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Amsterdam and Vermeer - 2023

23-28 March 2023



A long weekend in Amsterdam with two objectives: to catch up with some old friends from Allen & Overy days; and to see the Vermeer exhibition.


Sold out

The first thing to say about the exhibition is that it is, and has been for weeks, completely sold out. The whole world has fallen in love with Vermeer. Here we have the largest collection of Vermeer paintings ever got together, something unlikely to be repeated in any of our lifetimes, and there are multitudes of people who would like to but won’t be able to see them. Sad – but what can anyone do about it? It’s impossible, apparently, to extend the dates. They’ve already increased the opening times, so as to sell more tickets, all of which were immediately snapped up.


How did we manage to get in? Particularly after I (typically) made a mistake booking on line. I succeeded in getting tickets for the museum, stupidly not realizing that they didn’t cover the exhibition. I checked with our very good friend Sietze Hepkema who confirmed the obvious, but amazingly was able to contact one of the Rijksmuseum people. She very kindly managed to get us in. We were very lucky.


The exhibition


The exhibition is of course magnificent, and beautifully organized. You go through a series of very dark rooms, each often containing only two or three of the paintings, beautifully presented and easily viewable – subject only to the large crowds wending their way through. See what I mean?


They have 28 paintings, out of a total of 37 (36 if you ignore the one stolen from a Boston museum a few years ago and not yet recovered). They come from the US, the UK, many other countries, and including of course those normally residing in the Netherlands.


But there are two surprising omissions. One is The Music Lesson, from our own Royal collection. Surely that would have provided a great opportunity for our new King to support such a magnificent event? Or perhaps he wasn’t asked?


The other is The Art of Painting, which Vermeer himself kept probably in his studio until his death, possibly to show his talents to prospective clients. It had pride of place in the major Vermeer exhibition some 25 years ago at the National Gallery in London – on loan from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Were they not approached? Did they have a problem?



Still, having so many of his paintings in the same place, including of course the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring, does allow you to get to know and admire his skills and individuality.


He was largely forgotten for some 200 years after his death, only to be rediscovered by a Frenchman, Théophile Thoré-Bürger, in the mid-19th century. And now, as we see, he draws bigger crowds than all his contemporaries put together – except I guess Rembrandt. There is an interesting set of stained glass windows in a prominent position, constructed in the 19th century when the museum was built, showing among other things the great Dutch painters of the past. Four make the grade: Rembrandt, of course, plus three others I’d never heard of and whose names I forget – but no Vermeer.



I found myself surprised by the curious combination of his famous attention to detail and, at the same time, a kind of blurry haziness, particularly in the features of the women he was painting. Quite surprising in that so many of those particular paintings seem to be telling a story, often about love, possibly illicit, where the expression, even though hazy, is what makes the painting so fascinating. What is the girl reading in the letter? What is the girl standing at the virginal thinking about? – our speculations helped along by a picture of Cupid in the background!



The attention to detail is well known, often done by minimalistic touches such as the innumerable spots of white paint – on the earrings (famously), but also the studs on the chairs, the material of the ubiquitous carpets, the “finials” with lion heads on the backs of the chairs. The curious globe hanging above the lady in The Allegory of Faith has enough fine detail to allow diligent critics to think they see a reflection of a camera obscura that some (not including the curators of the exhibition!) believe Vermeer used to help him getting his perspectives right.


I was intrigued to see in the View of Delft the “yellow wall” that doesn’t come out as yellow in most reproductions but which does (just) in the original and about which Proust goes into lengthy, even typically verbose, ecstasies, when describing the death of the novelist Bergotte towards the end of A la recherche du temps perdu.




Taxis and Ramadan


Taxis are both essential and tricky. Essential because Amsterdam is a touch too large to allow you to walk everywhere – and also because the central part is laid out around the curving canals, making it very easy to get lost.


Tricky because you can’t hail one, like you can in London. So you have to phone and know how to describe where you are. It can be a challenge.


Our first experience provided a different sort of challenge. We ordered it through the hotel – no problem. But then we had to wait 20 minutes after the time we’d ordered it for. The reason became a joke. It was because of Ramadan. Almost all the drivers are Moroccan (or, bearing in mind Lady Susan‘s difficulties at Buckingham Palace, I should say of Moroccan origin). During Ramadan, they ought not to eat during daylight hours. So if you order a taxi around sunset, as we did, you have to be patient. Every driver is desperate to wrap his face around some supper – understandably in priority to driving his taxi.


