Yes, it’s a terrible pun, but my imaginative faculties are exhausted and you must forgive me. I spent last weekend and the beginning of this week in Amsterdam, a trip which was spontaneous and entirely unlooked for. It was for the purposes of business, but my boss, who knows my penchant for museums, granted me an extra night in the hotel and so I had most of Sunday in which to explore this unknown city.
I say ‘unknown’ with reason: as you’ve probably gathered, my interests (both historical and artistic) are Italocentric. The Dutch have always slipped under my radar and I had never been to either Amsterdam or to the Netherlands before last weekend. My state of ignorance about the country is dizzying and, much as I’d like to change that, a few hurried days with an Amsterdam guidebook can only offer a brief introduction.
Amsterdam didn’t look as I’d expected it to. In retrospect, this may be because I’d conflated my limited knowledge of Northern European cities with canals, and had been expecting it to look like Bruges (which I have also not yet visited; although I did see its lights from the plane window on the return journey). In fact, there’s very little architecture in Amsterdam which predates the Golden Age, i.e. the mid-17th century. Along the main canals – the Prinsengracht, the Keizersgracht, the Herengracht, which embrace the old town in concentric circles – the buildings are broadly consistent in style, neat, narrow and uniformly elegant. Some of the buildings reminded me of the old parts of Bristol, where I grew up, which isn’t remotely surprising because of course both cities flourished on the proceeds of 17th-century shipping.
There certainly seems to be a sympathy between the Dutch and English souls in that respect: we’re both nations of shopkeepers, merchants and sailors; the sea is part of our national identity; and of course there are the parallels in our religious history too, as Protestants. What I mean to convey is that Amsterdam doesn’t actually seem all that foreign. The Dutch themselves are delightful people: virtually everyone I spoke to was incredibly friendly and welcoming, and everyone – everyone – speaks fluent English. There were many differences, of course: the Red Light District and the aromas floating from so-called ‘coffee shops’ to name just two of the more striking. But cycling etiquette was just as noticeable and I was deeply impressed by how calmly everyone goes about on the gorgeous Hollander bikes, without any of the showy, jostling, Lycra-clad aggression of the London bike lanes. If I lived in Amsterdam, I would cycle; in London, I wouldn’t dare.
At the moment many of Amsterdam’s museums are undergoing restoration and so I didn’t see them at their best. The Rijksmuseum, which has been partially closed for refurbishment since 2003, is due to reopen in its full glory in April 2013, so I shall have to go back afterwards to see the true scale of its collection. At the moment a selection of the highlights is on display in the Philips Wing, under the title The Masterpieces, which in itself took two hours to go round. The Van Gogh Museum was completely closed for its move to its new site, although some of the highlights were on view over at the Amsterdam Hermitage; but I didn’t make it in there. I managed to fit in the Amsterdam Museum (formerly the Amsterdam Historical Museum), the Rembrandthuis and the Van Loon Museum. Much as I would have liked to write a post similar to my Sicily entry, telling you my favourite sights, I don’t think that I really saw enough to justify that. So I thought that I would give you a quick tour of Amsterdam’s Golden Age through the medium of portraiture which, let’s face it, reaches a peak of psychological intensity and subtlety in Dutch paintings of the 17th century. Here are three artists you should look out for in Amsterdam, each represented by their portrait which most impressed me on my trip.
REMBRANDT VAN RIJN
You can’t escape Rembrandt in Amsterdam. I’m growing increasingly fond of him as I get older, because of all the artists I know, he seems to have fought hardest to preserve something of himself. No other artist has recorded his personal appearance so ruthlessly, consistently and honestly. Even without knowing the tragedy of Rembrandt’s later years, you might feel a tug of fellow-feeling with that blunt, matter-of-fact face, watching it age from hopeful youth to confident middle age to shrunken, cautious old age. And few artists have left us such a wealth of drawings to document their interests: on my final morning, I spent a few hours at the Rijksmuseum’s Print Room, where I studied a box of their Rembrandt drawings and marvelled at his descriptive power and economy of line.
As I said above, I also visited his house (much of which is modern reconstruction, but still evocative) and I sought out the grave of his wife Saskia at the Oude Kerk. The Rijksmuseum has abundant Rembrandts, and the picture which impressed me the most was the Portrait of Maria Trip (1639). I must have seen this before, many times, but in the flesh it was remarkably compelling. I think I like it so much because of the strength of personality in Maria’s face. She half-smiles and, although her eyes don’t quite meet yours, you can sense her character: she’d have been fun, but on her own terms. Rather than having her hands crossed neatly in her lap, or being consigned to a chair, she stands and her pose echoes that of the young men painted at this time (her brother Adriaen, for example). Her crooked left arm doesn’t rest on her hip, but she does hold her fan upended, as if it were the pommel of a sword.
