SOUWIE ON . . . The arts

Art and history battle for new territory in the story behind the Mauritshuis

The above is a collage – Corn with Pearl Earring en Jenny Boots Black Girl with Pearl (2021) by student, Nanan Kangs.  A product of the Art Battle arranged by the Mauritshuis as one of a number of events marking its 200 year anniversary, it alludes of course to one of the museum’s most famous paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. It also draws on the much more recent work of another Dutch artist, Jenny Boots, who created Black Girl with Pearl in 2016.

This collage highlights the power of art to interpret and re-interpret history in endless iterations of creative impulse. In this case, it is Dutch colonial history that has come under increasing scrutiny in the form of Count Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen and his so-called sugar palace, the Mauritshuis. Build with the profits he made in the colonies of Dutch Brazil, it took over a decade to complete – 1633 to 1644. It is now home to hundreds of priceless paintings including Potter’s Bull, Jan Steen’s Girl Eating Oysters and Carel Fabritius’s Gold Finch.

Although it houses the Royal Cabinet of paintings, a collection of 854 art objects mostly from the Dutch Golden Age, little remains of Maurits’s own collection. Yet the building continues to bear his name. Historical accounts of his time as Governor of Dutch Brazil have hailed him as a figure of tolerance and enlightenment. He brought teams of artists and scientists with him to Brazil to record and catalogue the forna and flora of a territory that was world’s away for those living in Western Europe at the time. Few Europeans had ever seen a pineapple at the time!  

Prince Maurits  was a successful military strategist and administrator who quickly revived the lucrative sugar plantations around the town of Recife on the West coast of Brazil and had soon extended Dutch influence both north and south. He also established representative councils for local government and developed the transportation infrastructure of Recife. So far, so good.

But the sugar plantations needed large supplies of cheap labour. The largely protestant Dutch were against slavery at this time, seeing it as a papist evil. Yet the practicalities of business meant that Maurits was directed to capture two large slave hubs on the West coast of Africa – one in present day Ghana and the other in Luanda, Angola. It is estimated that during his time as governor of the colony, over 24 000 slaves were transported into Dutch Brazil. Furthermore, research has shown that Maurits himself engaged in the private trading of slaves for personal profit. This was illegal at the time. His own slaves were all branded with his monogram.

For two centuries the Mauritshuis has been both a world-renowned art museum and a physical reminder of the powerful colonial legacy of Johan Maurits. As grandnephew of William of Orange, accounts of his life and influence largely failed to acknowledge his role in the Atlantic slave trade. In 2020, under the directorship of Martine Gosselink, a new permanent exhibition, detailing the role of Dutch Brazil and Johan Maurits’s role in it was opened. A historical research project, Revisiting Dutch Brazil and Johan Maurits, has also been begun.

Yet, the museum has no plans to change its name, claiming that this would mean effacing the colonial history of the Netherlands, including its role in the transatlantic slave trade. Art work often captures the biases of history more directly than written records. An image may be reappropriated in a manner that is both immediate and provoking.  Yet words too have the power to brand. Mauritshuis is a brand that we now associate with world class art works of the Golden Age. It has not been Johan Maurits’s house for hundreds of year and yet his name continues to dominate. Acknowledging history is one thing, allowing it to dominate the present is another.       Souwie Buis   June 2022