A visit to the Mauritshuis

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The Wednesday morning of our break in Amsterdam we took the bus to Amsterdam Zuid station and boarded a train to Den Haag. It’s a relatively short journey and 45 minutes later we’d arrived. A 15 minute walk took us to our destination – the Mauritshuis museum.  It’s quite an impressive Dutch Classicist building, constructed between 1636 and 1641 as a private house for John Maurice, Prince of Nassau-Siegen. In 1820, it was bought by the Dutch state for the purpose of housing the Royal Cabinet of Paintings and was opened to the public in 1822.

It’s collection is outstanding. It’s relatively small compared to those of the big galleries in London and Paris, but what a collection it is.


When we arrived outside the building, I thought it looked too small to house all the paintings plus the reception, bookshop, café etc. However the entry in the courtyard takes you down into the reception area which is under the courtyard which also connects to another building across the road where there’s gallery space for temporary exhibitions and where the restaurant is located. During most of the year I reckon the museum would be very busy, but as we were visiting during a cold February day it wasn’t particularly crowded and we had no problem viewing the paintings.

The permanent collection is housed in the original building. My expectations were high and I was worried I might be disappointed, but that was definitely not the case. It more than lived up to my expectations Here are  some of the highlights.

Johannes Vermeer was born and lived just a few miles away in Delpht. There’s on 34 of his paintings known to exist and the Mauritshuis has 3 of them. He’s best known for his genre paintings of domestic interior scenes of middle-class life, but none of the works in the Mauritshuis’ collection fall into this category

I’d been eagerly anticipating seeing this beautiful little painting – Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Stunning


It’s a tronie, not a true portrait of a known individual but a painting of an anonymous individual to portray facial expressions and/or a character in costume. If we’d visited a few days later we wouldn’t have been able to see her, at least not properly. A few days after our visit she was removed from display for a technical examination. This is being done in public view in a special enclosure with glass panels. It would have been interesting to see the researchers at work, but I’d have been disappointed not to have had a proper view of this masterpiece.

The progress of the examination and research can be followed on a blog by Abbie Vandivere, head researcher for the project.

The collection also includes his landscape, View of Delft


Another outstanding painting, finely detailed with a real feel for light, an impressive cloudy sky and subtle reflections in the water.

The third Vermeer is an early painting, one of only two “history” paintings by him, Diana and her Nymphs, portraying a mythological scene.


This was the least favourite of all the Vermeer’s that I’ve seen (After visiting the Mauritshuis I reckon I’ve seen 22 of them). It’s certainly beautifuly painted, but it doesn’t have the appeal of his more intimate works.

In the next room there was this beautiful little painting

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The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. It’s become well known as it features in a best selling novel by Donna Tarrt. But it more than stands alone on it’s own merits. Fabritius was a pupil of Rembrandt and would probably be much better known if he hadn’t been one of several hundred people killed when the Delpht powder magazine exploded creating devastation in the town.

And speaking of Rembrandt, the Mauritshuis have an excellent selection of his works including this one


the painting that made his reputation The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.

Here’s a few more




There were paintings by other Dutch Golden Age painters, including a favourite of mine, Gerard ter Borch


Gabriel Metsu


Jan Steen


Hendrick Avercamp


Other artists in the collection include



Van Dyke


Hans Holbein – this is his portrait of Jane Seymour


and Pieter Claesz


The collection doesn’t include any modern works, except for two beautifully painted murals on the ceiling of the top floor


Icarus Atlanticus: Allegory of Human Vanity, and Icarus Atlanticus: Allegory of the Working Man  painted by Ger Lataster in 1987.

There were also a number of the flower paintings that were popular during the Golden Age. I preferred the live displays


Sunday Morning at the Rijksmuseum


After having visited Rembrandt’s house I thought I should go and have a look at some of his better known paintings, so a visit to the Rijksmuseum was in order. I was up early and after breakfast and checking out of my hotel, I took the tram into the city centre. The tram stopped directly outside the Rijksmuseum so I was there at about 9:30, half an hour after it opened. There were quite a few people around even at that early hour on a Sunday, but I didn’t have to queue for a ticket so I decided to make my way up to the “Gallery of Honour” on the second floor where the most well known paintings from the museum’s collection are on show before the hordes arrived.

