123 The love of three Oranges

An exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum curated by Queen Beatrix gives rise to a comparison of her choices and those of her predecessors, Stadholder Frederik Hendrik in the seventeenth century and King Willem II in the nineteenth. The comparison is limited to the ratio between artists from the northern and southern Netherlands. The results are striking. (January 2001)

The House of Orange does not altogether deserve the poor reputation for patronage of the arts that it has had since 1604. In that year Karel van Mander’s immortal Schilder-boeck (Book of painters) appeared, the most influential book on art ever written in the Netherlands. Van Mander stressed repeatedly that patronage was vital for the blossoming of the arts, and he is eager to give credit to active patrons and collectors. Ideally, his book should have been dedicated to the prince of the leading court in the country, Maurits of Nassau. However, Maurits is barely mentioned in the Schilder-boeck. The most notable act of artistic patronage van Mander considered worth mentioning was Maurits’s commissioning of a life-size portrait of the white horse that he took away as a trophy from the Battle of Nieuwpoort.

Although none of his successors was the leading European collector or patron of his or her time, almost all later stadholders, kings and queens of the House of Orange showed more interest in the arts than Maurits. Four in particular stand out in this respect: Stadholder Frederik Hendrik and Amalia van Solms, the Stadholder-King William and Mary Stuart, King Willem II and Anna Paulowna, Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus. The consorts are important. As in bourgeois marriages, one royal partner is seldom able to indulge a love for art without at least the approval, and frequently the active participation, of the significant other.

A comparison of the artistic choices of these seventeenth, nineteenth and twentieth century Oranges reveals not only unexpected correspondences in taste and in cultural policy but also, I believe, a change in dynastic strategy. (Because William and Mary as king and queen of England led completely different lives from the more strictly Dutch Oranges, I leave them out of consideration.) The documents on which I base this analysis are the inventory of Frederik Hendrik’s possessions in 1632; the catalogue of the sale of the art collection of the late King Willem II in 1850; and Queen Beatrix’s current exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum. Although Her Majesty’s curatorship of an exhibition is not on the same level of commitment as Frederik Hendrik’s and Willem’s outright purchase of the works concerned, it nonetheless represents a form of patronage that allows us to compare her attitude toward contemporary art with theirs.

In 1632 Frederik Hendrik owned about 315 paintings. In the inventory of his possessions, 158 of them are attributed to a named artist. Nearly all the painters were living at the time, and every single one was a Netherlander. The top 5 were were all active in the northern Netherlands, but Frederik Hendrik’s choice extended to the south as well. Close to the top were the Antwerp masters Pieter Paul Rubens, Hendrik van Balen, Anthonie van Dyck and Jan Brueghel. 124 of Frederik Hendrik’s named paintings were by Dutch masters and 34 by Flemish, a ratio of 3.6 to 1. The mix was not a coincidence. From a document related to the painting commissions for the Oranjezaal in Huis ten Bosch, we know that Amalia van Solms aimed at a balance in her patronage between "schilders uit Holland" (painters from Holland) and "schilders uit Brabant" (painters from Brabant, meaning in this case Antwerp and Brussels). The choice reflected the passionate but futile ambition of Frederik Hendrik to become lord of the city of Rubens and van Dyck.

When the collection of Willem II was sold after his death, the catalogue listed 162 paintings in the section Tableaux modernes, works by contemporary masters. Of these, a great preponderance once more were by masters from the northern and southern Netherlands. (The rest were mainly French, though one Russian artist was represented.) To be precise – or nearly so, since not all the painters are identifiable – 94 were by Dutch and 34 by Flemish masters, a ratio of 2.8 to 1. (If we include the strongly Flemish selection of old masters – among them 8 paintings by Rubens and 8 by Rembrandt – the ratio is 1:1.) The most valuable single modern master in the sale was the Fleming Nicaise de Keijser, a painter of battle scenes, historical portraits and heroic exotica. Neither was this a coincidence. When Willem II began collecting, his father’s Kingdom of the Netherlands covered both the northern and southern provinces, a realm he hoped to inherit. The revolt of the Belgians frustrated that dream, but the art Willem owned and displayed was created by artists he considered to be his subjects.

