Category Archives: Amsterdam

Woman in Blue


Vermeer's "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter," Rijksmuseum website

Vermeer’s “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter,” Rijksmuseum website

One of the masterpieces in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is Johannes Vermeer’s “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.”  In the newly-renovated museum, there are now four exquisite Vermeers all in a row.  In his entire life the master Vermeer only produced only a total of about 34 paintings.  He never became rich or particularly famous.  He ran an inn and acted as an art dealer to make money, not to mention having 15 children, of whom 11 lived beyond infancy. The wonder is that he had any time or energy at all to paint.  He lived in the small town of Delft for his entire 43 years, from 1632 to 1675.  A local patron bought most of his paintings, so his name never spread much beyond Delft until long after his death.

Today, crowds gather in front of Vermeer’s small, jewel-like paintings.  They reward close study. In this painting and in others, Vermeer splurged on expensive blue pigments, lapis lazuli or natural ultramarine. This particular painting was just recently restored, unlocking the glorious blue and the luminous light.   Almost all of of Vermeer’s paintings were small domestic scenes, recording humble lives in humble homes. Through the centuries, the beauty of everyday life shines through in them.

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

More Dogs in Dutch Art

DogLookUpWhat do we really value about our dogs? Blind adoration is the most important thing, if we dog lovers are honest.  Sure, we’d like to see obedience, intelligence, cute tricks, and barking only when fire breaks out or someone is actually breaking into the house.  But that look of pure unconditional love trumps everything else. I imagine that even rich merchants in the Dutch Golden Age had their moments of doubt and insecurity, moments when they needed that adoring upward gaze.

As I wandered the art galleries of Amsterdam, I snapped photos of dogs. They were everywhere, in the Rijksmuseum and in the Amsterdam Museum (which is really the history museum, but the word “history” was recently removed, apparently because it was thought to scare some people away).

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Somehow, the dogs featured in paintings serve to make the people depicted seem more real, more like us.

iPhone9-23-13 363Each animal is an individual character, as lovingly painted as any man, woman or child.

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Each long-ago dog had a name, a favorite place to sleep, a way of looking happy or sad.

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We might have trouble imagining the lives of humans from past centuries, but we have no trouble recognizing these dogs. And that adoring upward look still speaks to us, centuries after dog and master are gone. For me, the loving relationship between people and their pets is a kind of window into the past.

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

Dogs in Dutch Art

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Dogs are everywhere in Dutch museums.  As I wandered through the art galleries of Amsterdam, I wondered why dogs appear in so many paintings, especially those dating from the Golden Age.  All though the 1600s, the Dutch Republic was pretty much on top of the world.  Merchants and seamen traded all over the world, bringing in boatloads of money.  A wealthy middle class rose up. There was still a market for religious and historical art, but above all this new wealthy class  wanted portraits and depictions of their everyday lives of luxury.  Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals and many other artists were happy to oblige. My guess is that man’s best friend was just part of the good life.

I came across a wonderful poem by David Graham:

The Dogs in Dutch Paintings

How shall I not love them, snoozing

right through the Annunciation?  They inhabit

the outskirts of every importance, sprawl

dead center in each oblivious household.

They’re digging at fleas or snapping at scraps,

dozing with noble abandon while a boy

bells their tails.  Often they present their rumps

in the foreground of some martyrdom.

What Christ could lean so unconcernedly

against a table leg, the feast above continuing?

Could the Virgin in her joy match this grace

as a hound sagely ponders an upturned turtle?

No scholar at his huge book will capture

my eye so well as the skinny haunches,

the frazzled tails and serene optimism

of the least of these mutts, curled

in the corners of the world’s dazzlement.

The poet’s website is at

I’m counting my discovery of this poet as one of the world’s dazzlements!

Like Father, Like Son? Not So Much.


In Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, I noticed a lot of people pausing in front of a particular portrait, depicting a fat young man named Gerard Andriesz Bicker in 1639.  Dressed in fine silks, velvet and lace, he looks particularly satisfied with himself.  If Gerard had posted this portrait on, I suppose he would have expected a lot of takers.  People in the museum pause, read the caption, and then move to the adjoining portrait, of young Gerard’s father.


The father, Andries, was the mayor of Amsterdam at the time.  He appears as a stern, hardworking burgher, dressed in severe black.  He wears the stiffly starched and pleated collar so popular among the elite at the time.  These collars took about 18 yards of fabric to make and had to be painstakingly hand-pleated.  They held a person’s head high and made it impossible to lean back and relax.  One can only imagine what opinion Andries had of his spoiled-looking son.  The son’s caption notes dryly that young Gerard did not attain offices as high as those of his father.  No kidding.

Both portraits were painted by Bartholomeus van der Heist, 1613-1670.  He was Rembrandt’s chief rival in the contest to get the most lucrative portrait painting jobs among Amsterdam’s rich and famous. Apparently young Gerard was pleased with his portrait.  His father must have been pleased enough with both portraits, too.  After all, he paid for them.