The early start was definitely the right idea as I was able to get a good view of the paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer and spend some time contemplating. Only half an hour later that was much more difficult, particularly when the tour groups started arriving resulting in large groups gathering round the most well known works while the tour guide proceeded to discuss the paining. This made it very difficult to get a look in.


Everyone wanted to see the Night Watch, or The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenhurch, to give it it’s original name,  which is the centrepiece of the Nightwatch Room. My favourite of the Rembrandt paintings on display, however, was The Jewish Bride


Vincent Van Gogh is reported to have said

‘I should be happy to give ten years of my life if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food.’

Well, I don’t think I’d go quite that far but I certainly spent quite a few minutes contemplating it, returning a couple of times for another look before it became obscured by the tour groups.

The Rijksmuseum website describes the painting

Two contemporaries had themselves portrayed by Rembrandt in historicizing costumes as characters from the Bible. The couple’s tender embrace is at the centre of this poignant painting: the man’s loving gesture is returned with a gentle caress. The figures and their poses agree with the study (No 67), only the figure of King Abimelech spying on them is missing. We, the viewers, assume his role as witnesses of their clandestine love.

However, not everyone agrees

most art historians believe that the couple represent Isaac and Rebecca. Another, more neutral explanation is that the man is declaring his love to his wife. In that case the subject of the painting would be the virtue of marriage. (Rembrandt House website)

Yet another interpretation is that the painting depicts

a Jewish father hanging a necklace around his daughter’s neck on her wedding day (Jewish Press Website)

I thought tht Rembrandt had certainly captured the man’s affection for his bride (if that is what she is) I also liked the way he had applied the paint. Looking close up it was possible to see that Rembrandt had applied the paint very roughly. The paint on the man’s sleeve is so thick that it seems as though Rembrandt used a palette knife to put it on. (Rembrandt House website)

Rembrandt produced more than 300 paintings. The Rijksmuseum, not surprisingly, have a number of them. I can’t say that I like them all. Sometimes the subject matter doesn’t appeal and sometimes they’re just too dark. Of the other of his works on display I liked three paintings that were hung in the same corner as The Jewish Bride.

One of these was The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, known as ‘The Syndics’,

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The individuals portrayed (all but the servant at the back would have paid to be included in the painting) have a real, lived in look about them. They’re not idealised. The older men have wrinkles. And I like the way they look out – it seems that they are looking directly out at the viewer, making you feel part of the scene.

The other two works hanging nearby were portraits. One of his son Titus dressed as a Franciscan Friar


His downcast eyes lend him an air of quiet introspection. His serene, pale face stands out clearly against a backdrop of green and brown vegetation.Solitary retreat into nature for prayer and reflection was of great importance to Saint Francis and his order. (Rijksmuseum website)

Finally  the only self-portrait where Rembrandt portrays himself as a biblical figure – in this case Saint Paul


Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul

There was a lot more to see in the museum, including 4 paintings by Vermeer in the Gallery of Honour, a few yards from the Rembrandts. I think I’ll save them for another post.

Rembrandt’s House

A visit to the Rembrandt House museum was one of the main things on my to do list during my recent short stay in Amsterdam.


Rembrandt purchased the house in 1639 and lived there until he went bankrupt in 1656, when all his belongings were auctioned off..

The house has been restored to look like it did when the artist lived there. As they’d been sold off when he went bankrupt, it doesn’t contain the original contents, but the detailed auction list of all his belongings meant similar pieces of furniture and other items have been obtained. There are also copies of the paintings he used to own hung on the walls.

I’d purchased an e-ticket in advance via the museum’s website, but there was no advantage in doing this. There was no priority queue. However, the museum was not over busy and there was no problem gaining entry. It’s a self guided tour and an audio guide is included in the entry fee.

