Princely Patrons in the Republic

On display at the Mauritshuis in The Hague until 29 March 1998 is the exhibition Princely Patrons. The show provides an idea of the art collected by Prince Frederick Henry and his consort Amalia von Solms. Carola Vermeeren, joint-curator of the exhibition, discusses the artistic acquisitions of the Stadholder and his wife.

Princely collection
Perhaps the most obvious image that the term Golden Age conjures up is that of the famous painters who flourished in the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century. Yet the phrase actually refers to the incredible economic growth that occurred in the Northern Netherlands during this period. It was an age when the abundance of wealthy collectors created a climate in which artists thrived.

Without doubt the greatest collectors of the period were Frederick Henry (1584-1647), youngest son of William the Silent, and his consort Amalia, Countess of Solms-Braunfels (1602-1675). They acquired an art collection of royal proportions to match the galleries of many a foreign monarch. But their acquisitions reveal a personal taste that was only marginally influenced by courtly cultures abroad.

Strong team
Louise de Coligny, Frederick Henry’s mother, had sent the young prince to Paris to be educated at the court of his godfather Henri IV. A year later, however, he was called home by the States General to be raised under the supervision of his half-brother Maurice and groomed for military leadership. Frederick Henry therefore grew up in two cultures.

In 1625, Prince Maurice’s health began to fail and Frederick Henry seemed set to succeed him as stadholder. But Maurice set as a condition that he give up his bachelor life. Having rejected Frederick Henry’s mistress as unsuitable, the search for a consort eventually led to Amalia von Solms-Braunfels. She was one of the ladies-in-waiting of Elizabeth Stuart, who had come to live in the Hague with her husband Frederick V – the exiled King of Bohemia. The marriage was a success and Frederick Henry and Amalia formed a strong team. They had ambitious plans for the burgeoning Dutch Republic and envisaged a major role for the House of Orange Nassau.

Royal lifestyle
Frederick Henry and Amalia were the first of their line to adopt the lifestyle of a royal court. While they continued to live in the modest apartments at the Binnenhof, in and around The Hague they established a series of magnificent palaces: Huis Honselaarsdijk, Huis ter Nieuburg near Rijswijk and Huis ten Bosch. And, as was the fashion among royalty, these residences were adorned with paintings and decorations by major artists.

A major influence on their lifestyle was the court of Frederick and Elizabeth of Bohemia on Kneuterdijk, a few minutes walk from the Stadholder’s Quarter. It was the scene of elaborate parties, banquets and masks. In fact, for Amalia it was all slightly embarrassing since she had originally come to The Hague as a lady-in-waiting with the Bohemian entourage. For Elizabeth, Amalia would always remain her subordinate in rank. Elizabeth was Queen of Bohemia, and her father James I, had been king of England, Ireland and Scotland, as her brother Charles I was now. Amalia was just one of the many impoverished noblewomen that the countless tiny principalities of Germany churned out. Moreover, Elizabeth was far from impressed by the Hague Court, having known the courts of London, Heidelberg and Prague. And she was right, in fact. But by her marriage, Amalia had become the first lady of the Dutch Republic and could dispose of huge budgets. She was determined not to be outdone by the exiled Elizabeth. So, stimulated by this royal rivalry, a court culture began to flourish in The Hague in 1625.

Collecting quality
For rulers, collecting was more than just a hobby, it was a way of increasing one’s status. This applied equally to Frederick Henry and Amalia. Besides numerous objects of applied art, their collection contained around 600 paintings. In the Republic, the Stadholder’s collection stood apart in both quantity and quality.

Frederick Henry and Amalia had definite tastes in art. They were not interested in the passing fashions of the day and bought no Italian art, for example. On the other hand, they clearly admired the contemporary artists of both Southern and Northern Netherlands. Besides leading painters such as Anthony van Dyck, they commissioned work from young, talented artists such as Cornelis van Poelenburch and Thomas Willeboirts Bosschaert. The painting collection of Frederick Henry and Amalia was eclectic. In addition to landscapes, marines and floral pieces, their palaces contained an array of pastoral scenes of shepherds and shepherdesses and history pieces featuring biblical and mythological stories.

