From the Dutch Golden Age to the country’s biggest contribution to modern design, art in The Hague spans five centuries.
The Netherlands’ seat of government (though not the capital, which is Amsterdam), The Hague seems more spacious than other Dutch cities, with open squares, long, wide streets and grand buildings.
The main tourist area is the Binnenhof (Inner Court), a collection of medieval buildings which houses the Prime Minister’s office and the Dutch Parliament building, one of the oldest in the world still in use. One side of the complex plunges directly into the Hofvijver (Court Pond) and faces a tree-lined promenade popular with strollers. This is an ideal starting point for a tour of art museums.
The jewel in the crown is, of course, the Mauritshuis, a 17th century urban palace with an exceptional collection of some 850 Dutch, Flemish, German and French paintings, including portraits, seascapes, still lifes, domestic scenes and religious tableaux. As visitors to the Louvre flock to the Mona Lisa, in the Mauritshuis it is Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring which draws the crowds.
Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ (right) is a big crowd-puller at the Mauritshuis
Other highlights include Vermeer’s View of Delft, Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and his final self-portrait (made in 1669, the year he died), Rubens’ The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man and Carel Fabritius’ Goldfinch. Don’t miss Willem van Haecht’s amazing Apelles painting Campaspe, in which dozens of minutely detailed paintings cover the vast walls of an artist’s studio. Other artists represented include Van Dyck, Steen, Hals, Brueghel, Cranach and Holbein. Officially called the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, it celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2022.
On the other side of the Binnenhof from the Mauritishuis, the Prince William V Gallery is named after the last ‘stadholder’ (chief executive) of the Dutch Republic, who owned an impressive collection of paintings. In 1774 he converted the top floor of the building (now next to the Prison Gate Museum) into a long, narrow gallery to house it, with walls densely covered from floor to ceiling with around 150 portraits, hunting scenes, mythical scenes, family life, still lifes, pastoral scenes, seascapes and landscapes. Unusually, he opened it to the public, making it the first public museum in the Netherlands. Part of the collection later formed the basis for the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis.
Prince William V Gallery
Housed in a former royal palace, the Escher in the Palace Museum has a permanent exhibition of almost the entire oeuvre of the graphic artist Maurits Cornelis – better known as M.C. – Escher (1898-1972), famous for his fishes changing into birds, water flowing upstream and stairs leading nowhere.
Escher’s primary method is tessellation, a technique inspired by visits to the Alhamabra in Granada, where he encountered Arabic design. By interlocking graphic elements which change slightly as they move across the image, he transforms the scene from one side to the other so that white birds flying into daylight merge with black birds flying in the opposite direction into night (Day and Night) or a small town morphs into the tall figure of a man (Metamorphosis I).
Part of M.C. Escher’s ‘Metamorphosis III’
Escher also played with three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional medium – namely, a sheet of paper. In Reptiles, for example, alligator-like creatures seem to emerge from the paper, crawl around the surface and slip back into the paper. He said: “I cannot resist messing with our irrefutable truths. It is fun to intertwine two- and three-dimensionalities and poke fun at gravity.”
You can have fun with Escher in the interactive exhibition Through Escher’s Eyes
Escher was rediscovered by the 1960s pop generation and posters of his work became a common sight in student apartments, sometimes with a new title, as with Dream, which was renamed – wait for it – Bad trip. Escher once turned down a request from Mick Jagger to design a Rolling Stones album cover, citing a heavy workload. In a letter to the singer’s representative he wrote: ‘Please tell Mr Jagger I am not Maurits to him.’ Ouch.
A couple of hundred metres away is the grand avenue Lange Voorhout, which is lined with lime trees planted by the Habsburg emperor Charles V. Here you will find Pulchri Studio, an artist’s society and art gallery established in 1847, where members’ exhibitions change monthly and works are mostly for sale. The garden is a popular hang-out with locals.