The first room visited is the kitchen which is in the basement



The entrance hall on the ground floor


The ante-room on the ground floor. Rembrandt, who wasan art dealer besides an artist, would have met his clients here.


Rembrandt’s studio on the first floor, lit by large north facing windows




warmed by a couple of elaborately decorated Dutch stoves


Rembrandt’s collection of books and miscellaneous artefacts



The studio on the top floor where Rembrandt’s apprentices would have worked.


In addition to his extensive oeuvre of paintings and drawings, Rembrandt van Rijn also produced around 290 prints.The museum holds regular demonstrations of the drypoint and etching process Rembrandt would have used to produce his prints.


They even have a reproduction of the type of press he would have used – which was operated to produce a print during the demonstration.


I also saw a demonstration of how artists during Rembrandt’s time used to produce their paints.



In those days artists couldn’t nip down to the shop and buy tubes of paints ready to use that would keep. They had to grind the pigments, mix them with oil and grind the mixture to produce a smooth paint which would quickly go off, so they would have to be prepared on the day they were going to be used. With successful artists this laborious work would be done by their apprentices.

I particularly enjoyed the demonstrations as they gave a glimpse into the life of an artist living at that time.

Next to the house itself there’s a modern extension and beside the entrance to the museum and small gift shop, the upper floors are used for exhibitions of modern artists and examples from the extensive collection of etchings by Rembrandt owned by the museum.


The Gemäldegalerie, Berlin


During the Cold War and partition of Germany and Berlin, Museum Island was in the eastern sector of the city – in the DDR. West Berlin created their own cultural quarter close to Potsdamer Plaza – the Kulturforum with Mies van der Rohe’s Neu Nationalgalerie, and the Philharmonie and Chamber Music Hal , the Berlin Sate Library and the Gemäldegalerie, which houses an impressive collections of “old masters”.

The Gemäldegaleriewas was designed by Munich architects Heinz Hilmer and Christoph Sattler. There are 72 rooms which flow around a large central hall, described by the museum as a "meditation hall". The hall sometimes displays sculpture, but is mostly empty, allowing easy crossing between rooms.


The collection is organised so that the rooms on the northern side of the gallery displays works by artists from Northern Europe and the the rooms on the south side mainly devoted to Southern Europe (Italy and France, principally). They also have paintings by English artists, including Gainsborough.

It’s a massive collection, and although we spent more than a couple of hours in the gallery we hardly scratched the surface. However, I’m not overfond of Italian art from the Renaissance and earlier with  religious and mythical themes. I can admire the skill of the artists but it doesn’t move me. So we concentrated on works from Northern Europe, particularly the painting from the Low Countries from the 15th to 17th centuries.

There were paintings by Jan van Eyck,

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Pieter Bruegel,

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Albrecht Dürer,

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several Rembrandts, 

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and Dutch “genre” paintings and winter landscapes

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The stars of the show, though were two paintings by Vermeer

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of which this was my favourite.

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A visit to Kenwood House


Kenwood House stands on the north end of Hampstead Heath. A magnificent sight situated on the top of a hill with views extending over the Heath as far as the centre of London with the modern skyscrapers visible in the distance.


Although we’ve stayed in Hampstead a few times over the last couple of years before our latest visit the house was closed for renovation. But it reopened recently and a visit was a must during our short break early January to see the house and it’s renowned collection of paintings.

There’s been a house on the site since the early 17th Century. It’s changed over the years but the magnificent white neo-Classical style building created by by the Scottish architect Robert Adam, who, with his brother James, remodelled and extended the building for William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, between 1764 and 1779. Today it’s owned by the English Heritage after it was bequeathed to the nation, together with a collection of Old Master and British paintings, in 1925 by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847–1927).

When we arrived we were amazed to find that entry was free. The first time ever for a visit to an English Heritage property! But I later discovered that free entry was a condition of the Iveagh bequest.

