Den Haag

trompe l’oeil

One of the earliest things you learn about at art school, is trompe l’œil, a favourite of teachers and students alike it is a celebrated demonstration of artistic talent. Besides, students love the chance to be cheeky. “Rembrandt’s students are reputed to have played a cruel joke on the great master when they painted some highly realistic gold coins on the floor of his studio. The great master was forever poor and much in need of funds, and so his pupils hoped to trick him into scrabbling around on his hands and knees trying to pick them up” 1. As mentioned in a previous article, the illusion of having drapery or a curtain partially covering a work is a time-honoured favourite of many artists. The Dutch Golden Age is a treasure trove of trompe l’oeil curtains, but the tradition dates back through a boom in early Christian artwork, but the origin story is given to us of course, from Ancient Greece, wherein two skilled artists submitted a painting in competition. “Zeuxis produced a magnificent still life, which featured grapes that were so lifelike that a bird flew down to peck at one. Not a bad result. However, Zeuxis unwittingly and by implication admitted defeat when he turned to his rival Parrhasius and asked him to draw back the curtain of from of his own painting in order to reveal its subject in its entirety” 2.

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“Escaping Criticism” by Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874

So in my early art student days I too was enamoured with the illusion and trickery of a trompe l’œil, admiring above all the proficiency of the craftsman to create something in two dimensions which your eye believes is three. Creating, through skill, a challenge of our senses and our perception of the world. There are many fantastic examples of trompe l’œil throughout the ages, one of the most beloved being Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874. However, the example given to me, which sparked a great passion in my heart, and of which I had the utmost privilege of beholding in person recently, The Goldfinch (Carel Fabritius), 1654.

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The Goldfinch (Carel Fabritius), 1654.

When the Maruritshuis was under renovation during my first trip to Holland, I was so disappointed to have missed the opportunity to view some really wonderful artwork. When I returned home I found out that a “treasures” collection had traveled to North America and I considered making the 10 hour drive to get a peek at the collection when it arrived at the Frick. My patience was rewarded last fall, however when I went back to view the entire collection at the newly opened Mauritshuis in the Hague.

On a quick sidenote, I always love looking for digital images of paintings. Ideally you can find an extremely high res version supplied online by the museum, but sometimes it’s quite hillarious to do a google image search. For very famous paintings, you will find all sorts of stuff showing up. For example, if you google image search the Mona Lisa you will find a great number of hillarious chops. But when you search for a small painting which is fairly unknown to the public  but much beloved by art aficionados, this is what you get. Zillions of copies of the same image, uninterrupted. All with slightly varying levels of colour and contrast, depending on who took the picture and what they did to it.

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Spot the difference!

The Goldfinch is a small painting. It’s only 13.2 by 9.0 in (33.5 by 22.8 cm) but I hesitate to refer to it as very small, in context. It is painted on very thick board, which is speculated to have been part of a cupboard door or panel 3. It displays a goldfinch, atop a wall perch, its captivity evident by the thin chain which attaches it. “In the 17th century, goldfinches were popular pets because they could be trained to draw water from a bowl with a miniature bucket. The Dutch title of the painting pertains to the bird’s nickname puttertje, which refers to this custom and translates literally as ‘little weller’” 4.

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Self Portrait (Carel Fabritius), 1645

Fabritius leaves very few paintings to us, perhaps only a dozen. He died young, perishing along with most of his paintings in a magazine explosion 5. However a very distinct personal style was carved out in his few years, the few remaining paintings marked with simple beauty in quiet and solitary moments, beautifully presented in impressive perspective and wonderful palette. Fabritius can be considered the stylistic connection between Rembrandt, his master, and Vermeer, his pupil. Fabritius experimented with perspective and lighting, both expertly executed in the Goldfinch. Though the majority of Rembrandt’s pupils emulated his style, Fabritius was interested in delicately lit subjects with bright, warm backgrounds, while retaining the gestural brushwork of his subjects. The uniqueness of Fabritius’ style which in turn inspired Vermeer is his honest and unembellished observation of the world around him, giving faithful devoted attention to the lighting and feeling of the scene. “Moving away from the Renaissance focus on iconography, Fabritius became interested in the technical aspects of painting. His personal style is “marked by an exquisite feeling for cool colour harmonies and (even though he often worked on a small scale) unerring handling of a loaded brush” 6. “He painted the goldfinch with visible brush strokes. The wing he indicated with thick yellow paint, where he put in with the back of his brush a scratch” 7.

