If things had turned out differently for Brazil — I don’t mean in the World Cup — Recife might now be known as Mauritsstad. But when the Portuguese expelled the Dutch in 1654, the name of the new capital of Pernambuco built by governor Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen was lost to history.
Today Johan Maurits is remembered for a house, not a city: the splendid private mansion he had built for himself in The Hague right next to the Dutch parliament in the Binnenhof. Designed by the architect Jacob van Campen, the Mauritshuis is a Dutch Classicist doll’s house of a palace that took 11 years to build and was only lived in by its owner for three after his return from Brazil in 1644. On his death in 1679, Johan Maurits’s ‘beautiful, very beautiful and supremely beautiful house’ — no single superlative did it justice — passed to his principal creditors. It had a chequered subsequent history as a VIP guesthouse — it nearly burned down with the Duke of Marlborough in it in 1704 — wine store, military high court, royal library for Louis-Napoleon and finally home, from 1822, to the Royal Cabinet of Paintings and Curiosities of Willem I of Holland.
Originally open on Wednesday and Friday mornings from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. to anyone ‘who was well dressed and not accompanied by children’, in recent years the bijou gallery known as ‘the jewel box’ has attracted over 200,000 visitors a year. Something obviously had to be done, and two years ago the Mauritshuis was closed for expansion into a new Royal Dutch Shell Wing across the street, designed by architect Hans van Heeswijk to provide the usual modern visitor facilities — a proper lobby, temporary exhibition galleries, restaurant, education space (yes, children) — while retaining the intimate atmosphere of the old house. The pictures have stayed in their familiar places on the walls, subtly recovered in a new blue shade of French silk damask and lit by replica 18th-century Murano chandeliers. On 27 June the gallery was officially reopened by His Majesty King Willem-Alexander, greeted at the entrance by a personification of Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’.
Since her starring role in Tracy Chevalier’s eponymous novel, Vermeer’s muse has become the Mauritshuis’s poster girl, but she was a relative latecomer to a collection that has experienced even more vicissitudes than the house. The Princes of Orange didn’t buy Vermeers. They collected more traditionally narrative pictures, and those they did collect they had trouble hanging on to. Willem I lost many treasures to the Spanish, who carried off Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ to Madrid. Willem II died too young to do much about it, but Willem III sneakily transferred 30 paintings from Hampton Court to his new hunting lodge at Het Loo, including Holbein’s ‘Portrait of Robert Cheseman’ and Gerrit Dou’s ‘Young Mother’. Queen Anne later sued for the Dou’s return and lost, but Willem III got his posthumous comeuppance when the widow of his short-lived appointed heir, Johan Willem Friso, auctioned off 60 paintings from the royal collection, including masterpieces by Rubens and Van Dyck.
Willem IV tried to repair the damage by buying back Rembrandt’s ‘Simeon’s Song of Praise’ and acquiring the Mauritshuis’s biggest painting, Paulus Potter’s ‘The Bull’, and Willem V carried on the good work by spending 50,000 guilders on a major collection of 40 old masters including Rembrandt’s ‘Susanna and the Elders’ — only to have his gallery later denuded by the French, who swept off its treasures, ‘The Bull’ included, to the Louvre.
The 120 pictures wrested back from the French after Waterloo — after a quiet word from the Duke of Wellington — form the core of the present collection. In the 1820s, following the move to the Mauritshuis, Willem I of Holland added three crown jewels: Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’, Rogier van der Weyden’s ‘Lamentation of Christ’ and Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp’. ‘Girl with a Pearl’ and Carel Fabritius’s ‘The Goldfinch’ arrived later, under the directorship of the brilliant Abraham Bredius from 1889 to 1909. And so it was that by a mixture of accident and design this perfect example of a 17th-century Dutch house came to contain a perfect collection of paintings of the period.
Among the highlights of the mainly Flemish galleries downstairs you’ll find the Hampton Court Holbeins, Van der Weyden’s heartbreaking ‘Lamentation’, Brueghel’s charming collaboration with Rubens on ‘The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man’ — with two foreground guinea pigs shelling peas — Rubens’s flashy attempt to outshine Caravaggio in ‘Old Woman and Boy with Candles’ and Joachim Wtewael’s ‘Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan’, a tiny painting so deliciously naughty it was kept in a cupboard at Het Loo.
But the star attractions are in the Dutch galleries upstairs. The profusion of flower pieces by Jacob de Gheyn, Ambrosius Bosschaert and Jan Davidsz de Heem, the breezy marine paintings by Willem van de Velde, the exquisite ‘View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds’ by Jacob van Ruisdael, the genre scenes by Jan Steen, the ‘beer and tobacco’ piece by Pieter van Anraadt that will have you reaching for a pint and a rollie — even Paulus Potter’s enormous ‘Bull’ — are just tasters for what follows.
First, two rooms of works by Rembrandt covering 40 years between the fresh-faced self-portrait of 1629, with assumed frown and bulbous nose plunged into dignified shadow, and the late self-portrait of 1669, with painting cap upgraded to a turban in a final self-mocking gesture of sartorial bravado. Next a room containing Frans Hals’s toothy, tousle-haired ‘Laughing Boy’ and Carel Fabritius’s captive ‘Goldfinch’, casting its moody shadow on the wall. And finally the room with the three Vermeers — the early Italianate ‘Diana and her Nymphs’, the marvellously atmospheric ‘View of Delft’ and the consummate ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, the most precious jewel in the Mauritshuis box.
Galleries may possess world-class collections, but audiences cross the world for iconic works. Among the 250 pictures on its walls, the Mauritshuis boasts more than its share of celebrity paintings. A century before it scored a literary hat trick with the publication of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and now Nina Siegal’s The Anatomy Lesson, the novelist Bergotte in Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu paid Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’ the ultimate compliment of dying in front of it. Isn’t it lucky paintings can’t be spoiled by celebrity? It’s the galleries they hang in that have to adapt.