Entrance was on the north of the house via this neo-Classical portico with it’s fluted Ionic order columns and triangular pediment, which was part of the remodelling by Robert and James Adam.


Inside, the main architectural interest was Adam’s rather magnificent library, or ‘Great Room’.

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Although lined with books the room was mainly used for entertaining. (I wonder if anyone actually read the books – they were probably mainly for show, to impress visitors that the owner was well read and educated.) The room is beautifully proportioned and has a stunning ceiling featuring paintings by Antonio Zucchi, and It has a decorative frieze. I snapped the above photo on my phone and it really wasn’t possible to get a decent shot that does justice to this room that is considered (according to the guidebook!) to be is one of Adam’s greatest interiors. There’s a better photo here (no visitors to get in the way!) together with some information on the restoration work.

During the recent renovation English Heritage had extensive paint analysis undertaken and have restored Adam’s original rather restrained powder blue and white decorative scheme, which has almost a Modernist look. Looking at pictures in the guidebook it was much more heavily decorated with lots of gilding and bright colours. I reckon it’s probably an improvement, but then I don’t like over fussy decoration. I don’t know whether regular visitors would agree. It would be interesting to read any comments on this (What do you think Milady?)

There are three other main surviving Adam interiors – the entrance hall, Great Stairs and antechamber. They have clearly been changed over time, but the English Heritage website tells us that

they retain considerable fabric and character from Adam’s time


Another attraction for us was the art collection, that had been

There were numerous portraits from the major portrait painters from the second half of the 18th century. Works by Gainsborough, Reynolds and George Romney, who we have got to know very well due to the collection of his works held by Abbot Hall in his home town of Kendal.  We are now able to recognise his works at first glance! The Romney paintings included several featuring his muse Emma Hart – better known as Lady Hamilton.

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Emma Hart at Prayer by George Romney

There were also a significant collection of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings including  a self-portrait Rembrandt’s  (c 1665)

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But, for me, this little beauty was the best of the lot.

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The Guitar Player (c 1672), Johannes Vermeer

There were also sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore in the grounds.

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Monolith-Empyrean (1953) Barbara Hepworth

We didn’t explore the grounds and gardens, it was far too muddy underfoot. We’ll save that for another time.

An afternoon at the Whitworth

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Yesterday I decided to travel over to the Whitworth gallery in Manchester. I hadn’t been there for quite some time and a visit was overdue. I thought I’d spend an hour or two looking around and then head into Manchester city centre. However, I ended up spending a full afternoon in the gallery

The main exhibition, taking over the ground floor, was “Cotton:Global threads” based around the natural fibre that was the basis of Manchester’s prosperity. It featured works by a number of contemporary artists and samples from Manchester University’s textile collection

to tell a compelling story about the production, consumption and global trade in cotton. With exhibits ranging in date from the late Middle Ages to the present day, the exhibition takes in Lancashire and South Asia, the Americas and Africa and is the region’s flagship exhibition outcome of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.

It included some paintings and collages, woven pieces, historic examples of products made from textiles and, as always seems to he the case these days with exhibitions of contemporary art, some video works.

Upstairs there were three separate exhibitions,

Dark Matters: Works from the Collectionwhich showed a selection of works from the gallery’s permanent collection. It included works by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Francis Bacon and Henry Moore

Victor Pasmore: Transformations -  various abstract prints produced between 1965 and 1974

Idris Khan: The Devil’s Wall –  which features sculptures, literary texts, drawings and photography

The Idris Khan exhibition was particularly good and deserves its own write up

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The Three Crosses (1653-4) Drypoint by Rembrandt from the “Dark Matters” exhibition

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The Fortifications of Paris With Houses (1887) Vincent Van Gogh from the “Dark Matters” exhibition

While I was looking around the gallery I heard music coming from one of the large rooms on the ground floor. Looking over the balcony I could see chairs set out ready for an event and a group of three musicians, who were clearly practising and getting ready for a performance. I discovered that there was to be a poetry reading and concert that afternoon organised by Poets and Players an organisation supported by the Arts Council who run such events on a regular basis, mainly at the Whitworth.

