by Roderick Conway Morris

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Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery, The Hague
The Mauritshuis from the Hofvijver

A Jewel from the Dutch Golden Age

By Roderick Conway Morris
THE HAGUE 7 October 2022


Johan Maurits returned to The Hague in 1644 having served for nearly eight years as the 'governor, captain and Admiral-General' of the newly established colony of Dutch Brazil. He sailed from Recife in a fleet of thirteen ships with an extraordinary cargo of flora and fauna, native arms, artefacts, precious metals, stones, ores, shells, corals and other exotic objects. For good measure he brought a dozen of the indigenous people, whose displays of near-naked dances on arrival in Holland scandalized the more shockable of the native European population.

Before his departure, Maurits had begun the construction of a remarkable building, which was to preserve his name long after the military exploits that had led to his appointment as governor of Dutch Brazil by the Dutch West India Company were largely forgotten. This building was one of the first fully fledged examples of Dutch Classicism, or Palladianism, and is perhaps its most perfect expression.

On moving into his new residence, Maurits made it, in the words of a contemporary, 'a treasure house' of his Brazilian collections, along with more conventional European paintings, sculptures and objets d'art. After his death in 1679 the building had a chequered history, but 200 years ago, in 1822, found a new purpose as a treasure-house of Dutch and Flemish art, when it became a Royal Gallery of Painting that since the late 19th century has become universally known as, simply, the Mauritshuis.

Johan Maurits, Count of Nassau-Siegen, was born in 1604, the nephew of the Stadholder Frederik Hendrik Orange-Nassau, son of William the Silent, the principal leader of the Dutch Revolt that in 1581 declared the Independence of the United Provinces from Spanish Habsburg rule. In 1544 William had inherited the ancient title of Prince of Orange and became the founder of what would later become the Dutch monarchy.

Maurits's noble background and distinguished service in the States Army, which he joined at the age of 16, along with his blood ties to the Stadholder Frederik Hendrik, put him in a favourable position to buy a parcel of land next door to the stately Binnenhof in The Hague, the epicentre of the Republic's court and political life, where the States General met and the Stadholder had his own quarters. The Binnenhof is still the seat of the Dutch Parliament today. Maurits's plot overlooked a picturesque lake, the Hofvijver (Court Pond), an ideal setting for the splendid mansion Maurits planned to build.

Frederik Hendrik had an intense interest in architecture, shared by his nephew Johan and also his secretary Constantijn Huygens, who recorded that the Stadholder, 'with his natural affection for architecture never stops urging everyone to embellish The Hague.' This passion led all three men to take a direct role in designing their own buildings. All were deeply learned in architectural matters and Huygens had seen the buildings of Palladio and his most influential Venetian follower Vincenzo Scamozzi in the Veneto and those of Inigo Jones in London.

Work on the Mauritshuis began in 1633. The original conception was Maurits's own but he recruited Jacob van Campen - described by a contemporary as 'the most excellent of all painters and very proficient in mathematics, perspective and architecture' - to develop his ideas and bring the project to fruition. In the meantime, Constantijn Huygens had obtained his own site nearby and designed his own house, with some input from van Campen at the later stages.

When in 1636 Maurits was appointed governor by the Dutch West India Company and left for Brazil, Huygens agreed to supervise the construction of the Mauritshuis in parallel with the building of his own Huygenshuis (which, alas, was demolished in 1876).

Whereas in terms of materials Huygens's Palladian house was relatively modest, being built of brick with only finishing adornments in stone, all four façades of the Mauritshuis had Ionic pilasters, mouldings and festoons in sandstone. The front and rear pediments were filled with sculptural reliefs for the first time since antiquity. Indeed, no expense was spared and, although Maurits was an enlightened governor of the transatlantic colony with a genuine interest in the welfare of the indigenous peoples there, some of the financing of this lavish project undoubtedly came from the slave trade and sugar plantations.

