The refurbished museum features classic paintings once again.
What can a museum do for a picture and its public? Far more than one could ever have imagined in the case of the newly reborn Mauritshuis in The Hague. This miniature palace, rising out of the lake that carries its reflection like a honey-coloured mirage, was already a pearl of a gallery. Its most famous paintings – Rembrandt’s last self-portrait, Vermeer’s Girl with A Pearl Earring, Carel Fabritius’s tiny Goldfinch, a giant hit ever since the publication of Donna Tartt’s eponymous novel – are so beloved that millions queued to see them abroad in the two years the Mauritshuis was closed.
But now they are home again, reunited with a collection as proportionately rich in masterpieces as the mighty Rijksmuseum itself, one sees them in such a different way. And none more so than another Vermeer, regarded by Proust and many others as his greatest painting, so familiar – or so it seemed – in all its shining stillness and complexity: the stupendous View of Delft.
This is the painting that drew Proust out of his cork-lined room for the last time. He made a special pilgrimage to see it in Paris in 1921, and never went out again. He puts the novelist in À la recherche du temps perdu in exactly the same position – only more so. For Bergotte will die in front of the painting, experiencing a final epiphany as he stares at the “petit pan de mur jaune” – the little patch of yellow wall that seems to him to be so transcendently beautiful it makes his own life’s work seem dry and diminished. “I ought to have… made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall” he laments. And then his life ends.
But what was Bergotte looking at? There are disputed candidates for the little patch; some are not walls, some are not obviously yellow. But standing before this sparkling expanse of clouds, spires and canal banks, diamond-pane windows and slate-blue tiles, of steeples, courtyards and alleys, the whole surface jewelled with pinpricks of luminous soft paint, there seems no more question about it. One sees that brilliant oblong of yellow roof coming alive in the sunshine, its radiance mysteriously conjured out of red and blue as well as yellow, its substance as magically precious as it was to Bergotte, now that the picture has been cleaned.
Except that it hasn’t.
The revelation of the yellow patch is achieved purely by lighting the image to perfection with LED systems calibrated to combine daylight with candleglow (something like 17th-century Delft on a summer’s evening, perhaps) so that one sees all its secret hues with clarity. The Mauritshuis simply puts the picture in a new light.
This is no small thing, given that the whole point of museums is that we should be able to see what’s in them, to look and look again at the pictured world freely and intently (very much the object of Golden Age Dutch art itself). The experience shouldn’t be marred by darkness or reflective glass, impeded by the scrum of visitors craning to read the labels or by lights that drag down the reds, cancel out the browns or cast a yellow gloom over everything.
In all these respects, almost more than any other, the Mauritshuis is the ideal museum. It’s a home from home for art. The rooms are on a human scale – this was a private house, albeit a large one, for the military hero Count Maurits of Nassau-Siegen. Vermeer’s Girl, for all her Mona Lisa fame, is in a modest wood-panelled chamber hung with beautiful Dutch interiors that look just like it, in which women in primrose satin busy themselves with writing, reading, sewing and singing. The Girl’s action appears even more unique among these – simply turning and tilting towards us, out of time and place, her virginal eyes shining like pearls, as if she’d never seen this brave new world before.
The only hint of her fame is the discreet bentwood balustrade that keeps you from touching her radiant face. And this doubles as a place to lean as you look. There are seats by the windows, seats before the pictures; the experience is to be slow and restful. An exquisite Chardin still-life of onions and a glowing copper pot on a table top, all resonant serenity, is displayed inside something like a glass-topped table itself. You can lean there, staring down for as long as you like. The museum gives you time and space.
That is abetted by the doubling of size. The Mauritshuis has acquired the art deco building next door, for temporary shows, but mainly as a place to pause. It has a linking extension underground, like a miniature version of IM Pei’s Louvre pyramid but much more intimate, elegant and airy. There are skylights everywhere, and you descend via a glass staircase below the lake, pierced with square windows through which the fish glide like moving paintings.
Upstairs – via a lift that rises unexpectedly out of the marble floor – the sightlines are superb. Here is Vermeer’s earliest painting, Diana and Her Companions, in which he’s been looking hard at Rembrandt – it’s all there in the scumbling and golden highlights – and here, in the next room, is the very Rembrandt he probably saw.
And then, at the other end of the scale, Paulus Potter’s enormous and jubilant portrait of an ideal bull, the size of life, gets the primacy it deserves in one large room. From the dewy grass to the soaring lark, a magnificent painting and a magnificent creature, turning his proud head just like Vermeer’s pearl of a girl, still in mind from a few moments earlier.
Holbein’s Jane Seymour, his hawkish Robert Cheseman, sharp-beaked as his the royal falcon on his arm; Brueghel and Rubens painting Eden together; Ambrosius Bosschaert’s cornucopia of blossoms (staggering, and fantastical, for never simultaneously in bloom, a rare and judicious caption reveals); Rembrandt’s devastating The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp, the medics leaning carelessly over the poor dead human: exceptional encounters in every gallery.
There’s a whole room of Rembrandts, and then another including that late self-portrait: one eyelid drooping, muscles flaccid, foolish in his silly cap, all hope departed – yet still able to paint like this!
So much within is also without, framed in the newly unshuttered windows. Stepped gables, shapely spires, long stands of poplars measuring the little city: you see the continuity of life and art at the Mauritshuis. You stand where the people of the past once stood, before that little yellow patch. In the museum, time stops, as it should.
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