(Van Gogh’s painting of an almond tree in bloom.)
Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Escher. All notable Dutch artists whose talent was recognized in their lifetime (to varying degrees) and whose influence and fame continue to this day. How is it that a country as small as the Netherlands has managed to produce so many talented artists of such a wide range of productivity and styles?
That is a question I am not prepared to answer or even speculate upon intelligently. I do know that my two favorite painters happened to be Dutch (Van Gogh and Vermeer), and after seeing the works of several others while in Holland, notably Escher and numerous others from the Haarlem and Utrecht “schools”, I am suitably impressed.
But first, a word of warning. Since this is foremost a travel blog, and I am nowhere near being an art “critic”, I do not pretend to have any great insight or commentary on the work of any of the artists I mention in this posting. In other words, the opinions expressed are my own, perhaps uninformed, but to paraphrase Popeye, “I yam what I yam and like what I like.” I will strive to relate my own experiences and impressions of a few museums and collected works – nothing more. For any of you more knowledgeable art connoisseurs who would like to comment on what follows, be my guest. I’d love some input as well as insight. But these are my impressions, no more.
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
First off, let me point out that 99.9% of us have been mispronouncing this great artist’s last name. It is not “van go” (as in doe, female deer) but “fan gkocchk” (or something close to that). After all, he was Dutch and his name was – naturally – pronounced correctly in that language. (For those of you new to this blog and/or Dutch, read my earlier posting, “Dutch is a Pirate Language.”)
So it was no surprise that when the “fan gkocchk” museum was pointed out to us on our bus tour of Amsterdam several moons ago, it took a while to register that the guide was referring to the Van Gogh Museum. (It was at that point that our English version of the tour conked out on us, hence the brief interlude of Dutch – and confusion – as to what we were craning our necks at out the window.)
Once this rather comical translation mishap was straightened out and we actually got to the Van Gogh Museum, we found the experience worth our while. Moderately-sized for a museum dedicated to one artist, the VGM has an excellent collection of Van Gogh’s work. What was startling to remember is that this artist only painted for about ten years before ending his life at age thirty-seven, and to witness the changes in his work from his early attempts and style to the blazing colors and strokes of his final months was amazing. Even more stunning than Van Gogh’s range of styles was his productivity: in all, he is estimated to have painted over 900 canvases and 1,100 drawings. Of this body of work, he sold only one painting during his short lifetime.
I was particularly intrigued with his paintings of almond blossoms and other spring-blooming trees that reflect the influence of Japanese art on his style for a short period of time. Another revelation was that at one time Van Gogh had seriously contemplated following his father into the ministry. Trying to juxtapose those earlier intentions with his last years in Paris and Arles was a tad disorienting but gave this complexartist an even greater depth than I had realized before.
No display of Van Gogh’s work is complete without some of the colorful, even splashy canvases from his last 2-3 years. Sadly, most of his best known canvases are housed in other collections, but there were a couple of sunflowers and wheat fields, and the famous purple irises round out this eclectic collection/display.
Definitely a “must-see” for any lover of Van Gogh’s work.
At the other end of the productivity spectrum is Johann Vermeer (1632-1675) who was known in his lifetime as a talented but painstakingly
slow artist. According to the Vermeer Center in the artist’s home town of Delft, he produced (an estimated) 40 or so canvases, of which only 35 have survived to this day. Although Vermeer was locally appreciated and sought after during his day, he did not receive world-wide accolades until well into the 19th century and has remained popular ever since. He is now most famous for his painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring, thanks to the novel and movie of the same title.
What makes Vermeer such an incredible artist is his use and conveyance of light in his paintings. The light, usually coming from the left, is both suffuse yet also seems to spotlight the subject. Many of his portraits, such as the Girl With a Pearl Earring seem incandescent with light.
If you like Vermeer I highly recommend a trip to the Vermeer Center in Delft. This is not a museum that displays any of his original work.
Instead, there is a gallery of large, quality photographs of each of his
surviving paintings. The value of seeing each reproduction sequentially is to trace his emerging style and use of light, as well as be able to get an appreciation of how much of his work reflected everyday life in medieval Delft.
I had had my reservations about paying to see just photographs, but in the end I felt I had learned and understood so much more about Vermeer and his work. The center also has a brief video on his life and times, exhibits that show contemporary artifacts of Delft, and a reproduction of his studio. Most interesting was the series of exhibits that detailed his use of light in every aspect from its shading and coloring of human skin to how it both illuminates and reflects from still objects.
The town of Delft itself is delightful. Ribboned with small canals and traversed by cobbled streets and bridges, Delft is a charming and pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
The main canal in Delft with the flea market on either side.
The House of Escher
The Escher Museum in den Haag (“The Hague” to the non-Dutch) is housed in one of the former palaces of the Dutch Royal Family. The high-ceilinged rooms, with their crystal chandeliers spectacularly shaped into carnival masks, guitars, skulls and more, are a beautiful showcase of Escher’s evolving art.
Like most people, I was familiar primarily with Escher’s tessellations. I emerged from the museum with a greater knowledge of the man and the breadth and depth of his work. It is impressive.
After viewing the museum, I highly recommend a brief respite at the Hotel des Indes a few yards to the right as you exit the museum. High tea is served daily in the domed lobby of this elegant hotel, complete with silver service and a timer for proper steeping of the tea leaves. (You can also have just plain old “low” tea and/or “spirits” and bar snacks if you prefer.)
The Escher Museum in one of the former Dutch royal palaces.