Yeah, there's fantastic coffee, beautiful architecture, great food of all types, and a wondrous assortment of intoxicants and inebriants that are legal or at least tolerated--but the best thing about the Netherlands is the art. I'm crazy for Dutch and Flemish painting. So many great masters came to mind when, while riding the train on semi-gloomy days across those northern plains, vivid gold bands of sunlit farms appeared in the distance behind fog and densely shadowed foregrounds. No wonder those cats developed such facility with light and shadow. Light is rare and precious for much of the year.
Just seeing this Vermeer again for the third time was worth the trip. I can barely stand to stand before it, so I had to sit and look, and even so I kept looking away, as if I might sully such perfection with an uworthy gaze. The bread is detailed as the lunar landscape through a powerful telescope. The stone jug is pocked and richly textured. The basket and lantern hang in the background but are as beautifully wrought as any objects in any painting ever done. Look at the play of light on that brass! The detailings on the tiles along the floor, on the porcelain jug on the table, and on the rough plaster around the window are magnificent. I am unworthy even to discuss the young lady. She is profoundly precious to me with her potent inexplicable dignity. That expression suggests not the empty disgruntled experience of a maid struggling through dreary commonplace chores, but hints rather at a rich inner life. She dreams perhaps of her lover, or imagines the plot of an exotic drama seen years before, or imagines her children fully grown. I adore her. Of course the four Vermeers at the Rijksmuseum are show-stoppers, but there are Rembrandts by the dozen, and the greatest of the greatest of that master's works are here. The prophet Jeremiah leans on cold stone, exhausted and yet contented by the power of his visions. The light in this early painting is gorgeous and perfectly evokes the requisite mystical fire of great faith and duty. This entire canvas would fit inside the chest of the central figure of The Night Watch, a painting so complex that even after several viewings in person and in reproductions I still find new details, and substantial ones at that. I never noticed until this trip that the main guy has his left glove off and hanging from his right hand. And the self-portraits...they're too much. Few artists capture so well the ambiguities of facial expression, and Rembrandt often used this particular genius to full effect in presenting himself at various stages of life. I adore these paintings.And this Maes? Forget about it! It makes me cry. And the Frans Hals? And the still lifes? Even in its current sorry state, with large chunks of its collection locked away during rehab, the Rijksmuseum is a fantastic place.
And the Big B in Rotterdam was a treat too. I saw a lot of my favorite dudes on this trip: Petrus Christus, Dirk Bouts, Heironomous Bosch, Gerard David, to name a few. I only saw one Van Eyck, and it was a sub-par effort in association with his brother--so I was sorely tempted to take the train down to Ghent to see the motherlode again.
Maybe next time.