111 An inglorious anniversary

The finest private art collection ever assembled in the Netherlands stands to the credit of King Willem II, in the mid-19th century. How it was lost to the country is a story of monumental insensitivity and shortsightedness as well as sheer philistinism. Followed by an account of a mini-excursion in the Rhineland, undertaken to substitute for a real vacation in Burgundy. (August 2000)

Next week, in the middle of the glorious celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Rijksmuseum, another anniversary of immense significance for the history of art collecting in Holland will not be celebrated. This is the inglorious 150th anniversary of the auction of the art collection of the recently deceased King Willem II of the Netherlands, which began on August 12th, 1850. At this sale the most comprehensive high-quality collection of old master paintings (and equally distinguished, though less unique drawings) ever assembled in the country was dispersed.

The way the collection came into being had an inglorious side as well. During his reign, from 1840 to 1849, Willem II opposed any and all public spending on museum acquisitions for the national museums. Aside from three bequests, during this decade the Rijksmuseum acquired exactly two paintings, for 242 guilders. For himself, however, Willem II spent a small fortune on art. It was a fortune he did not possess. He bought art and other luxuries with debt, to the tune of 4 million guilders. It took his heirs 25 years following his death to settle his encumbered estate.

It was said that Willem II was driven to extravagance by his wife, the Russian princess Anna Pavlova, whose ideas about art collecting reflected, however palely, those of her rapacious grandmother Catherine the Great. Whether or not this is true, the Russian court definitely had an interest in Willem’s collection. In fact, they virtually owned it! It turned out after his death in 1849 that six months earlier Willem had secretly borrowed 1 million guilders from his brother-in-law Tsar Nicholas I, putting up his art collection as collateral.

Inglorious as well was the behavior of the king’s heirs and the Dutch government when it came to dealing with the collection. As a Belgian commentator wrote: “A king [Willem III, the son and heir of Willem II] has ordered the sale of this valuable, superb collection, as if forced to act as the impoverished heir of an ordinary citizen whose inheritance is burdened with debt…. The crime is about to be committed.” The implication is obvious: a king is not an ordinary citizen, his art collection is not just private property, and selling it to the highest bidder for the benefit of his heirs is a form of robbery. Criminal or not, the sale left the government of the Netherlands completely cold. A proposal in Parliament to form a fund of private money and a loan from the state to buy the collection for that paltry million was voted down by 50 votes to 8.


Augustus Wijnantz (1795-na 1850), Interior of the Gothic Hall in Kneuterdijk Palace (1846)
Aquarel, 32.2 x 40.4 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

 But there was glory as well, and it was great. In 1842 Willem II opened his collection to the public, on days he was not in residence, in a building of his own design known as the Gothic Hall. It lay behind the Kneuterdijk in The Hague, a stone’s throw from the Mauritshuis. (Against which Willem was contemplating a stone-throwing lawsuit to regain possession of art that had once belonged to his grandfather, the last stadholder of the country when it was still a republic.) Visitors to that “private” museum in its brief existence could enjoy the only painting collection in the country with a balanced presentation of first-rate masterpieces from the northern and southern Netherlands, France, Italy and Spain. It also struck a balance between early Netherlandish painting and the art of later centuries. Never before 1842 or since 1850 have Dutch museumgoers been able to see work in a local museum by Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, Dieric Bouts and Hans Memling, Perugino and Sebastiano del Piombo, Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein, Raphael and Titian (well, almost Raphael and Titian), Claude Lorrain and Gaspar Dughet, Murillo and Ribera in addition to choice works by the best Dutch and Flemish masters, absolute top pieces by Rubens, van Dyck, Jordaens and Rembrandt not excluded. It was truly a European collection, and one of the best in Europe.

The gnashing of Dutch teeth could not be heard until it was too late. After the dispersal of the collection to the four winds it increased in volume and has since never ceased. It is indeed difficult to think without groaning about such unparalleled greatness in collecting brought low by such mind-boggling pettiness in money matters. Regrets are usually limited to the loss to Holland of the art itself. In fact, much more was lost. The international orientation of the Gothic Hall was a value in itself. The point is brought across poignantly by the history of a Russian Gothic Hall, possibly inspired by that of Willem II. Prince Pavel Petrovitch Viazemsky (1820-88), after serving as a diplomat in The Hague and other places, installed in the 1860s in his country seat at Ostafievo outside Moscow a private museum he too called a Gothic Hall. The choice of schools resembled that of Willem II, especially in its accent on early northern painting.

The composition of the collection had a particular cultural-political meaning. As the late Xenia Egorova put it: “In Russia, the Romantic enthusiasm for the mediaeval past had a specific tinge: it meant a sort of opposition against the official trend of taking part in western politics, imitating western technical achievements and ways of living, admiring Paris fashion etc. The Viazemskis weakened this antithesis. They themselves were a part of the Russian historical past, but at the same time they were highly cultivated European intellectuals.”

The Kneuterdijk is not Ostafievo. The tensions between the Dutch and European identities are more subtle than the Russian ones. But they are real, and a flourishing Gothic Hall would have helped to alleviate them. As it is, Dutch museums remain captives of a largely one-sided, northern Netherlandish presentation of the artistic past. Frederik Schmidt-Degener called this image “the family album.” With the Gothic Hall as a model for the Dutch museums, our family would have been more extended, and our identity as Europeans would have come more naturally.

 Sources: Erik Hinterding and Femy Horsch in Simiolus 19 (1989); Ellinoor Bergvelt, Pantheon der Gouden Eeuw, Zwolle 1998; http://www.codart.nl/?page_id=88.

© Gary Schwartz 2000. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, 5 August 2000.