Work by the Iranian-born, Hague-based artist Mansour Bakhtiar in his exhibition Existence at Puchri Studio
Just north of the city centre are two attractions within a few minutes’ of one another which both owe their existence to the marine painter and art collector Hendrik Willem (H.W.) Mesdag (1831-1915).
Assembled by Mesdag and his artist wife Sientje, the Mesdag Collection of paintings and applied art became so large that they built a museum next to their house to accommodate it, opening it in 1887. Mesdag later donated the museum to the Dutch state and it is now managed by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
The Mesdags were particularly interested in the French Barbizon School and the Dutch Hague School artists whose perceptions of nature corresponded with their own fondness for landscapes and scenes of everyday life. The Barbizon School collection, which includes works by Corot, Daubigny, Rousseau and others, is the largest in the Netherlands and the most important outside France.
The Daubigny Room in the Mesdag Collection
Some of the works in the museum were seen by Vincent van Gogh, who visited an exhibition when he lived for a short time in The Hague. He described them in glowing terms in a letter to his brother Theo. Look out for a miniature version of a painting you are about to see on the next stop on your tour.
A ten-minute walk from the Mesdag Collection is an art attraction which must have had the impact of a Hollywood blockbuster when it opened in 1881 and today continues to have a “Wow!” effect.
The Panorama Mesdag is the oldest panorama painting still in its original location. Invented in 1787 by the Irish artist Robert Barker and premiered in Edinburgh, the concept was seen on travelling exhibitions or in permanent installations in cities throughout Europe and spread to the United States, where it was commonly referred to as a ‘cyclorama’. Sadly, the popularity of panoramas declined after the introduction of film.
In the Panorama Mesdag a circular viewing platform is positioned as if at the top of a high sand dune sloping down to a 14-metre high canvas on which is painted a sweeping, 360-degree view of the beach resort of Scheveningen, where fishing boats are lined along the surf line or bob in the open water, round to a scene of The Hague in the 1880s. The sand is dotted with tufts of seagrass and littered with bits of net, baskets, anchors, driftwood, even a discarded clog, while seaside sounds add to the atmosphere. You can almost smell the seaweed.
It took Mesdag and four other artists several months to complete the project by working from a scaffold which could be moved on rails, gradually filling in the scene on the giant cylindrical surface to complete the 120-metre long painting, the largest in the Netherlands. A permanent exhibition shows how it all works, while another room has a further selection of paintings by Mesdag. There are also temporary exhibitions of marine art and photography.
A short tram ride from the city centre brings you to two star attractions side by side.
For a building which is a work of art in itself, look no further than H.P. Berlage’s Kunstmuseum, opened in 1935. A magnificent example of rationalism, a forerunner of modern architecture, it was the architect’s final masterpiece.
H.P. Berlage’s architectural masterpiece is reflected in the ornamental pond of the Kunstmuseum
The museum houses a world class collection of 19th and 20th century painting, including the world’s largest collection of works by Piet Mondrian (born Mondriaan, the Dutchman later dropped an ‘a’ because he thought it looked more French), including his last – and unfinished – piece, Victory Boogie Woogie and examples of his earlier, more naturalistic works before he reduced his vision of the world to primary colours and thick black lines.
Another key display is Mondrian & De Stijl, highlighting the movement considered to be the Netherlands’ most important contribution to 20th century design. Founded by Mondrian and fellow artist Theo van Doesburg, De Stijl advocated pure abstraction and reduction to the essentials of form and colour. It is characterised by a combination of black, white, grey and primary colours and straight horizontal and vertical lines. (Mondrian later left the movement following van Doesburg’s adoption of diagonal elements in his work!) The movement’s central theme – How can design shape the society of the future? – has been taken up by today’s Dutch designers, who continue the tradition of blending form and function.
Other permanent displays include: Discover the Modern, featuring works from the museum’s collection by Monet, Picasso, van Gogh, Bacon, Kandinsky, Schiele and others; Delftware WonderWare, showcasing one of the most beautiful collections of this world famous Dutch craft; and Chamber of Wonders, a game-filled area designed to educate and interest younger visitors in art. There is also a large selection of applied arts, including ceramics, glass, furniture and Hague silverware.
