All the Way from America

House more than a century old? In need of renovation? Perhaps a friendly acquaintance can look after some of those valuable pictures you have while the workmen are in. 
It’s the Frick Collection in New York that’s having the makeover, and they’ve sent 10 of their Dutch Golden Age masterpieces back to Holland for a few months, paintings that have mostly been in America for over 100 years, since the industrialist Henry Clay Frick bought them for his stunning art collection. They’re now on display at the Mauritshuis in The Hague in Manhattan Masters: Rembrandt and Friends from the Frick NYC.

Rembrandt and Friends? Yes indeed: Vermeer, Hals, Cuyp. This is a high-quality show, beautifully presented, and almost guaranteed to instil feelings of inner calm and satisfaction in the viewer.

Frick may have been a ruthless entrepreneur (there’s an interesting introductory film) but he was also an enthusiastic and ambitious collector, even if some of the supposed Rembrandts he amassed turned out not to be by Rembrandt after all. Fabulously wealthy, he had his own railroad car in which he transported his favourite artworks so he could always see them, whichever of his residences he happened to be staying in. 

“The greatest treasure for an American collector is a painting by Vermeer of Delft,” the New York Times wrote in 1911. Frick secured three, and visitors to the Mauritshuis get to view one of them: Officer and Laughing Girl
It’s an enigmatic painting, as you might expect. We can’t see the officer’s face, but we do see the smile on the woman’s. She’s got a glass of wine, which might be a sign of loose morals. Or it might be a sign of wealth. But it’s Vermeer’s treatment of the light you notice above all, coming in through that beautifully rendered window on the left, striking the officer’s coat, the woman’s dress, the table and chairs. And illuminating the map of the Netherlands on the wall, disconcertingly displayed with the North Sea coast at the top. 
This painting, along with the Frick’s two others by the artist, will also be part of the big Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam next year. 
Half the paintings in this show are landscapes — Frick loved the genre — and the one that really stands out is displayed opposite the Vermeer: Aelbert Cuyp’s River Landscape with Herdsman and Cows.
There’s a lot of sky, as there often is in Dutch landscapes, and much of that sky is cloudy. Has anyone calculated the cloud-to-blue-sky ratio in Dutch paintings? But it’s a picture of tranquillity, the contented cattle resting beside the river — presumably the Maas that runs past Cuyp’s home town of Dordrecht, that highway for river traffic, even today. And a chance for the herdsman to pick off some of those fleas that have been bothering him. 
It’s pretty flat along the Dutch coast (though we did climb to a dizzying viewpoint at 22.3 metres above sea level on a walk through the dunes while we were in The Hague). The landscape is rather hillier over towards the German border, where Jacob van Ruisdael made many of his paintings. 
There’s a church tower and a windmill peeping through the trees. This painting was acquired by the Frick in 1949, 30 years after its founder’s death, continuing his collecting interests. 
The best of this show is saved for last in the shape of two paintings by Frans Hals and Rembrandt. 
The Hals portrait is from his very late period, when he was well into his 70s, and it displays the astonishingly loose brushwork that is his trademark. 

The sleeves of the shirt are just slashes of white, and those tassles below the ruff are, similarly, little strokes of paint that, if you look at them close up, seem to make no sense at all. But seen from a distance…. How did Hals do this? It wasn’t as if he made preparatory drawings; he just slapped the paint on the canvas, seemingly totally instinctively. And those gloves — a swirl of light brown paint. Astounding. 

This is the last of four paintings by Hals that Frick bought, in 1917. He had a bit of a penchant for paintings with a distinguished provenance; this one came from Althorp House in Northamptonshire, where the Earl Spencer of the time (yes, those Spencers) needed to sell off some art to pay his inheritance tax. We don’t know who the sitter is, but he really is a man of distinction, isn’t he? One of those fantastic male portraits that only Hals could do so well.  

Hals is all black and white and restrained but conscious pomp, but Rembrandt is all red and gold and sumptuous sensitivity.  

When he was asked whose talent he would most like to possess, Frick replied: “Rembrandt’s”. This is Rembrandt’s largest self-portrait (of more than 80), and Frick bought it in 1906. He haggled over the price for weeks, but he still beat the Metropolitan Museum of Art to it. 
Rembrandt portrays himself life-size, as one of the great artists of the past who dressed in gold, taking his cue from a reference in the writings of the prominent Dutch art historian Karel van Mander. “L’art, c’est moi!” Rembrandt seems to say. 
Astoundingly, all five of the paintings we’ve picked out here were painted over the course of about 10 years from 1650 to 1660. It’s the Golden Age, concentrated. 


Manhattan Masters: Rembrandt and Friends from the Frick NYC is on at the Mauritshuis in The Hague until January 15. The gallery is normally open daily from 1000 to 1800 except on Mondays, when it opens at 1300. Full-price entry to the Mauritshuis, including the exhibition, costs 17.50 euros. Allow 45 minutes to appreciate this show, and don’t omit to pick up the guide to the show before you enter the display.

The museum is located next to the Binnenhof, the seat of the Dutch government and parliament, and is just 10 minutes’ walk from Den Haag Centraal station. is an excellent site that gives you public-transport connections across the Netherlands.

While you’re in the Mauritshuis….

If you were compiling a Top 20 of Dutch Golden Age paintings, the Mauritshuis has at least five contenders: Start your tour in room 9 on the second floor with Rembrandt’s mould-breaking group portrait, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp. In room 12, The Bull by Paulus Potter steals the show, a triumph of naturalism: flies, cowpats and all. Round to room 14 for The Goldfinch, one of the few known works by Carel Fabritius. And then in room 15, look to the left for Vermeer’s astounding View of Delft, the most famous cityscape of the Golden Age and a painting whose luminosity never fails to take our breath away. Directly opposite hangs the Girl with a Pearl Earring. It’s an astonishing line-up. 

Elsewhere in The Hague….

There’s a lot to enjoy. The Kunstmuseum, a couple of kilometres out of the city centre towards the beach at Scheveningen, has a vast collection that spans Delftware, fashion and art from the late 19th century on, including hundreds of works by Piet Mondriaan. The most prominent exponent of the Hague School of painting, Hendrik Mesdag, is celebrated most memorably in the Panorama Mesdag, his 360-degree view of Scheveningen made in 1881. And just minutes from the Mauritshuis, you can plunge into the mind of that enigmatic and fascinating graphic artist MC Escher at Escher in the Palace. 


Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), Officer and Laughing Girl, c. 1657, The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.
Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691), River Landscape with Herdsman and Cows, c. 1650-1660, The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.
Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/29-1682), Landscape with a Footbridge, 1652, The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb
Frans Hals (1582/83-1666), Portrait of a Man, c. 1660, The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Self-Portrait, 1658, The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb

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