The Magazine

Dutch Treats

Oh, to be in Holland, now that August’s there .  .  .

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By SARA LODGE
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What emerges most vividly from a visit to the museum is a sense of the Pilgrims’ daily lives—from the very tight size of the rooms (dimensions that continued to prevail in Massachusetts despite the abundance of land) to the candlelit interior, to the familiar objects (baby-walkers, Geneva Bibles) that occupied their domestic spaces. 

While I was there, an American family with five small children arrived. Before long, the children were dressing in period costume, sitting on the furniture (including a 12th-century chair), playing with pigs’ knucklebones (used as jacks in 17th-century games), and studying 17th-century blue-and-white tiles depicting children skating, flying a kite, and walking on stilts. My heart was in my mouth as the smallest child handed back the tiles with nothing broken. I don’t think those kids will ever forget their visit. 

I finished my Dutch sojourn in Amsterdam, staying in the Spiegel Quarter among hip galleries and antique glass merchants. Many tourists come to Amsterdam to sample its illicit pleasures in “coffee” shops that are more about the pot or to window-shop in De Wallen, where the nudes behind the glass are real. But the best reason to come here is to have your mind blown by Dutch art. The Rijksmuseum, closed for building renovations since 2003, triumphantly reopened this past April. It is stunning. Rather than opting for interactive displays and other novelties, the architects have concentrated on making the beautiful building a lighter and more dynamic frame for the extraordinary paintings it contains. Here, you can marvel at Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1664) and, of course, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642).

To understand Rembrandt’s habits as a painter, it is worth also visiting his house in Jodenbreestraat. The studio where he and his pupils worked elbow to elbow is flooded with cool north light. Beside it is a room filled with treasures that were props in the paintings: exotic shells, armor, terrestrial and celestial globes. Here, you can see how the artist made his brushes from weasel hair, the nib of a bird’s feather, and a wooden handle, and how he mixed his pigments. Of the roughly 20 colors available at the time, Rembrandt used relatively few, eschewing the expensive lapis lazuli blue and preferring the more readily available yellow and red ochre, umbers, bone black, and lead white. 

Seeing Rembrandt’s copper etching plates, where the focus of the technique is on determining light and dark areas, helped me to understand the dramatic chiaroscuro in his paintings. And learning about the pigments he used and the way his palette was literally drawn from earth—from the rocks and soil—helped me to appreciate the down-to-earth quality of his work, the way it loves the ordinary, the humane, the rich ground out of which flesh emerges with all its flaws.

Indeed, if there was a theme to my Dutch journey, it was the experience of being brought down to earth. In Han van der Horst’s The Low Sky: Understanding the Dutch, he comments that the nation is naturally egalitarian and utilitarian, with a dislike of pomp and circumstance. A favorite Dutch saying is “Act normal, that’s crazy enough.” Moderation, thriftiness, and consensus are prized. This makes perfect sense: If you live on a flood plain, the necessity for cooperation is obvious. 

I came to enjoy the levelheaded, deadpan humor of my Dutch colleagues as much as the pancakes that I wolfed down while looking out at the reflection of the calm water of the canals glinting evenly off of 100 mullioned windows. And I came to realize that my native Britain, currently struggling with an uneasy coalition government and entrenching daily its differences with Europe, has much to learn from a nation that rose from the sea and knows that steering the ship of state on a steady course depends on keeping everyone on board.

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.

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