In The Captive, Proust’s Bergotte dies looking at a little patch of yellow wall in Vermeer’s “View of Delft”, thus helping to make the painting the most famous cityscape in the world.
The detail is the point: the wall was “so well painted that it was . . . of a beauty that was sufficient in itself”. Yet no one has ever been able to pinpoint exactly which fragment arrested Bergotte’s gaze. And for Vermeer as for Proust, truth lay in fidelity to experience, which is not the same as realism. Although he rendered Delft’s roofs and towers, archways and gables with meticulous accuracy, Vermeer altered their heights and their relationships with each other to achieve a perfectly balanced skyline.
The truth of the picture lies in the harmony and tranquillity of one captured instant: rain has just scrubbed the city; sunlight pours through a break in the clouds to spotlight the gleaming Nieuwe Kerk; houses, churches, bridges are reflected in the still waterway whose banks are dotted with tiny figures, making the buildings by contrast monumental.
Dutch painting is about detail and about time, and never have these aspects been more sensitively showcased than in the newly restored Mauritshuis, which reopens this weekend after a two-year closure. The museum boasts Rubens’ luminous, tender study of rose-cheeked youth versus gnarled age, “Old Woman and a Boy with Candles”, which the artist never let out of his studio, and Rembrandt’s virtuoso account of surgeons keenly observing every feature of a corpse, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp”.
Rembrandt’s early and late self-portraits are here too, tracing the passage from clear-eyed verve and joie de vivre to a depiction, in the artist’s final year, of resignation yet defiance: weary expression and sagging flesh beneath a flamboyant turban, painted in a few fluid, dynamic strokes.
An initial array of still lifes underlines the theme. In the fish glistening on pewter and unfurling lemon peel in Willem Claesz Heda’s “Still Life with a Roemer and Watch”, the dwindling wax and almost extinguished light in Pieter Claesz’s “Still Life with a Lighted Candle”, and the crumpled pages and mute instrument in Jan Davidsz de Heem’s “Still Life with Books and a Violin”, intensity of detail transports us back four centuries even as the paintings proclaim that knowledge, art and life will vanish.
A compact masterpiece of Dutch classicism overlooking the Hofvijver Lake, flanked by The Hague’s parliamentary buildings, the Mauritshuis has long been known as the jewel box among Holland’s museums. Constructed in 1644 for Count Johan Maurits, governor of Brazil, it became a picture gallery in 1822, and displays an outstanding collection of Dutch Golden Age paintings made for bourgeois patrons at appropriately intimate scale, in a wood-panelled house hung with velvet and silk. Today, a fresh hang, subtle decor and lighting to bring out the ruddy warmth of the Dutch palette, and sympathetic extensions – including a discreet lift concealed within marble slabs at the entrance – marvellously reinvent it as a state-of-the-art 21st-century museum.
As a distillation of a worldview the result is unique: the Mauritshuis frames a window on how people thought and felt in 17th-century northern Europe. Van Dyck’s double portrait of Peeter Stevens and his wife, all fluid, languid gestures and intricate lace and pearls, is positioned high on a wall of one of the grander rooms, so that we must look up to this power couple, as Antwerp’s burghers would have done.
“Ice Scene”, Hendrick Avercamp’s democratic panorama beneath leaden skies of skaters rich and poor, fashionable and clumsy, looks out on The Hague’s busy Buitenhof square. There is life everywhere: Johannes Moreelse’s ghoulish “Democritus, The Laughing Philosopher” stretches his finger in mockery; Carel Fabritius’s trompe l’oeil chained “The Goldfinch” – now a celebrity picture thanks to Donna Tartt’s novel – casts a shadow on rough plaster as if the singing bird were perched above us now.
This being Calvinist Holland, the real meaning of such a vivid material world is the immaterial one underlying it. The massive table top centred on a homely cauliflower, surrounded like a crown by grapes, cherries, turnips, peas, pheasants and slabs of meat, which constitutes Joachim Beuckelaer’s “Kitchen Scene with Christ at Emmaus”, is made holy by the small figures of the resurrected Jesus and two disciples at a distant doorway.
The spectacular menagerie of grumpy lion, playful tigers, aloof ostrich and vain peacocks imagined by Jan Brueghel became a religious narrative when the vast panel was brought to the studio of Rubens, who added a voluptuous Adam and Eve. “The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man” was a trophy, acquired by 18-year-old Prince William V, last Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic and a passionate collector since childhood.
His paintings form the core of the Mauritshuis holdings; additions have maintained the superlative quality and tell of changing tastes and fortunes. Thomas de Keyser’s full-length portrait of a flashy youth in the finery of Amsterdam’s civic guard, “Loef Vredericx as an Ensign”, was discovered in St Petersburg by a Mauritshuis director, and bought when the Soviet government began selling off its national collection in 1930. Frans Hals’ sparkling circular panel of a toothy child, “Laughing Boy”, was acquired in 1968 from Baroness Goldschmidt-Rothschild, who agreed to the purchase only if she could keep the picture for nine months a year until her death; the boy travelled annually by train between The Hague and Paris until 1973.
The painting that is the Mauritshuis’s current icon, Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, came up for auction, uncleaned and of uncertain attribution, in The Hague in 1881. Vermeer was then relatively unknown; his rediscovery by French art critics in Proust’s circle was just beginning, and although “View of Delft” was in the collection, the Mauritshuis destination picture through the 19th century was a work that, in noise and assertive frontality, is its polar opposite: the museum’s largest canvas, Paulus Potter’s “The Bull”. So only two Dutch collectors recognised “Girl”; they agreed not to compete and the painting was knocked down for two guilders thirty cents to Arnoldus des Tombe, who bequeathed it to the Mauritshuis in 1903.
Celebrated today as the Dutch Mona Lisa, the girl with the translucent eyes and sublime blue and yellow headscarf is as elusive as Leonardo’s. A speck in the corner of her mouth indicates she has just licked her lips; she looks at us, from a dark background that pushes her out of the picture plane into our space, as if to speak. Yet, as always with Vermeer, it is the silence of the moment, suspended forever, that holds us. The quality of that silence resonates throughout the Mauritshuis, which in the loud 21st century looks set to become northern Europe’s most alluring small museum.