Bredius Museum reborn

It is ten years since the Bredius Museum opened its doors on The Hague’s Lange Vijverberg. Today, a visit to this unobtrusive museum remains one of the best kept secrets on the tourist trail, even for local residents. Four people closely involved with the museum offer their thoughts on the collection and its founder.

Relying on his taste
Abraham Bredius (1855-1946) was born a man of means and was able to devote himself to the pleasure of collecting paintings and discovering art. But more importantly he proved to be a collector of passion and tenacity. He travelled far and wide to unearth Dutch art, relying on his taste and innate discernment. He spent many hours going through previously unexplored damp and draughty archives and he set the tone for the historiography of Dutch art. His own private collection was housed in his home on Prinsegracht in The Hague. John Hoogsteder: “There wasn’t much to do during the war and I often went with my father to see Bredius’s private collection. I knew those pictures – some two hundred of them – like the back of my hand, so to speak. That collection and his taste inspired me to give my own gallery its specific profile. Bredius bought atypical paintings by seventeenth-century masters. A still life by the landscapist Ruysdael, a landscape by the marine painter Van Wieringen – that is what makes his collection so unique. It was the Bredius collection that taught me to recognise the hallmarks of unknown masters, where they applied a fine, coarse or light touch to their paintings or drawings.”

Art historian Marjolein de Boer has researched into the period of Bredius’s directorship at the Mauritshuis and she corroborates that he combed through archives looking for painters from the Golden Age at a time when art history as a subject did not even exist in the Netherlands. “With his passion and sense of detection Bredius did more than anyone for the emancipation and development of art history in the Holland.”

The Eye
With his dogged pioneering work Bredius laid the foundations for modern art history. Marjolein de Boer paints a picture of the often trying circumstances in which Bredius was forced to work, “In one respect Bredius worked in an extremely scientific way by researching provincial and urban archives, which although accessible were virtually unexplored. He tackled the work with extreme patience and uncovered huge quantities of material, even studying palaeography to enable him to read the manuscripts. But what he really relied on was ‘his eye’. Even with all the modern means available today, art history still requires a discerning eye.”

As the father of Dutch art history, the pioneering sense of discovery was paramount for Bredius. As Marjolein de Boer says, “He often travelled to places unknown to art lovers. For instance he devised a plan to visit French provincial art museums. In London and Paris he saw the famous works that everyone knew. But he also went to Poland which was completely off the beaten track and discovered the Polish Rider, which he immediately recognised as a work by Rembrandt, although this attribution has now been questioned. He was always on the look out for minor artists, at times making the most wonderful discoveries, at others unearthing painters of no great interest in the archives. He always laid great importance on signatures. But he also made discoveries that make you wonder how he could possibly have known what he did, such as establishing that the Allegory of the New Testament was not by Netscher, but a late work by Vermeer. He recognised it from ‘the blue flecks in the white’. He knew that Vermeer was supposed to have painted a picture with that title, but nonetheless that simple deduction is quite incredible.” She adds with some awe, “As a celebrated Dutchman he acquired an almost mystical status. With his colourful personality, his money and his feeling for public relations, he was often in the news. He brought art to ordinary people long before Pierre Jansen. Also his door was always open: every Sunday people could go to him to ask his opinion on a painting.”

Bredius-2Bredius Museum
In 1922 when Bredius decided to settle in Monaco he sold his home on Prinsegracht to the city of The Hague. After his death in 1946 his collection was left to the city, and those pictures that were on loan to the Mauritshuis and the Rijksmuseum were bequeathed to those museums. After the Second World War the area around Prinsegracht fell into decay and in 1985, when the council was forced to make cuts, the museum was closed. The collection was moved to the basement of the Gemeentemuseum. But the spark lived on. A Bredius Society was set up – in which John Hoogsteder is still one of the leading lights – whose aim was to find a worthy place for the collection. A philanthropic oil company bought Lange Vijverberg 14 and rented it out for the foreseeable future for one guilder a year. At the end of 1990 the Bredius Museum was reopened in the eighteenth-century mansion, designed by the architect Pieter de Swart, with a quintessentially Hague view of the Hofvijver and the Binnenhof.

