GLOSS, GLORY AND MISERY at Haags Historisch Museum

This exhibition is part of several throughout the Netherlands, on the Dutch Golden Age and Rembrandt. No Rembrandt here, but a glimpse of life in the ‘richest village in Europe’. After all, though The Hague lacked city rights, it was the Dutch Republic’s political power center.

The Hague became the permanent seat of the States of Holland and the States General of the Dutch Republic resided here. The Stadholder-family had its court here, while aristocratic refugees like the Winter Queen settled here as well. As for the quote ‘richest village of Europe’: it was penned by an English ‘tourist’ visiting 17th century The Hague.

Yet what was life really like in this international village full of dignitaries, envoys, expats, ambassadors, aristocrats, politicians, rich and ambitious burghers, refugees, ordinary merchants, servants, labourers – as well as the poor and destitute?

Based on diaries, letters, accounts, court cases and other sources, the exhibition tries to show that life during the Dutch Golden Age was not all glitter, gold and glory.

Yes, close to the exhibition entrance, visitors come across Stadholder Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange. Next his portrait hangs one showing his ambitious young wife, Amalia of Solms-Braunfels. They were the Republic and The Hague’s top elite.

Aristocrats, prosperous burghers and foreign dignitaries created a market for luxury goods. This in turn attracted craftsmen, as well as merchants, painters and others. Not that life at this political power center was always peaceful: paintings, silver-ware and a bone or two commemorate the murders of brothers Johan and Cornelis de Witt.

The Hague not only attracted politicians and the ambitious: scientists like Spinoza and Christiaan Huygens settled here. Rembrandt missed out becoming a court painter and moved to Amsterdam? Other Dutch Golden Age painters preferred to settle or spend some time in The Hague, including Jan Steen, Jan van Goyen, Gerard van Honthorst.

Exhibition visitors learn more about ordinary life too. The Hague’s inhabitants were expected to join early fire-brigades and participate in neighbourhood funerals. Not that all inhabitants could join: Jews, disorderly and poor citizens were barred, cast out, discriminated against.

Talking about discrimination: one of the museum’s previous exhibitions focused on the life-stories of two African boys, slaves who lived at a later Stadholder-court? This exhibition includes paintings showing African servants. Records contain traces of African as well as Asian people living in The Hague during the Dutch Golden Age, but curators told me much more research is needed.

The exhibition ends with love, marriage, births. Many, but not all marriages were arranged. When his “Sterre” (Star) died, Huygens raised their children and never remarried, surviving his wife by decades. Moreover, though child mortality was high, this did not mean parents forgot children who died, as portraits show.

This exhibition offers visitors a short but unique glimpse of life during the Dutch Republic’s Golden Age. This life could be grand and golden – but for the majority was harsh and devastating.

The museum offers related activities, ranging from discussions and lectures to guided tours and workshops.   Kate  28th April 2019

Gloss,Glory and Misery continues until 27th October

Image courtesy Haags Historisch Museum: The Hague’s Riviervismarkt by Jan Steen, 1652.