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get back! I’ve got a fully loaded brush!

Fabritius also experimented with spatial effects and forced perspective. A major goal of Dutch paintings at the time, especially those to be hung in homes for personal use, was to blend with the room. We can imagine the work hanging on the wall, or perhaps inlaid into a cabinet door, hearkening at the simple homely visual of the captive pet, the thick paint vibrating with intensity in emulation of the birds little heart, the glint of light off its round eye, and streak of black and yellow a familiar visual cue. The gestural application of the paint and the commonality of the subject matter gives the viewer the impression the painting hanging on the wall is instead a glimpse of the real thing. Like the wall calendar by the phone in the kitchen, it’s a familiar and homely element, something we are used to seeing out of the corner of our eye without taking time to observe it closely.

1, 2 Green, Malcom. “Book of Lies” London: Essential Works, 2005.

3 Frederik J. Duparc, “Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) His Life and Work” in Carel Fabritius 1622-1654, Zwolle, 2004.

4, 7 http://www.mauritshuis.nl/nl-nl/verdiep/de-collectie/kunstwerken/het-puttertje-605/

5 http://www.the-art-world.com/history/fh_fabritius.htm

6 http://www.essentialvermeer.com/dutch-painters/masters/cfabritiusbase.html

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pluie à rotterdam

Sometimes you go on vacation for so long it becomes very regular, like home. You grocery shop at your regular store, you work, you go out sometimes with friends. So sometimes you need a vacation.. from your vacation. The nice thing about being in Europe is the ability to hop a train for a modest fare and end up two countries over, two hours later. So it is with the Netherlands, my most cherished vacation spot, a place a few years ago I thought I would never go and now have gone twice.

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Gare du Nord

It calls my name, equally nice in the fall as it is in early summer. The clean air North Sea air breezes through town as the easy going locals zip by on bicycles usually with a partner hitching a ride sidesaddle on the back. Many a kind and smiling face greeting me around town, the gentle tune of the melodic Hague church bells like a pleasant memory floating through the air to greet me through the patches of ever-drizzling rain. I don’t think it stopped raining the whole weekend, though my spirits couldn’t be dampened. We hopped over just for the weekend so say hello again, snack on street food and acquaint ourselves with the newly re-opened Mauritshuis museum in den Haag.

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Den Haag Centraal

I was tempted to see the collection last year as it toured while the museum was under renovation. The closest stop was New York and it was a very tempting 12 hours away, though I’m glad I didn’t because getting to see the works in the new space was a real treat. The Royal collection is small, compared to the massive retrospective department-stores-of-museums in Paris, and is housed in a 17th century residence, now owned by the government of the Netherlands. The museum houses a stellar collection of paintings, mostly Dutch Golden Age, including some very famous favourites such as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson and Fabritius’ Goldfinch.

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Het meisje met de parel (Vermeer) 1665

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The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (Rembrandt) 1632

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The Goldfinch, aka “puttertje” (Fabritius) 1654

The museum was absolutely packed, especially with snooty art types like me who refrain from snapping selfies and linger in front of works contemplatively scratching their chins. They were also all above a certain age.. I won’t say which. The only way in which the flighty consumer types that normally frequent the said massive retrospective department-stores-of-museums in Paris are superior, is that you can bet that they won’t spend more than 2.6 seconds in front of a painting, so if you want a look, you just have to wait around for your turn. With snooty art types this could mean waiting for a very long time. That’s okay though because there were a number of truly excellent works that I could just stand in front of all day.. well at least until my legs fall asleep.

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Vanitas still life (Claesz) 1630

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Old Woman and Boy with candles (Rubens) 1617

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The Messenger, aka “Unwelcome News” (ter Borch) 1666

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Wooded landscape with cottages (Hobbema), 1665

There were a number of works which I have never seen before, and it’s always nice to make new friends and be surprised. I’m afraid my SO is rapidly becoming my artist’s assistant, helpfully scribbling down titles and observations for later digestion. My notebook came home full of Vermeer, Rembrandt, Claesz, Jordaens, Leyster, Rubens, Steen, Hals, as well as some new pals such as Beuckelaer, van der Weyden, van Aelst, ter Borch, de Vlieger, and Hobbema.