Join me next time as I explore the art and history of Europe!

Rembrandt’s House in Amsterdam

Rembrandt van Rijn’s house in Amsterdam is on the tourist circuit, and well worth a stop. The building is the original one where the artist lived and work, but the interior has been reconstructed to accommodate visitors. An adjoining building has further displays.

The nearby Rijksmuseum has some of Rembrandt’s greatest hits in paintings, but the house has a treasure trove of his etchings.  During high season, I understand the etching process is demonstrated. The artist spent a good deal of time and effort becoming a fantastically skilled master of etching–an art form a little harder to appreciate than the big colorful paintings such as the one we know as “The Night Watch.”  Like other Rembrandt canvases, that famous work draws big crowds over at the newly-refurbished Rijksmuseum.

In his many drawings and etchings, Rembrandt developed his skill with characterization and especially with light and shadow.  He used himself as a subject over and over, often to study emotion and facial expression.


In this example, he shows himself laughing.


He used his wife Saskia as a frequent model, too.  Here she is shown with the artist himself in a double portrait.


The house recreates the studio where Rembrandt worked.  It has wonderful large windows with northern light.  Here he mixed his paints and produced his masterpieces.  For his portrait work, Biblical subjects, and historical paintings, he needed a lot of props.  He had rooms full of interesting objects gathered from all over the world.


Sadly, the artist fell upon hard financial times for reasons I don’t really understand.  He continued to draw, paint, and teach many students to the end of his life, but the big lucrative commissions dried up. Finally he went bankrupt and had to move to a smaller rented house. He was forced to sell the house for which he had paid a fortune in his heyday.  To recreate the place, curators had only to refer to the detailed list of every single one of Rembrandt’s possessions. I’m sure they would be able to place most of these objects in Rembrandt’s many paintings.  More casual visitors to the house can get a vivid idea of a great artist’s working methods, and a new appreciation for the art of etching.

Join me next time as I continue on a journey with new discoveries in the art and history of Europe!





Oscar in Amsterdam



At the Anne Frank House, I came upon an unexpected sight: an actual Oscar statuette in a glass case near the exit. I never expected to get within inches of one. The story is that the American actress Shelley Winters fulfilled a promise when she brought it to Amsterdam. She met Otto Frank on the set of the movie The Diary of Anne Frank. Miss Winters was playing the part of one of the hidden people, Mrs. Van Pels, in the movie. She told Mr. Frank that if she won an Oscar, she would bring it to the Anne Frank House and leave it there. He gently answered that would be a difficult thing for her to do. She replied that she would keep it for a little while, then bring it to Amsterdam. That is exactly what she did.



Artists, including actors, movie-makers and writers, do not just entertain us. They show us images and tell us stories that help us to make sense of the chaotic world around us. That is what young Anne Frank did as she developed, all alone, as a writer. The tour of her house ends with a short video that brings many visitors to tears. Anne’s father, Otto, explains that although he had a very good relationship with his daughter, he did not know the depth of her feelings or the extent of her understanding of human nature until he read her diary after her death. He ends by saying that he thinks parents never truly know their children. Sadly, his opportunity to know his beloved daughter better was cut short. But her honest account of her deepest feelings continues to enrich us all.




At another museum I visited, I came across a dress that the young Anne could have worn: a dress with the hated yellow star required of all Jews under Nazi occupation. I found the experience of staying so close to Anne’s hiding place profoundly moving. I hope I never forget.



Picasso’s Lady in a Fish Hat

Fish Hat

At the very end of two days of looking at great art in Amsterdam, I came across a Pablo Picasso painting that made me laugh: “Seated Woman Wearing a Hat in the Shape of a Fish.”  The painting is in Amsterdam’s modern art museum, the Stedelijk. The date is 1942, midway through the Second World War.  I had to look up the artist’s whereabouts during this time.  As it happened, he stayed in Paris during the entire Nazi occupation.  Naturally, the Gestapo regarded him as subversive–and he certainly was, though not in any way the Nazis could understand. He did not bother to exhibit his work at this time, but he never stopped creating.

According to one account, one day Gestapo officers were in his studio harassing him, as they often did.  They spotted his great antiwar painting, “Guernica,”  which depicts the terrible suffering inflicted by German bombers on a town full of innocent victims during the Spanish Civil War.  A Gestapo officer pointed at the painting, which was not yet acknowledged as one of the most powerful antiwar images ever made, and asked Picasso, “Did you do this?”  “No,” Picasso reportedly replied. “You did.”

So what about this woman with a fish on her head? Could it be a spoof on military headgear?  Or a joke about pompous officials in general? Was Picasso poking fun at some acquaintance?  Was he making fun of women’s frivolous fashions during wartime?  I don’t know. Maybe the painting  means nothing at all–maybe that is the point. Maybe it is just meant to provoke a smile. In even the darkest times, we need artists who are able to show us that there is more to life than the grim reality that sometimes surrounds us.