The ratio of Dutchmen to Flemings in the choice of Queen Beatrix is 1:0. 130 artists from the north and not a single one from the south. It must be admitted that the collection of the Stedelijk Museum does not allow for a ratio as generous as those maintained by Frederik Hendrik and Willem II. Still, the absence of even a token Fleming amounts to a statement. In the queen’s definition "Nederlandse kunst" does not include the art of Netherlandish Belgians. From this I take it that the House of Orange has given up all hope (prematurely?) of regaining Flanders and Brabant. I also assume that the Queen agrees with the opinion of Rudi Fuchs and Jan Hoet (with which I disagree) that north is north and south is south and that the twain shall meet only when these powerful museum directors decide it should, on terms defined by them.

The choice of these three princes of Orange for the art of their subjects has something touching and loyal about it. Frederik Hendrik could have patronized Bernini and Poussin, Willem II Ingres and Constable. Beatrix could have displayed Jasper Johns and Barnett Newman. By choosing instead for Hendrik Werkman and Jan Schoonhoven and Rob Birza, her numerical favorites, the queen, like her forebears, accepted the limitations in international prestige of Netherlandish artists and made them her own.


© Gary Schwartz 2001. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, 20 January 2001.

This text requires a bit of explication for alien readers. The Stedelijk Museum (Municipal Museum [of Amsterdam]), the leading museum in the Netherlands for modern art, held in the 1990s two exhibitions by guest curators, the writers Gerrit Komrij and Harry Mulisch. They were given a vast amount of space and a choice from the collections of the Stedelijk itself. Komrij chose for the human face and form, arranged loosely by composition and mood, in a show entitled Kijken is bekeken worden (Looking is being seen). Mulisch took a more intellectual tack, based on philosophical and psychological categories, in his Zielespiegel (Mirror of the soul). At the opening of Zielespiegel in December 1997, Prince Claus remarked to the director of the Stedelijk, Rudi Fuchs, "This is something my wife might want to do." It was an inspired suggestion, and Fuchs followed up on it. Queen Beatrix is known to be an accomplished sculptor and an experienced collector. Her exhibition is called De voorstelling: Nederlandse kunst in het Stedelijk Paleis (The performance [or The representation]: Dutch art in the Municipal Palace). It is a more impersonal selection than those of the writers, with less binding themes. The division is a somewhat teasing reference to the rooms of a royal palace: reception hall, audience chamber, hall of honor, family gallery, archive, etc. The choice, in which the queen was assisted by museum curators, was based on nothing more, Her Majesty said, than "what we found beautiful, appealing, compelling." The resulting presentation is a bit on the safe side, with few shocking works and a penchant, despite the title of the show, for the cool, geometric work of Ben Akkerman, Peter Struycken, Ad Dekkers, Jan Dibbets, and the above-mentioned Jan Schoonhoven. But it is an honest and well-informed choice that makes for a pleasurable and instructive exhibition.

Although you will never hear me praise monarchy above democracy, the comparison between Queen Beatrix as head of the Dutch state and the man who is taking over that job in America today makes me weep. No one in Holland has even begun to ask what kind of art George and Laura Bush might like. (I do know that he backed Mayor Giuliani in his autocratic threat to cut subsidy to the Brooklyn Museum on account of the Sensation exhibition.) People here are just giggling nervously about seeing as president of the United States a man who probably had to be told during the campaign by his advisers that The Netherlands is a country. "If the president of the United States is the leader of the free world," one newspaper writer said, "why don’t we get to vote for him?" Polls in the Netherlands on Election Day went 90% for Gore. I would say the one positive thing about him that seems sayable – that his choice of cabinet officers is not the choice of a bigot – were it not for the color of his execution victims.

Last week I published in Het Financieele Dagblad a piece on the insufficiency of the art subsidy program of the European Commission, Culture 2000. Fifteen member states and a few others now share an annual budget of 30 million euro, a bit less than that amount in dollars. This year another ten or more candidate states also become eligible, with no increase in funding. The administration of the program is hopelessly bogged down in a too-small bureau that has to deal with applications in all the languages of Europe. The hopes that have been placed on the cultural program of the European Union over the last ten years have simply not materialized yet. If you would like the English version of the piece, just ask.


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