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Spruistraat

Retiring from the Museum we shopped around the slick cobbled pedestrian streets of den Haag, checking out the celebrations leading up to St. Nicholas’ day on Dec 5th, featuring Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) and his racially inappropriate sidekick Zwarte Piet. Zwarte Piet’s origins lie somewhere between a liberated Ethiopian slave to Moorish origins, to the more modern preference of his helpful little face blackened with soot from climbing down chimneys. Regardless local folks seem to like dressing up in Victorian garb and blackface playing carnival music and tossing candy out to the little kids.We followed this parade from a distance, trying to figure out what was going on until we stopped for nieuwe haring and the folks behind the counter explained the tradition to us.

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Similar to traditions back home, children leave shoes by the fireplace on St. Nicholas’ eve in hopes of waking in the morning to find a treat inside in exchange for good behaviour. Though if you’re naughty you don’t get a lump of coal you get beaten with a switch by Zwarte Piet. The children usually leave out a carrot or some hay with a thoughtful bowl of water for Sinterklaas’ horse, a cup of coffee for Sinterklaas and a beer for Zwarte Piet. Despite the fact that traditionally Sinterklaas was accompanied by just one Zwarte Piet we have Canadians to thank for throwing a Sinterklaas party after the liberation of the Netherlands, encouraging a whole slew of Pieten to roam the streets.

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Lola Bikes and Café

We departed our rented flat early on Sunday, forgoing a cold shower as the hot water heater was inoperable, and strolled up to the so called best coffee in the Netherlands. It also doubles as a serious bicycle store because, hey, you can pursue two passions at once. SO had a good time checking out all the bikes and gear, pointing out the superior composition of the metal in particular bike gears or somesuch. I decided I liked the pink one for.. reasons. The coffee was truly excellent and we happily lingered way longer than intended. Back on the train we traveled to nearby Rotterdam to check out the town and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

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rotterdam at night

Rotterdam has a very different feel, the majority of the buildings very contemporary with lots of skyscrapers. A huge amount of old Rotterdam was destroyed by bombing and subsequently rebuilt in modern fashion. The city has much less warmth and character somehow, probably a figment of my imagination as I’m known to be very sensitive and have a tendency to personify and anthropomorphise.

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The “little” Tower of Babel” (Bruegel (the Elder)) 1563

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The Wayfarer (Bosch) 1500.. the only museum to house Bosch in all the Netherlands

Boijmans is a huge museum with a very diverse collection, ranging from medieval to contemporary and every facet in between. It has a lovely selection of Bosch and Bruegel, including the famous “little” tower of Babel and the Wayfarer who is said to be choosing between debauchery and virtue. Some other favourites of mine include van Dalem, Koninck, Havicksz, and Daubigny.

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 landscape with dawn of civilization (van Dalem) 1570

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An extensive landscape, with a river, (Koninck) 1664

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The cascade of Mahoura, Cauterets (Daubigny) 1873

The museum also houses a very nice selection of French Impressionist works including featuring a nice but unusual MonetMaison du Pêcheur” featuring a very nice seascape with cabin on a very uncomfortable angle lending the impression you are in some danger of leaning too far into it. The collection also houses some very nice works by Sisley, who is rapidly becoming a favourite of mine.

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la Maison du Pêcheur, Varengeville (Monet) 1882

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Le moulin à eau Provencher à Moret (Sisley) 1883

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Un verger au printemps (Sisley) 1881

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Moonlit city square in Cherbourg, (Sidaner) 1934

A bit father down in the collection there is a really nice Sidaner, an intimist painter whose “moonlit city square” is expertly illuminated, and its quiet volumes of night shades a rare achievement in my opinion. Apart from the very broad range of styles and endeavours there is also a lovey collection of very modest floral still lives which are uncomplicated, delicate, and very lovely.  

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Peonies (Fantin-Latour) 1882

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Polder with mills near Overschie (Gabriël) 1898

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Cineraria (van Gogh) 1885

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In the vegetable garden (Mauve) 1887

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Study of the Trunk of an Old Tree, (de Gheyn II) 1600-1610

If you decide to go museum hopping don’t forget that art feeds the brain and the heart, but not the stomach so around 3:00 we were losing steam and remembered that humans require nourishment to walk around for hours and hours and had to resort to overpriced museum café food. Oh well. After exhausting the collection, and the soles of our shoes, we wandered around Rotterdam taking in the weird architecture and public sculptures before picking a restaurant with maximum comfort and slow service for some r&r in the form of Phở

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