Technically it’s a fantastic picture. Each strand of hair is painted in delicate detail and her jewels, especially her earrings, are superbly rendered. She wears the traditional black of a burgher family, enlivened with liberal accents of white lace and gold braid. When I see a portrait, I can’t help making up a story about the person represented, and I feel that Maria Trip would have been a woman to be reckoned with.
BARTHOLOMEUS VAN DER HELST
Van der Helst crops up everywhere. If you were a rich burgher in the 1640s or 1650s and you wanted a family portrait, or a picture of your civic guard company at a carefully-posed (but incipiently riotous) banquet, van der Helst was a good alternative to Rembrandt. The Amsterdam Museum has two pictures by him which show the Wardens and Headsmen of the Crossbowmen’s Civic Guard at banquets. The men are captured on the canvas with great gusto and good humour. His brushwork is sleek, polished and precise; his sense of humour simmers under the surface. The picture by him which most struck me, however, was this splendid example from the Rijksmuseum. Here I present you with Gerard Bicker, aged about twenty, painted in 1642. His elegant sister Alida was painted by Joachim von Sandrart two years earlier and currently hangs in the Amsterdam Museum, dressed in tasteful black and white. His father, Andries, hangs alongside Gerard in the Rijksmuseum, also painted by van der Helst: a sober Dutch burgher in understated black with a mill-wheel ruff.
And then you see Gerard. You catch a glimpse of him and for a moment you can’t quite believe the flamboyance of the fabrics: was the pink velvet lining of the cloak really necessary? And the lighter pink silk lining of his sleeves inside the slashes? Why didn’t Gerard’s father take him aside for a little talk before the portrait sitting? I don’t know exactly what this young man’s future held, but he obviously fancied himself as a bit of a cavalier, rather than following in the sedate and bourgeois footsteps of his family. Now Gerard hangs, overdressed and tightly-stuffed, among portraits which make of simplicity a virtue. Usually Dutch portraits are a joy because they invite you to look for subtleties in the costume or characterisation. Here you can only stand and wonder at the unforgiving reams of cloth which make Gerard look like a piglet that’s run amok in a haberdasher’s. He would have done better to stick with the black, as his father did; and yet we can understand all too easily why Gerard went for the more fashionable option: because he was trying to look something like this…
The underrated Jan Lievens recently had an exhibition devoted to him, which tried to rescue him from posterity’s damning judgement as ‘the one who wasn’t Rembrandt’. Lievens can be amazingly good and very versatile. I didn’t see many of his works in Amsterdam, but there were a couple which made a strong impact. His portrait of a youthful Rembrandt, in the Rijksmuseum, is a wonderfully honest picture, showing his fellow student with a blunt snub nose, a homely face and a thistledown fuzz of reddish hair under his cap. It gains extra interest, of course, because we are so used to seeing Rembrandt through his own eyes; and so it’s intriguing to see the familiar features painted by another hand.
The Lievens picture I most liked, however, was on display over at the Rembrandthuis. This lovely swagger portrait of 22-year-old Adriaen Trip, painted in 1644, is currently on loan from a private collection (I think it still belongs to the family). This particular painting caught my eye because it didn’t look Dutch at all; it looked like a Van Dyck (whom Lievens knew). This yellowish reproduction doesn’t do it justice and you have to imagine a greater subtlety of light and shade; a more striking play of illumination over the buff-coloured silk of the doublet. Unlike Gerard, this young man is entirely at ease with himself. The emphasis isn’t on the showy richness of his clothes but on the confidence with which he stands, his sword at his side. By putting it on display back in Amsterdam, the owners have allowed it to take its place in a whole web of relationships that spread out over the picture galleries of the city.
This was what I found so wonderful about the Dutch portraits I’ve seen over the last few days: for the most part, they represent members of a small cross-section of society at a particular time and what we see is effectively a portrait album of families, friends, rivals and neighbours. Being a history geek, I find that rather fabulous. I didn’t know who the sitter was in Lievens’s portrait when it caught my eye. Afterwards I was able to piece it together: Adriaen was the brother of Maria Trip, the lady painted with such elan by Rembrandt. And Adriaen Trip would have known Gerard and Alida Bicker while they were all growing up; later he and his wife moved out to a house near Haarlem, where the Bicker family had a summer estate. Looking at these people in their doublets and baldrics and floppy collars and ruffs and buff-coats, you become conscious that you’re not looking at an isolated picture in a museum: you’re looking at a fragment of a living age. Perhaps that feels truer in Amsterdam than it has anywhere else I’ve been so far.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself and would love to go back to see the museums when all the restorations have finished. Once again, I must emphasise how extraordinarily friendly the Dutch are and how pleasant Amsterdam is to visit. It’s on a much smaller scale than most European capitals and it’s so easy to stroll around that you don’t even have to worry about the technicalities of taking public transport (i.e. where do I buy tickets? How much are they? Do I have to validate them before or after getting on the bus / tram?). All in all, it was a lovely trip and I must confess that my taste for Northern Europe is being reawakened. Perhaps next time it’ll be Delft, or Haarlem, or even Bruges?