I’ve often said that I like my history as fiction, and after a visit to Amsterdam and The Hague, I’m going to add art to the list. Art abounds in The Netherlands, and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Mauritshuis in The Hague have recently reopened after renovation.
Seeing the Mauritshuis work in a traveling show at the Frick in NYC over Thanksgiving, 2013, while restorations were taking place back in The Netherlands, whetted my appetite to visit the site. It is an elegant gem, home to stellar works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and other masters.
The work that became meaningful for me, though, on this trip was Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp,” said to be the painting that made Rembrandt’s name; it’s the first work that he signed “Rembrandt,” rather than RHL.
The back-story, found in the novel of the same name by Nina Siegal (2014), is fascinating. The points of view of Aris Kindt (the body), his girlfriend, Dr. Tulp, the corpse finder and preparator, the painter, and others involved offer a fuller picture of why this is such an important painting. It also gives readers insights into 17th century Dutch culture, where one public dissection was allowed annually. Difficult to imagine, but the event was a popular social event—with a lavish banquet afterward. Tulp was not the physician’s real name; it was changed from Claes Pieterszoon when he adopted the tulip as his heraldic symbol. The tulip was so popular that when people saw the good doctor in his carriage with its tulip emblem, they naturally began calling him Dr. Tulp. He did not demure.
Rembrandt’s house and its fascinating curio room is a good locale for getting to know this important painter. His penchant for collecting the weird and wonderful is a theme in the novel. Follow the wonderful cobble-stoned streets along canals to climb the narrow stairs of his home.
The history of the tulip and its economic stardom plays out in the last novel Alexandre Dumas wrote: Black Tulip (1850). A competition with a significant winner’s fee is set for the first person to produce a black tulip. In the Rijksmuseum, I happened upon a grotesque painting of two statesmen–brothers Johan and Cornelius de Witt—crucified and disemboweled. It was unsettling, but in that wonderful synchronicity that occurs when reading for travel, I found that their execution opens Dumas’ novel.
Tulip Mania occurred some 30 years prior to the black tulip contest. Think of it as the dot.com bubble of the 17th century. Tulip Fever (1999), a novel by Deborah Moggach, who also authored The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, focuses on a love triangle in which the painter hired to portray the wife of businessman falls in love with her, and they enter the risky speculative tulips market.
Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay for Tulip Fever, which premieres in 2015. By the way, Moggach wrote the TV adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, most likely the #1 read for anyone visiting Amsterdam and the heartbreaking attic rooms where the family lived until being arrested during World War II.
Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring is the subject of the admired novel (Tracy Chevalier, 1999) and film of the same name. Susan Vreeland also enters Vermeer country with her Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999). While not a novel, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World is historian Timothy Brook’s argument that globalization began in the 17th century with explorations taken on by the Dutch and Portuguese in particular.
Other books that may appeal to travelers to Amsterdam and The Netherlands: Chris Ewan’s comic whodunit series, which begins with The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam (2007), and the satiric The UnDutchables by Colin White and Laurie Boucke (2013). The latter may help understand a culture where the Red Light District is marked on the map, and shop stock ranges from condoms to ducks, while “coffee shops” post signs “No Tobacco Allowed,” but quite obviously from the aroma, other smoking is.
Coda: The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey (2005), although not related to The Netherlands, is yet another excellent read about an artist: Gustav Klimt. It’s particularly timely with the film Woman in Gold (2015).