Category Archives: Amsterdam

Happy International Cat Day!


Do cats deserve a day of their very own in the international calendar? Of course they do. A couple of years ago, wandering art museums in Amsterdam and Haarlem, I wrote about the many dogs that appear in Dutch paintings.  I mused that for me, the dogs served as a window into long-ago times and places.  Cats are the same. It’s hard to identify with people wearing heavy black robe-like garments relieved only by starched white ruffs and collars. But  these same people had pets they loved.  The cat above, looking out at the world from the safety of her person’s lap, has the same smug look as any cat of mine. I can understand people who appreciate their feline friends enough to immortalize them in art.


Cats in Dutch paintings are often up to no good.  The one above is about to make off with a plucked bird while the unsuspecting housewife is looking the other way.


Cats often gaze longingly at the food artfully arranged in Dutch still life paintings, and they add some “life” to still lifes that consist mainly of dead animals ready to be consumed.


Children have always liked cats.  This ceramic pet, complete with a bib and abandaged leg, sits in the now-quiet nursery at Wightwick Manor, a wonderful Arts and Crafts home in England. He looks a little anxious. I have a feeling his broken ear and broken paw happened when he got tossed across the nursery in some long-ago game.


I have a soft spot for all cats, but especially for the calico and tabby  varieties. They remind me of the pair that patiently wait for me at home.


Of course I’m always on the lookout for friendly cats on my travels. This handsome fellow was in York, England.


What about big cats? I love them too.  The fierce creature above is on an exterior wall of the very grand Pitti Palace in Florence.


Chatsworth House in England has a pair of regal lions who lord it over the Sculpture Gallery. I think part of our fascination with big cats is that we feel we understand them just a bit, especially if we live with their small domesticated relatives. Our pet cats give us a little insight into both long-ago places and wild places on this earth.

In my post “Dogs in Dutch Art,” I quoted a striking poem by David Graham:  “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings.”  A couple of months ago I received a lovely comment from the poet, who had just happened upon my post.  The main reason I keep posting is to remember where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, and what I was thinking at the time.  That must be part of what motivates a poet, too.

Posts about dogs in art are at ‎and

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Bob Marley and the Dutch Golden Age


What does Bob Marley, the legendary reggae musician who rose from grinding poverty in Jamaica, have to do with the over-the-top wealth of the great trading city of Amsterdam?  A lot, it turns out.  I just watched a fine documentary called Marley, streaming on Netflix. The film, directed by director Kevin Macdonald and released in 2012,  must be the definitive life story of the musician.  He somehow rose from extreme poverty to superstardom.  Bob Marley died of cancer at age 36, in 1981. But his music lives on, and the family he left behind continues what he started.


The National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam holds 500 years of the seafaring history of the city.  Last time I was in Amsterdam, in the fall of 2013, the city was celebrating the beginning of the canal system that allowed a great trading center to be built on hundreds of islands and swampy ground adjoining the North Sea.  Kids try sailors’ hammocks and pretend to eat in the officers’ mess. A restored ship docks outside in the harbor. Inside the museum, displays chronicle the glorious history of Dutch seafarers.

ShipHammock AmstShipTable

But there is a darker story, During my visit, the Maritime Museum hosted a stunning exhibit that frankly exposed the shameful secrets of the slave trade that contributed heavily to the city’s wealth.


On a video inside the exhibit, a lady abolitionist scolds those who profit from the slave trade. She looks quaint, but brave.  It took many years of determined efforts by people like her to put a stop to the slave trade.

The profits that built the canal rings and the grand houses on Amsterdam’s canals came largely through trade in products from Dutch colonies–sugar, coffee, cacao, tobacco. Production of these lucrative products required slave labor.  The slaves were shipped from West Africa to the Dutch East and West Indies as part of the “triangular trade” that poured huge riches into Portugal, France, England and Holland.

Triangular Trade, Creative Commons GNU Free Documentation License

Triangular Trade, Creative Commons GNU Free Documentation License

Ships would pick up cargoes of slaves in Africa and deliver them to work on plantations in the Caribbean. From those islands, the ships would load up on products such as sugar, indigo, cotton, and coffee. In the ports of Liverpool, coastal France, Lisbon, and Amsterdam, the ships would in turn load up on manufactured goods like textiles, utensils, gunpowder, guns and alcohol.  These products, scarce in Africa, fetched high prices for merchants and shipowners. And another cycle began. The “Middle Passage,” between Africa and the Caribbean (and also the Americas) inflicted unimaginable misery on those captured and used as slaves.

Bob Marley’s ancestors arrived in Jamaica as slaves and remained there after slavery was finally abolished.  They were “free” to live in poverty. He grew up making music in his little hardscrabble town in the hills, using homemade instruments along with the odd guitar. Eventually he and his friends were able to parlay their musical talent into world fame, but he died young.

The Amsterdam exhibit appeared to be a momentous occasion in Dutch history.  The entrance was separated from the rest of the museum by heavy doors, and carried warnings that the exhibits were graphic.  Schoolchildren in somber groups were taking in the exhibit. There was very little of the running and jumping and joking that usually go along with kids on a mandatory school field trip.  The adults were equally serious.


