A smug guide to impressing your date over brothel scenes when visiting Mauritshuis’ National Trust Exhibition in The Hague
Dutch Museum Het Mauritshuis “proudly presents” 22 paintings from 12 houses managed by the UK’s National Trust in what it dubs “a unique exhibition“. Never before, says the museum, has such a large group of Dutch masters owned by the National Trust traveled outside of the UK.
The presence of this choice collection of Dutch masters is explained, rather curiously, because of a lack of good English painters in the 17th century which led the English to buy on the continent, something which they continued to do because Dutch old masters “remained popular collector’s items.” Apparently, the quality of the works had little to do with it.
The failure to point out the exceptional quality of Dutch painting is not the only questionable aspect of the Mauritshuis‘s approach to the exhibition. The information provided with the paintings is rather curt and riddled with errors, questionable opinions or omissions. The museum’s app draws a complete blank on the exhibition and it is unfortunate that no connections between paintings in the exhibition and the regular collection are made.
For example: from Ashdown House is shown the beautiful portrait of Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662) by Gerrit van Houthorst. It is a much better portrait than that of her relation, Mary Stuart, in the museum’s collection. But that really is no reason not to mention it.
The same is true about the painting of the Duke of Cumberland, Prince Rupert of the Rhine from Petworth House. The fact that he is Elizabeth Stuart’s son isn’t particularly stressed, nor is the fact that he fought in the Battle of Texel – which is depicted in the painting by Willem van de Velde I from Felbrigg Hall which is also exhibited. Against a Dutch fleet commanded by Michiel de Ruyter.
The painting depicting him in the Wikipedia article is actually in the Mauritshuis. Luckily, because none of this is mentioned in the exhibition, so please do use this oppertunity to severely impress your date.
Another opportunity asks a little more daring. Possibly based on the caption underThe introduction, by Gerard ter Borch the younger provided by the National Trust the Mauritshuis curtly tells its audience the older woman in the back is the lady’s procuress and the scene probably takes place in a brothel. The reasoning that is present in the National Trust‘s version is absent. This provided the perfect opening to discuss the painting and dazzle everyone within earshot. First, let’s look at the scene.
In the foreground we see a lady dressed in a rich white dress, looking down on a man who grasps her hand, or possibly a finger. Both the National Trust and the Mauritshuis call the man an officer. That he is a soldier becomes clear from his breastplate and the long kolder (a type of leather armour) he is wearing underneath. The spurs would indicate that he is with the cavalry. This adds a possible layer of complexity to the figure: he is quite possibly a member of the upper class, maybe even of the aristocracy. However, the National Trust is adamant that
“military men are generally up to no good in Dutch genre painting.”
Added to this is the couple making music in the left, which also suggests (sexual) impropriety. Music evokes lovemaking, with the phrase “‘to strum the lute‘ being (…) an innuendo for sexual intercourse.” A watch, just above where the hands of the couple touch – the place the composition draws the eye to – is said to be reminiscent of the vanity of earthly desires. All this together leads the National Trust to offer the possibility that the company might not be entirely ‘proper’:
“Are we to understand this as an upstanding household threatened by luxurious excess and base instincts, or is this a house of ill-repute, and the woman hovering in the background between the couple as the young woman’s procuress?“
Before answering this question, we ought to contrast The Introduction to another painting in the Mauritshuis. Frans van Mieris the Elder’s Brothel Scene is… definitely taking place in a brothel. Some of the symbolic elements are the same as those in the Ter Borch painting. The soldier wearing a breastplate – this time, however, without spurs – a lute, albeit turned and not being played but hanging on the wall.
At the same time, the scene is much more explicit. The bedding over the balustrade, the festive pair in the background, the inviting decollete of the girl serving wine, and of course the behaviour of the small dogs. Dutch painters did not shy away from the subject if they so chose. So was Ter Borch coy about it or is another explanation possible?
The suggestive symbolism in The Introduction could also have a more opaque meaning than indicating a brothel. Indeed, if the setting is not assumed to be a brothel, then it takes on a different meaning, with another suggestive value. There is certainly danger in the acquaintance, a danger that is absent in the Brothel Scene. The older woman could just as well be interpreted as a mother fearful for the virtue of her daughter. Or the music is actually sweet, and an indication of things to come in due time. In any case, involving another work in the collection opens up a whole discussion on the merits and meaning of just one of the works on display.
In summary, the exposition consists of beautiful works of art – and especially Rembrandt’s self-portrait is magnificent – presented in a rather dull fashion, based on the houses where they normally hang.
Better utilisation of available ICT-infrastructure could have opened up interesting cross-referencing between the exhibition and the museum’s regular collection. On the whole, the dearth of cultural context offered by the museum’s information panels is a somewhat of a bummer. Nevertheless, at no surcharge, the exhibition is a more than welcome extra to a visit of a splendid collection of paintings.
In any case, let us know how the date went and if she doesn’t call back it wasn’t you, it was us.