Nonetheless, when Maurits died in 1679 he was deeply in debt and the house passed to his creditors in the Maes family, who leased it to the States of Holland. John Churchill, the Duke of Malborough, was accommodated there for several years, first as Britain's ambassador and then as supreme commander of the Anglo-Dutch armies in the War of the Spanish Succession. However, the Duke was absent on the night of 23 December 1704, when an inebriated servant failed to snuff out his candle, a fire broke out and the house was all-but burned to the ground, only the walls left standing.

Happily, it was decided that it should be rebuilt as it was, initially financed by a series of lotteries. New interiors were created and the Venetian artist Giovanni Antonio Pellegini provided the paintings for the Golden Room. Subsequently, the Dutch government put the building to various uses but in 1822 the Maurtishuis finally found its ideal role as a national art gallery.

Many of the masterpieces of Flemish and Dutch art that are displayed at the gallery were created during the same period that the Mauritshuis was built, now known as the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Dutch art having been transformed during the Eighty Years War for independence between 1558 and 1648, and with Protestantism in the ascendant in the liberated provinces, this was a period when demand for religious art declined and new forms flourished, notably portraiture, landscapes, still lifes and genre scenes of everyday life.

The foundations of the Mauritshuis collection were laid by two Princes of Orange, Willliam IV (1711-1751) and his son William V (1748-1806), the latter being the first to open the royal collection to the public in 1774. However, in 1795 after the Dutch Republic was invaded by the French, the contents of that gallery were carried off to the Louvre. But most of the booty was returned after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and in the same year King William I (1772-1843) donated the entire royal collection to the state.

One of the historic paintings included in this donation was Gerard Houckgeest's 'The Tomb of William the Silent in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft' (1651), the first of such diagonal views of austere, whitewashed Protestant church interiors, stripped of their former Catholic adornments, which became a genre in itself.

The quite extraordinary additional riches that we can enjoy in the gallery today are the result of tireless efforts to expand the collection through donations and acquisitions.

One of the new gallery's first additions in 1822 was Johannes Vermeer's 'View of Delft' (1660-61), an innovative townscape, in which the painter has artfully altered the actual view to emphasize the composition's three bands of broad canal, buildings and sky. The artist's 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' was re-discovered only in 1881, when A.A. de Tombes, a sharp-eyed connoisseur, bagged it at an auction for a couple of guilders. He bequeathed it to the gallery with a dozen other pictures upon his death in 1902.

Another early acquisition in the 1820s was Rembrandt's 'The Anatomy Lesson' (1632), ground-breaking in its dynamic composition and one of the finest of the artist's group portraits. Other Rembrandts originated in the Royal Collection, with added bequests by one of the gallery's most outstanding directors, Abraham Bredius (1855-1946), but it was only in 1999 that the marvellous 'Portrait of an Elderly Man' (1667), one of the artist's last dated portraits, came to gallery. As director, Bredius also managed to acquire - for a song, in Paris, in 1896 - Carel Fabritius's fascinating trompe-l'oeil 'The Goldfinch'. This painting dates to 1654, the year the artist died, tragically, at the age of 32, when Delft's powder magazine exploded, destroying his studio nearby.

Two post-Reformation genres that thrived in the Netherlands were landscapes and still lifes and the Mauritshuis is abundantly furnished with classic examples of both. Jacob van Ruisdael's magnificent 'View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds' (1670-75) entered the collection in 1827 and was later joined by numerous other classic pieces. Another Haarlem-born painter, Frans Post, sailed with Maurits to Brazil and executed some striking landscapes there.

Among the most beautiful of the still lifes is Willem Claesz Heda's 'Still Life with a Roemer and Watch' (1629). The underlying melancholy theme is the transience of all things but the perfect execution of every element in the composition and superb lighting make the painting irresistibly uplifting.

'To mark the bicentenary of the gallery, the Frick Gallery in New York is lending the Mauritshuis ten of its finest 17th-century Dutch masters, from 29 September until 15 January 2023.'

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024