Bicycles


The other hazard is of course the bicycle. As is well known, Amsterdam is full to bursting point with bicycles, now including increasing numbers of faster e-bikes. The problem for the foreigner is that the cycle lanes, of which Amsterdam is very well equipped, look dangerously like pedestrian pavements. They are not! Beware! You don’t want to get in the way of a cyclist speeding along, even if he is meant to avoid you. You don’t want to be dead even if you’re in the right.


Mauritshuis


The Mauritshuis in The Hague has to be one of the best small museums in the world – always worth a visit if one is anywhere near, even without its best-known treasure the Girl with a Pearl Earring. The Hague is just one hour by train from Amsterdam, stopping though it does at every station, on the strangely named “sprinter” service.


The museum is in an elegant 17th century house, built by Johann Maurits, who turns out, surprisingly, to have been governor of Brazil. Only a bit of Brazil, I guess, but still indicating the worldwide reach of Holland in those days. The Dutch have to apologise for the fact that Mr Maurits ran sugar plantations employing African slaves. Little notices appear beside relevant artworks pointing all this out. But, mercifully, they don’t seem to be under pressure to destroy the whole place.


The Pearl Earring


The most famous painting in the museum is the Girl with a Pearl Earring, now of course in the Rijksmuseum exhibition. I was interested to see what they would do about it. Just a blank wall? Replacing it with a nice reproduction? “We hope you are not disappointed or inconvenienced”.

No, they excelled themselves. They had organized a competition, asking for contemporary works inspired by the picture. They got 3,500 responses. The best of them were put up where the picture should have been. Some were slightly wild, many were comic, see below! We, of course, could bear the “inconvenience” as we had just seen the original in Amsterdam. For others, it will be back home at the beginning of April.













Rembrandt

They also have Rembrandts, including the slightly troubling picture of an anatomy lesson, with a group of well-dressed men looking on as the lecturer pulls out various tendons, muscles and other innards from a naked corpse lying on the dissecting table. Not a painting for the dining room.

Fabritius


More approachable is the tiny picture of a goldfinch perched on its feeding box, painted by Carel Fabritius. He is thought to have been a colleague of Vermeer in Delft before he died prematurely as a result of the catastrophic fire that destroyed much of Delft when Vermeer was still a young man.



Les Indes


We had tea with our friend Vivianne Hepkema at the splendid Hotel des Indes, located on one of the beautiful town squares of The Hague. The “Indes” are what we now think of as the West Indies, reminding us again of the major presence of the Dutch in those parts, even including Brazil.




Rijksmuseum


Back in Amsterdam and a visit to the Rijksmuseum for its normal exhibits.



They give pride of place to Rembrandt’s Night Watch, certainly a magnificent painting, but not one that, in my very humble opinion, shows off his genius at its best. Anyway, at the moment it’s undergoing a massive restoration, largely in front of the gaze of the visiting public. You see it accordingly at a distance behind much glass paneling.


There are plenty of other things to admire: many Rembrandts that do show him at his amazing best; his contemporary Franz Hals with his very different freer style, keen on painting jovial men enjoying a drink; and Pieter de Hooch, similar to Vermeer, but frankly demonstrating how good Vermeer was.





Logistics and nourishment


I should add a word about how we travelled and where we stayed and ate.


We went by Eurostar, all the way, in what they called Standard Premier, definitely a notch above whatever they call economy. Very comfortable. On the way out, we had to divert for a reason I forget (it wasn’t the French rioting!), which made us nearly an hour late, but so what?

.

We stayed in a pleasant hotel, the Bilderberg Garden, not exactly central, more on the edge, the southern edge of the central area. It was about a 15 minute walk to the Rijksmuseum, but we got reasonably familiar with the various taxi firms.


For restaurants we were initially in the highly reliable hands of our Dutch friends. The first selection was a small excellent restaurant called Visque, full of the sort of people who look as though they know where to eat. The next was a lively Italian place called Segugio, near the Prinsengracht canal, also excellent.


On the Monday we had to make up our own minds, all of the above being closed on Mondays, possibly according to local custom. We met up with English friends also on the Vermeer trail and managed to find another Italian that was not closed and was even better than the others, the Casa di David. We did also find another one, Sardegna, which was slightly more fancy (table cloths and much napery) serving unexpectedly vast helpings.


In summary, one eats pretty well in Amsterdam, although Mondays seem to be a challenge.




Tony Herbert

31 March 2023











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