WARNING: What follows is just as long as the above. I am including it because some of my former travel-journal remarks have been picked up and enjoyed by some of you.

This year Loekie and I promised ourselves a real vacation. Not a few days tagged onto a work trip or a family visit, but quality time off. We decided that the Bourgogne was a good place to relax and read, while enjoying the French Middle Ages. By the time we arrived at this momentous decision it was late spring, and we could not make any time free until August. At the end of July we found ourselves facing the prospect of getting into the car during the busiest time of the year on the French provincial roads. The b&bs and 2-person farm accommodations recommended in the guidebooks were all full. We would have to drive for 5 or 6 hours and then start looking around for a nice place to stay. Exercising our flexibility and half indulging our secret desire not to go anywhere, we invented a different kind of vacation. Keeping our 10-day holiday on the calendar, we would fill it with 2- or 3-day excursions, coming home after each break.

The first stage took place on Thursday and Friday, the 3rd and 4th of August. We got up late, cleaned up, threw a few things in a bag and drove across the German border to Insel Hombroich near Neuss, only two hours away. There, the German real-estate developer and art collector Karl-Heinrich Müller has created a park-museum that resists brief description. It is a sizeable piece of Rheinland countryside that Müller bought in 1984 and converted into an extremely refined ur-landscape with pavilions for his collection that are nearly invisible as you walk the grounds. The territory had a complex history, having been the country house and park of a Wuppertal industrialist as well as farmland and, in an unspecified period that apparently bracketed the Second World War, the realm of an eccentric esthete who anticipated the present function of the area by “hanging chandeliers in the trees… and placing strange sculptures in the park.” In the book on Insel Hombroich sold by the foundation this reclusive man, who sounds like he shared some of the strangeness of Joseph Beuys (a strangeness that Germans like to attribute to Beuys’s Rheinland roots), is called only “Herr Lensing.”

At first Müller thought of creating “a garden as beautiful as Giverny,” with a public museum for his collection. However, under the influence of a circle of philosophers, art historians, sculptors, musicians and other artists that formed around him, Insel Hombroich turned into something very different and more interesting. The interaction of art and nature here goes much further. The landscape is highly contrived but not at all gardenlike. In part it is an attempt to recreate the topography and ecology of the site in three periods: 10,000 B.C., 1000 B.C. and 1000 A.D. The human environment too, of inhabitants in the Stone Age and the Germanic past, with references to Druidism and the Celts, is invoked.

As for the art, with stunning ensembles of work by Lovis Corinth and Karl Schwitters alongside Khmer and Chinese art and new work made for the place by the Müller collaborators Erwin Heerich, Gotthard Graubner and Anatol Herzfeld, it works on you in quite a different way than in any museum I know. Siegfried Gnichwitz wrote this about it: “Many a museum director, for whom a museum is a place to present art well and preserve it carefully, would have good reason to raise his eyebrows. The spaces have no climate control, the outside air with all its swings blows unhindered through the building, and there is no light but daylight.” To which I would add that there are no guards. Not since my visit to the Bellaggio, where I was harrassed by a guard, was I struck so forcefully by how offensive it is always to be guarded in museums. Gnichwitz goes on: “The works of art, resignedly displaying their mortality, make themselves available for the intellectual use of man. This can be compared to the altarpieces of the past, whose lower parts were progressively darkened by candle smoke. They fulfill their function to reveal to people what spirituality is.”

The inner man is served in more ways than one at Insel Hombroich. The moderate entry fee includes as much as you care to eat, in a pleasant bunkhouse and surrounding cafë tables, of simple but tasty food that evokes German peasant fare, down to the Schmalz.

Gnichwitz’s comparison is highly relevant to the way Loekie and I spent our next day. Driving in the direction of Holland, we stopped in Xanten, where the medieval church of St. Viktor is filled with precious altarpieces of the 15th-17th centuries. They are kept in museological conditions; whatever smoke damage they may have suffered in the past has been worked away. Xanten deals as intensively with its past as Insel Hombroich does with its own. It was the site of a major Roman army camp, home to the two legions that guarded the northern border of the Empire. In Xanten a theme-park reconstruction of a Roman provincial town (for which we have to come back) has been put up within the walls of the camp, alongside the excavations. For the Germans this amounts to a glorification of the enemy whom they fought (often with success) until the empire collapsed.

Christian antiquity is palpable in the crypt of St. Viktor’s, where a double grave from the 4th century has been found of adult males who met a violent end. According to the Christian researchers who found it in the 1930s, it is the grave of the martyred (but undocumented) St. Viktor and his comrade Gereon, converted Roman soldiers who were executed in the 330s for refusing to honor pagan gods. Although the present caretakers seem no longer to believe this, the grave is now worshipped alongside those of some Xanten opponents to the Nazis who were executed in the 1940s.

The center of Xanten was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945. It was rebuilt in a stone-for-stone manner on the basis of photographs and memory. This necessarily creates stylistic disjunctions and conceptual worries. Am I in a building from the Middle Ages or from the second half of the 20th century? What kind of piety does it serve? Christian belief, reverence for history, or love of the destroyed Heimat? For that matter, what is Insel Hombroich saying about German nature and our experience of art? Loekie is generally better at dealing with these distracting questions than I am. She is more easily able to put them out of her mind and enjoy the results. Sometimes – when I nag at history too much – we get into fights. A Saturday afternoon in Aachen stands out in memory, where we argued until the parking garage closed and we had to pay ransom money to get our car back. Yesterday we were on the same wavelength and had a wonderful time together. Our debates are nothing compared to the unending Auseinandersetzung of the Germans with themselves, from 10,000 B.C. to the present. My God, do they work at it.

Stage 2 will take us to Flanders. Tot ziens, Gary.

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