Next door the mission of the Fotomuseum den Haag is to promote photography as art in all its layers and meanings rather than the common misconception that it represents ‘reality’. Over the years exhibitions have showcased work by Man Ray, Emmy Andriesse, Sally Mann, Anton Corbijn, Erwin Olaf, Bieke Depoorter, Robin de Puy and many others.
Fotomuseum den Haag
Recent exhibitions have included Photo Americain, named after a photo shop and studio and comprising of colour portraits of mostly unknown residents of The Hague shot in their Sunday best in the 1950s and taken from recently discovered boxes of large screen negatives, and Matlas, a project about “The Hague mat” capturing men with this iconic local haircut.
She same building also houses KM21, an institute for contemporary art which stages three to four exhibitions each year showcasing Dutch and international artists, from emerging talents to established names. The exhibitions are accompanied by a public programme that includes artist talks, performances and lectures.
Museum Voorlinden is not the most accessible museum for visitors to The Hague, but the effort to get there will be richly rewarded. Technically, it is in neighbouring Wassenaar, but is very much part of The Hague art experience. Private car or taxi will get you to there in about 15 minutes from the city centre, while a bus will drop you off at the end of a quiet suburban road from which there is a 15-minute walk to a nature reserve. Here stands a low, sleek building flooded with natural light. Opened as recently a 2016, it displays around 500 pieces from a world class collection belonging to the Dutch chemical tycoon Joop van Caldenborgh and represents a trend by well to do collectors opening their own spaces to the public.
Ron Mueck, Couple under an Umbrella, Photo: Antoine Van Kaam
The many highlights include: Ai Weiwei’s China Fairytale – 1001 Chairs, although there are actually only 23, all that is left of an installation he created for the 2007 edition of Documenta in Kassel, Germany; Damien Hirst’s Hidden Secret Blossom, three large canvases depicting cherry blossoms in pink and white blobs and rough brushstrokes; James Turrell’s Skyspace, a serene, wood-panelled room with sloping walls and a skylight kept open in all weathers so that visitors can watch the changing light; Richard Serra’s Open Ended, an enormous, labyrinthine, rust-coloured steel structure with a gorgeous, curved ‘corridor’ running through it which leads visitors as if in a maze and opens onto a view of the surrounding leafy estate; Ron Mueck’s Couple under an Umbrella, hyper-realistic, outsize human figures relaxing in the sun; and Leandro Erlich’s Swimming Pool, which visitors can enter and feel that they are walking under water.
There is a restaurant in the villa next door and in the Piet Oudolf Garden (named for the Dutch horticulturist) stand a maquette of Sir Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North and Jan Fabre’s The man who measures the clouds.
To end our tour we head out to the seaside resort of Scheveningen, where there is a long, sandy beach, a bustling promenade lined with shops and restaurants, a modern pier jutting out into the North Sea and complete with a Ferris wheel, apartments and the impressive Grand Hotel Amrath Kurhaus.
Here the main attraction for art-lovers is the Museum Beelden aan Zee, the only museum in the Netherlands which focuses exclusively on modern and contemporary sculpture, principally statuary, of which it has 5,000 pieces. Your head may swivel as work after work catches the eye.
Huge skylights illuminate the collection, which varies from portraits to monumental, larger than life sculptures. The human body is the main leitmotif with works created in diverse materials from bronze, stone, iron and ceramics to polystyrene, plastic, glass and textile. Some of the biggest names in international sculpture are represented such as Atelier van Lieshout, Stephan Balkenhol, Tony Cragg, Jaume Plensa, Marc Quinn, William Turnbull, Henk Visch and Karel Appel.
Dug into a dune, the building itself is constructed with sand-coloured materials to blend in with its surroundings and ever present views of sea and clouds from both within and the outside sculpture terraces create a serene atmosphere.