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Jinny Shaw and friends

I’d never been to a poetry reading before, so while I was there (and it was free!) I decided to sit in. There were readings by three poets, Marius Kociejowski, Janine Pinion and Jeremy Over, interspersed by music from three musicians from the Halle Orchestra, led by oboist Jinny Shaw. I really enjoyed the music, most of it composed by Jinny Shaw (although they also played two movements of a piece by Villa Lobos), some of the pieces especially created in response to the poems read by Janine Pinion -  after each poem the ensemble  followed with a short instrumental response. I really enjoyed the music, which, to me,  was similar in style to the compositions  of Ravel and Debussy.

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Marius Kociejowski

I think that I enjoyed the Janine’s poems best. They were simpler than those read by Jeremy and Marius, both published authors. The others were, perhaps, more intellectually demanding and not as easy to relate to for somebody who had walked in off the street, so to speak.

But it was interesting to sit in on the event and I enjoyed the new experience. All in all, a good afternoon.

Vermeer in Dublin

Watching the excellent programme on BBC4 by Andrew Graham-Dixon’s profiling the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, reminded me of our holiday in Ireland last August. While we were in Dublin we visited the Irish National Gallery, and 0ne of the highlights of the visit was his painting Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (painted around 1670).

Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid by Vermeer

The painting has an interesting recent history. In 1974, when it was privately owned, together with other works by Goya, Gainsborough and Rubens, it was stolen by the IRA. It was recovered after only 8 days, but was stolen again in 1986 by a gang led by the notorious Irish criminal, Martin Cahill (known as “the General”) who demanded a ransom of £20 million. It was recovered in 1993 following a “sting” operation by the Irish police. The owner had obviously had enough and before it was recovered had donated it to the Irish National Gallery.

One of the things I like about Vermeer’s work is that his paintings are full of light and bright colours. In this respect they are different from the works by many of his contemporaries which are often rather dark and gloomy. It was interesting to compare Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid with the painting by Rembrandt Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1647), also on display in the Irish National gallery.

Rembrandt van Rijn, 'Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt', 1647.

Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Rembrandt

Of course the latter is set during the night, so perhaps it’s not so surprising that its rather dark, but the same is true for many of his other paintings. Vermeer’s are very different with liberal use of blues and yellows. During the 17th century the pigments used in such paints were extremely expensive, so perhaps this at least partially accounts for the relatively small number of works he produced. There are only 34 paintings currently attributed to Vermeer. Many of them, though, are well known. Particularly “ Girl with a Pearl Earring”, which is sometimes referred to as “the Mona Lisa of the North”.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer

There are about 1,400 drawings known to have been created by Rembrandt . In contrast are  no drawings that can be attributed to Vermeer. Not many artists produce as many as Rembrandt, who was a particularly skilled draughtsman, but the preparation of a work of art normally involves preparatory sketches and drawings, and some would normally be expected to survive.

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Study for one of the syndics of the Cloth Guild by Rembrandt

One theory that could account for the lack of drawings by Vermeer, suggested by some people, including David Hockney in his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters and the physicist Charles M. Falco, is that he used optical techniques including a camera obscura. There’s a good discussion of this theory here and here.

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Camera obscura from Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers

The camera obscura projects an image onto the canvas or other surface being painted, and this can be transferred by tracing or pin pricking. The image is upside down, but this does not present a problem for a skilled practitioner. The use of this technique has also been attributed to other artists, including Van Eyck, Holbein, Caravaggio, and Ingres.

Not everyone agrees with the theory, but to me, whether or not he used the camera obscura is immaterial. The skills of the artist are arranging in the composition and applying the paint (or other medium) to produce something that pleases the eye and the senses and moves the observer. And that is exactly what Vermeer does in his works.

An excellent resource on Vermeer, his life and work, is available here

Picture credits: Wikimedia commons