In Amsterdam, I visited some of the grand canal houses built by wealthy merchants and bankers. I strolled the beautiful, tranquil canals.  I marveled at the treasures of the Rijksmuseum.  It was good to also acknowledge some of the painful history behind the Dutch Golden Age.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe.


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Love in the Dutch Golden Age


Portrait of a Couple, Franz Hals, c. 1622, Amsterdam Rijskmuseum

Portrait of a Couple, Franz Hals, c. 1622, Amsterdam Rijskmuseum

This happy couple posed for the great Dutch portrait artist Franz Hals in around 1622. They were married in April of that year.  They seem completely at ease with each other, and they exude the joy of love. They are believed to be Isaac Abrahamz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen.  The relaxed pose was unusual at a time when portraits were serious business.  However, Hals was known to break conventional norms all the time in order to show the true humanity of his subjects.  And these people were known to be friends of the artist.

Hals included references to love and marriage:  a garden of love to the right, and to the left an eryngium thistle.  This plant was a symbol of male fidelity. (Let’s hope Isaac took the symbol to heart).  I’d like to think these two joyful people enjoyed a long and happy marriage. Happy Valentine’s Day, Isaac and Beatrix!

Pixels and Pearls


A few months ago in Amsterdam, I stayed at a bed and breakfast with especially trendy-but-funky decor.  One entire wall of my room was covered in little squares about the size of sample paint chips from the hardware store, all hinged together in an abstract design.  The shapes and colors were oddly familiar.

The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665, Public Domain

The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665, Public Domain

After about a day, I realized why the image was familiar.  Of course!  I was looking at an abstraction drawn from Johannes Vermeer’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” painted by the still-mysterious master of light and shadow in about 1665 in Delft. Vermeer worked slowly on his small canvases of domestic scenes, but he lavished the extremely expensive blue pigment of lapis lazuli on his work, building up luminous surfaces from repeated glazes.

When I returned home, I watched the 2003 movie Girl with a Pearl Earring, directed by Peter Webber from a screenplay by Olivia Hetreed.  The story was taken from Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel of the same title. The painting creates a dramatic tension by its very subject matter:  the humbly dressed but beautiful young woman should not be wearing a priceless pearl earring. She is gazing back over her shoulder at the  viewer, as though caught in a guilty act. Yet she has an undeniable dignity and poise.

Theatrical Release Poster

Theatrical Release Poster

What’s the story here?  This is the question the book and movie explore.  In the Dutch Golden Age, as in our own time, the rich always find ways to exploit the poor. Scarlett Johansson is luminous as a servant girl pressed into service as a model for the artist.  Colin Firth plays the artist, who painted this masterpiece in 1665. The movie explores themes of class, creativity, the waste of human potential, and the tragedy of repressed talent. Repressed sexuality is there, too.

The movie asks a lot of questions. How can the powerful rich be reined in? How far should an artist go to pursue a vision? What happens if a poor girl happens to have artistic talent? Colin Firth is in fine smoldering form, and Scarlet Johansson gives him plenty to smolder about. Tom Wilkinson and Cillian Murphy (of the high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes) round out the cast. The film was nominated for Academy Awards, the BAFTA, and Golden Globes. Unfortunately it fizzled like a seventeenth-century candle at the box office, but I have it on DVD for those times I really need to retreat to the Dutch Golden Age.

In my Amsterdam room, once I realized I was looking at a pixellated version of a masterpiece, all I wanted was to see the masterpiece itself in all its glory. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has several Vermeers. But this particular painting is not in Amsterdam; to see it, I’ll have to travel to the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague.  Time to plan another trip!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

April in the Netherlands

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Considering that the tulip season runs for only about 8 weeks, and that each tulip bulb blooms for only a week at most, I can see that gardeners and florists have been busy keeping the cities and countryside beautiful.

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Gardens are in bloom everywhere.

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Museums, like the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem ,have traditional arrangements of tulips, like this one which only a very wealthy family would have enjoyed in the past. Each precious bloom has its own place in a towering Delft vase, a luxurious work of art in itself.

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Other arrangements are more modern.  All are spectacular!

Tulip Monkey Business



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I took a short train ride from Amsterdam to the nearby town of Haarlem, especially to visit the Frans Hals Museum. One of the more charming pieces I found there featured monkeys and tulips.  Frans Hals was a contemporary of Rembrandt; they competed for the same clientele of wealthy Dutch citizens during the Golden Age of Dutch painting, in the 1600s.  His namesake museum has many Hals paintings, plus work by other artists of his time.

"A Satire of Tulip Mania" by Brueghel the Younger, Public Domain

“A Satire of Tulip Mania” by Brueghel the Younger, Public Domain

“A Satire of Tulip Mania,” by Breughel the Younger, was painted in 1640, just after the debacle of the tulip boom and bust cycle.  This was the seventeenth-century equivalent of the dot-com boom and bust. It was probably the first modern instance of rampant speculation in a commodity, followed by a crash. At the height of the frenzy, a single tulip bulb sold for ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman.