Triumph of Love
The latter category was one that echoed the tastes of all the courts of Europe. Pastoral scenes were based on the stories of shepherds and shepherdesses that were popular in the Dutch Republic of the early seventeenth century. A regular theme in these pastoral scenes was the triumph of love. It was a favourite genre among the nobility, with its emphasis on courtly chivalry. Moreover, it would be nice to imagine Frederick Henry and Amalia identifying with the central figures whose love conquered all. In a series of three episodes, for example, Abraham Bloemaert of Utrecht presented the amorous history of the Greek Theagenes and the Ethiopian princess Chariclea. In fact it seems reasonable to assume that this cycle of paintings, begun in 1625, referred to the recent marriage of Frederick Henry and Amalia.

Every royal collection had its portraits. Usually these were intended to emphasise the impressive lineage, power and influence of the owner. A quarter of all the paintings in the collection of Frederick Henry and Amalia comprised portraits of relatives, other European rulers and friends. In Paleis Noordeinde alone there were around 120. While Frederick Henry had inherited the lion’s share from his French mother, he and Amalia commissioned several works themselves. The artists engaged were court painters of international standing, such as the leading portraitist Anthony van Dyck, who gladly accepted the work. The final result must have been a joy to them, especially the splendid portrait of their eldest son. Van Dyck’s portrayal of the future William II is a superb example of the artist’s ability to capture the elegance and nobility, but especially to give his subject a certain attractive appeal.

Constantijn Huygens
Frederick Henry and Amalia did not delegate the acquisition of art to an extensive network of agents, diplomats and acquainted collectors – as other rulers did – instead they employed a single intermediary: Constantijn Huygens. Huygens was a remarkably sophisticated figure, both a poet and an art collector. He was also a leading authority on music and a composer. And he was the personal secretary of the Stadholder with responsibility for the latter’s correspondence. All contacts with artists went through Huygens. Which enabled Huygens to influence the allocation and execution of commissions to artists. Indeed, the royal collection reflects in part the tastes of Constantijn Huygens.

Huygens’ role as intermediary is illustrated in the seven letters he received from Rembrandt concerning a commission for a series of paintings on the life of Christ. Unfortunately, Huygens’ replies have not been preserved. In the first letter, written in 1636, Rembrandt asked the secretary to tell the Prince that he was working assiduously on the first three canvases to proficiently finish them. But three years later the master still had not completed the work. His reason for the delay was that he worked with utmost care and took pains to achieve the best possible effects in the painting. Eventually, Rembrandt was so pleased with the final result that he suggested that his Highness would pay even me no less than a thousand guilders for each. But Frederick Henry considered the price too high and the painter had to make do with 600 guilders for each piece.

Princely collection reunited
After the death of the Prince and his wife the collection was dispersed among their children and grandchildren. Nevertheless, ample sources exist and scholars have been able to reconstruct this once magnificent collection. In the Mauritshuis exhibition the core of the Stadholder collection has been physically reunited. With some fifty of the finest paintings, together with related applied art and archive materials, a representative survey is presented of this princely collection.

    Abraham Bloemaert

    Theagenes and Chariclea

    Canvas, 157.2 x 157.7,
    signed and dated A Bloemaert fe:/1626,
    Mauritshuis, The Hague.
    Exhibition: Princely Patrons.

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    Anthony van Dyck

    Portrait of William II, at Six Years of Age

    Canvas, 117.5 x 102 cm,
    Museum Schloss Mosigkau, Mosigkau-Dessau.
    Exhibition: Princely Patrons

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    Gerard van Honthorst

    Portrait of Frederick Henry

    Canvas, 73.4 x 60 cm,
    Historical Collections of the House of Orange Nassau, The Hague.
    Exhibition: Princely Patrons

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    Gerard van Honthorst

    Portrait of Amalia von Solms

    Canvas, 73.4 x 60 cm,
    Historical Collections of the House of Orange Nassau, The Hague.
    Exhibition: Princely Patrons

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    Rembrandt van Rijn


    Canvas, 93 x 68 cm,
    Alte Pinethek, Munich.
    Exhibition: Princely Patrons.

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