh’s favorite artists,” says Marie.
Ton De Brouwer, chairman of the Nuenen Foundation that helped set up the center, is also a Van Gogh expert. “Van Gogh was training to be a Protestant pastor but Nuenen was where he really became a painter instead,” he says. “He still wanted to use his talent to say something to people. The Potato Eaters is the most important painting of that time. It was the finishing touch to his awakening as an artist and was behind his decision to move to a big city where he could find buyers for his work.”
Van Gogh’s ambition can be seen here in the recollections of his friend Anton Kerssemaker, who recalled Van Gogh’s reply when asked why he signed his work as “Vincent”: “Van Gogh is such a difficult name to pronounce for many foreigners. If later on my works go to England or France or anywhere else, the name will be just be a problem whereas the whole world can pronounce the name Vincent.”
From the VinCentre, a series of walks takes me past buildings and views that are recognizable from Vincent’s work, including water mills, windmills and cottages. The Reformed Church seems unchanged through the centuries and I can see why he was drawn to tall buildings and high poplar trees in this flat landscape.
At lunch in a local restaurant, I note how a small glass of white wine stands at every elbow and that almost every customer wears spectacles. Well dressed and good mannered, they engage in quiet conversation and eat hearty tuna salads. The faces, however, are instantly recognizable; they share the same features that Van Gogh captured so memorably in The Potato Eaters. Through the centuries, the accessories and clothes might change, but the land, the light and the people stay the same.