Brueghel dressed his gullible monkeys in contemporary clothes and showed them facing debtor’s court and even urinating on discarded tulips, turned from priceless to worthless overnight.

Today the tulip trade is much more stable.  The museum had spectacular arrangements of tulips and other spring flowers in every room.

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Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Amsterdam: Canals, Bikes, Tulips and Dogs

Amsterdam is beautiful in any season, but the long days of spring add to the enjoyment. The light on the canals is particularly beautiful in early morning and evening.

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Bikes comprise about 40% of the traffic in the city.  And of course bikes make fashion statements all their own.


Tulips are everywhere.


And paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, in the 1600s, are replete with the family pets beloved then, as now.


For some reason, dogs occupy a very special place in Dutch painting.  I guess they were a big part of the good life in the heyday of Amsterdam, when trading made its citizens some of the richest and most contented people in the world.  The city today, at least the parts that tourists see, seems equally fun-loving and prosperous, if a lot more egalitarian.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

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Revisiting an Old Friend in Amsterdam

In the Amsterdam History Museum the last time I was there, I came upon a particularly lovely painting of a man with a cow.  It is a fragment left from a much larger painting, now lost.  There’s a benevolent looking man, bending toward a cow that looks equally benevolent. Man and animal are painted with exquisite detail. If anything, the animal is painted in clearer focus. The animal gazes outward toward the viewer, with calm intelligence. The man is intent on something below and beyond the frame: very likely a baby sleeping in a manger.  The scene is one of overwhelming tenderness and reverence.


The painting, about 3 by 4 feet, is identified as a fragment of a much larger piece, forever lost. The original work was part of a large altarpiece; the artist is unknown. The altarpiece was broken up during religious rioting in the 16th century.  Even peaceful, tolerant Holland did not escape the religious strife that tore through all of Europe in past centuries.

Some museums allow photos; some do not.  I am always grateful when I can take a quick photo of a piece of art that speaks to me.  I never intend to sell my photo, enlarge it, or frame it.  I’d buy a print if I wanted something to hang on a wall. Instead, my photo preserves a travel memory: an encounter with a piece of art that made me slow down during a long day of sightseeing. It’s a memory of time I took out of fast-moving everyday life to ponder the timeless moments of beauty and peace that great art creates.

I’m off to Amsterdam again.  I’ll be seeking out this painting, as an old friend.

Kids and Their Costumes


Last month in the Amsterdam History Museum, I admired this touching portrait of a solemn little boy dressed up as a militia officer, complete with a pike in his hand.  This child was no doubt a member of a wealthy family in the Netherlands of the 1600s.  The city militia of the time was not so much a military or police organization as an exclusive club for the elite.  This child’s family hoped he would grow up to be a civic leader.  At that time, children were generally portrayed as miniature adults. Still, parents must have had the same feelings present-day parents have.


This portrait reminded me of the costumes present-day children wear, for Halloween and for everyday play. The firefighter’s costume above is for sale at I saw kids trick-or-treating in similar costumes last week.

We all want our children to grow up to be useful members of society.  I’m sure that parents in the 1600s, like present-day parents, watched each stage of their childrens’ development with a mixture of pride and apprehension.  Then as now, parents must have wished they could prolong childhood for their little ones.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

My Own Woman in Blue

LadyCroppedMy last post was about Vermeer’s exquisite “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter,” which I saw last month in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. I bought a much more humble painting for my own wall, in an antique shop in Santa Monica.  Like many old forgotten oil paintings, this one leaned against a wall with others stacked against it; in fact, there was a dent in the canvas, which smoothed out once I rescued it and brought it home.  There was some water damage along the bottom edge.  Still, the colors were brilliant. It’s one of my very favorite pieces. It’s about 2 by 3 feet, much larger than Vermeer’s. I don’t know who the artist was. But the subject speaks to me:  a woman seated in a lovely, peaceful room, absorbed in her book.

For many centuries, all over the world, women were discouraged from reading.  In places in our contemporary world, reading is still discouraged or even forbidden to women.  A woman reading is a woman not cooking, cleaning, weaving or tending a garden.  Worse yet, a woman reading might get uppity ideas about her place in the world.  Who knows what might come of a woman quietly reading, all by herself?

A British writer, Belinda Jack, has written a book titled The Woman Reader. In it, she explores the history of women reading, in much the same way Virginia Woolf explored the history of women writing in her book A Room of One’s Own.  In many ways, a woman reading a book is creating her own private room, her own space within whatever world she lives in. This interior space, created anew with each new book opened, is really a window onto the wider world outside. We can experience absolutely any time or place, real or imagined, when we pick up a book. We can learn new skills and new ways of looking at life.  We can learn from those who have gone before us.

I was fortunate in having parents who especially encouraged me to read, took me to the library, and gave me the quiet time to develop a lifelong love of books. I wish that good fortune for all children, especially girls.

Book cover from Amazon

Book cover from Amazon

A review of Belinda Jack’s book, by Hermione Lee, is at