Anyone wanting to see a representative selection of Dutch and Flemish painting at its finest has a choice between four collections of undisputed preeminence: the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the National Gallery in London, the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin and the Mauritshuis in the Hague—a list to which many people would add the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Of these great galleries, only the smallest, the Mauritshuis, is dedicated solely to Dutch and Flemish art in its Golden Age, the 17th century. It offers a distillation of a great tradition in western painting in a collection that is of the highest calibre.
Until 15 years ago, the Mauritshuis lacked only one element of a world-class gallery— a painting that was instantly recognisable even to people who had never visited it or knew nothing about its collection. Then, in 1999, Tracy Chevalier’s novel Girl with a Pearl Earring—followed four years later by a film dramatisation starring Scarlett Johansson— propelled Vermeer’s small canvas to international celebrity.
That was one of the reasons why the museum’s visitors—60% of whom are foreigners— began rapidly to rise in number: in 2011, its last full year of opening, there were 278,471. The Mauritshuis recognized that, if it were to accommodate visitors in quantities never contemplated in the 20th century, it would have to expand, ideally in a way that would provide its first dedicated space for exhibitions as well as the comprehensive educational facilities expected of a modern museum.
Emilie Gordenker, the museum’s director since 2008, could hardly have faced a more demanding challenge in terms of the sensitivity of the building and its setting. The Mauritshuis was opened in 1822 to house the gift to the state by the first king of the Netherlands, Willem I, of the collections of the Stadholders, Princes of Orange, who had governed the Dutch Republic before theestablishment of the monarchy in 1815. Originally, the Mauritshuis also incorporated the Stadholders’ ‘cabinet of curiosities’— natural-history specimens and other treasures—but, by 1875, it was entirely dedicated to paintings.
The building acquired for the collection is a key monument of early classicism in the Netherlands, a house designed in 1633 by Jacob van Campen for Count Johan Maurits (hence ‘Mauritshuis’) of Nassau-Siegen, cousin of the Stadholder Frederick Hendrik and governor of Dutch Brazil. It is prominently placed beside the Binnenhof, the picturesque medieval complex that originally housed the court of the counts of Holland and, since 1446, has been the meeting place of the Netherlands’ parliament.
Like the Binnenhof, it overlooks the lake at the centre of the Hague, the Hofvijver. (The Binnenhof’s octagonal tower, the Torentje, which faces the west side of the Mauritshuis across an arm of the lake, is the Prime Minister’s office.) The other two sides of the museum face onto streets that form part of the ceremonial route along which the monarch travels in a golden coach from the royal palace for the state opening of parliament.
This historic, tightly hemmed-in setting meant that a conventional extension was impossible. The museum had already exhausted the only obvious mean of enlargement— downwards—when, in the 1980s, it excavated a deep basement below its forecourt, to house offices and an education department.
A solution appeared when an opportunity arose for the government, which owns the Mauritshuis’s building (the collection is an independent foundation), to acquire a lease of a wing of an adjacent private club, the Nieuwe of Littéraire Sociëteit De Witte (the De Witte), founded in 1802. This handsome 1930 brick building, which faces the east front of the Mauritshuis, on the far side of the narrow Korte Vijverberg, offered ample, well-lit accommodation for a new exhibition gallery, offices, educational facilities, an auditorium and library. It has been beautifully and thoughtfully converted by the project’s architect, the Amsterdambased Hans van Heeswijk.
This addition—named ‘the Royal Dutch Shell Wing’ after the principal sponsor of this two-year, €30 million project—has been linked to the Mauritshuis by an atrium that runs underneath the Korte Vijverberg to join the basement below the gallery’s forecourt.
This was not a straightforward procedure, as lining up the levels in the basements of the two buildings necessitated the Royal Dutch Shell Wing being jacked up to allow excavation beneath it. What’s more, the main power cable leading into parliament had to be moved. The new atrium, which contains a visitor reception, shop and brasserie, recalls in some ways, but on a much smaller scale, the one in the newly restored Rijksmuseum, which also runs underneath a road (Country Life, April 3, 2013).
The old entrance to the Mauritshuis was by way of a door in its eastern flank that led straight into former servants’ quarters and the forecourt was not accessible to the public.
The gallery was determined to open up the main approach to the building and so visitors now pass through the entrance gates and then descend to the atrium by means of either a substantial glazed staircase or a lift, the glass shaft of which rises up on the west side of the forecourt.
These insertions are neither confidently emphatic nor discreetly unnoticeable, and one criticism of the project is that it creates only an appearance of accessibility. Although it’s admirable that the gates have been opened, visitors might well expect, in consequence, to enter through the front door, but instead they are immediately sent underground. The front door can indeed never readily be opened, as a new internal lift shaft has been installed right behind it.
Nonetheless, the Mauritshuis’s exterior has been improved by being returned to its original colours, following paint analysis— the basement’s soft olive-green is particularly striking—and the replacement of plate glass in its windows by gently rippling hand-blown glass. Inside, the services— lighting, heating and air-conditioning—have all been replaced. The original interiors were lost when the building was gutted by fire in 1704 (which also destroyed its cupola). It was restored in 1708–18, and one interior still retains intact its early-18th-century appearance, the saloon, or ‘Golden Room’, which overlooks the Hofvijver. The 15 paintings by the Venetian artist Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini—who also worked at Castle Howard —that are set into its ceiling and panelling have been cleaned as part of the building’s restoration, to magical effect in the flickering light reflected from the lake outside.
The picture galleries have been treated with a light touch. Their wall coverings have been replaced with specially woven silk in a range of rich colours—blue and green on the ground floor, green and red above—and
Venetian glass chandeliers have been introduced in the centre of many of the rooms, enhancing their intimate, domestic atmosphere. The display of pictures has changed only minimally. The galleries for Vermeer—including Girl with a Pearl Earring—and Rembrandt have hardly been altered, but a 20th-century thinning out of the hang has, in some degree, been reversed, thanks in particular to paintings being hung over doors once more.
One change has been prompted by anticipated visitor expectations. The Mauritshuis’s staff was struck by the crowds who flocked to see Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch when a selection of the museum’s paintings was shown last year at the Frick in New York.
This unexpected popularity was a result of the central part it plays in Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, which won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction. As a result, the painting, which used to hang on a short end wall, has been moved to a gallery where it can be given more space.
Some lovers of Dutch art may look down on visitors drawn to paintings for reasons of —possibly transient—celebrity. However, they might also reflect that one of the most famous meditations on a work of art ever written was inspired by another of the museum’s treasures. When Marcel Proust saw Vermeer’s View of Delft on exhibition in Paris in 1921, he was so moved by it that he incorporated the painting into his novel À la recherché du temps perdu.
I cannot think of any gallery that so readily inspires quiet thought and reverent contemplation as the Mauritshuis—qualities that have been enhanced for an ever-growing audience by this painstaking restoration and sensitive enlargement.
For information in English on visiting the Mauritshuis, visit www.mauritshuis. nl/en/ or telephone 00 31 70 3023456. Its opening exhibition, on the history of its building, runs until January 4, 2015
** This article was first published in Country Life on July 9 2014