Bredius-3Nineteenth-century patron
Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder’s premises are now next door to the museum. John Hoogsteder: “It’s like my baby; I’m there nearly everyday, and it’s not just the pictures that make it worth visiting. There’s also an impressive collection of antique furniture, and magnificent porcelain and silverware. Just imagine, a nineteenth-century patron of the arts who gives that all away. A training ground for anyone wishing to collect on the same museological level as Bredius. Bredius did indeed bequeath his most important pictures to museums, but he kept a Rembrandt and three paintings by Jan Steen for himself. The Bredius Museum mainly houses seventeenth-century painters that are not commonly known, and therefore still affordable. The best of them are truly exceptional. Pictures of the quality of those in the Bredius Museum still come on the market. As we’ll show this year in our gallery.”

Bredius-6Raising the level
The first task of the Bredius Society and its small team is to maintain and improve the state of the museum. Whether you talk to John Hoogsteder, Anthony Burgmans (chairman of the Bredius Society), or Herman Schwartz (administrator, custodian and organiser), what comes across is the commitment to raising the level of the museum. Schwartz came to the museum six years ago and is extremely knowledgeable about its art, but he also feels responsible for the upkeep, the security and even the coffee served to visitors. “When I arrived as custodian, I knew absolutely nothing. But if you’re determined you can amass a great deal of information by doing your homework and picking up things from guided tours. I don’t want to become an art historian, but I’d like to be really well-informed on the subject. You can acquire that as you go along: inventorying the collection, constantly looking things up. Computers are my real hobby and together with a colleague we’ve designed a website for the museum. It’s got the entire collection on it. Some of the photographs were difficult to take as there wasn’t much room. But now it’s looking really good.”

Bredius-7Wandering round
As I talk to Herman Schwartz we wander round the various rooms and halls. He knows everything there is to know about Jan Steen’s Archangel Raphael Binding the Evil Spirit Asmodeus. His pleasure is palpable as he talks about the background to the pictures, such as Willem Buytewech’s Inn Scene that someone found behind a cupboard and sold to Bredius. “You can look at it for hours. The work here is terribly important to me. As far as I’m concerned it’s a job for life. I always arrive early and leave far too late. I want to be involved as much as possible and want everything to run smoothly.”

Talking with Schwartz the first word that springs to mind is commitment. Anthony Burgmans, the Bredius Society’s chairman – and chairman of Unilever’s board of directors – also uses that word, but he uses the word enthusiasm even more often. The charm of managing a small museum for him is the commitment. “You see the immediate result of everything you do. Whether it be on the walls, in the interior appointment or in the enthusiasm of the staff. What you see is a notable collection of pictures in enlightening surroundings – an ideal combination for the lover of art history.”

Bredius-9No curator?
Burgmans makes no secret of it, “Finances are tight. We operate virtually without subsidy. And we go along with that. We don’t employ a curator and we can’t afford expensive purchases. There are always areas that we can improve in the maintenance and interior appointment. The board is looking for sponsors who’ll be pleased to see us realize our aims. If they give us 50,000 guilders, they can see the immediate result in the form of a new counter in the reception hall, new lighting, glass and frames for Rembrandt’s etchings, and so forth. Also the museum can offer sponsors a delightful venue for dinners and receptions.”

He says it’s a challenging hobby to get to the end of each year without having made a loss, and admits how wonderful it is when people say: what a hidden treasure. As we wander round he talks less about the paintings than about what he calls the ambience. “Ten years ago the board started trying to create an ambience that reflected the picture collection. A lot of work was done to the panelling and paintwork. The more you do, though, the more there is to do.” Knocking on a wall panel he says, “Although that’s ordinary triplex, it still has to be in style. My role is to ensure stylistic unity and set the right priorities. We keep things simple. We look to the pennies and mount good exhibitions that cost little or nothing. Like the exchange exhibition which was just a paper transaction with the Pescatore Museum in Luxembourg. We really listen to what the staff say, they’re wonderfully motivated and they know where the problems lie. If someone wants to borrow one of our pictures, they have to foot the bill and pay us 5,000 guilders. Otherwise we can’t operate.”

A cold and bleak land
Administering the Bredius Museum has taught Burgmans how the museological world functions. With total conviction he says: ‘Without museums Holland would be a cold and bleak land. Our aim is for every lover of the Golden Age to visit the museum at least once every five years, and for the museum to become a byword for the international expert. Slowly but surely we’re realising our ideas on how to administer a small museum. And that could serve as a model for other small Dutch museums. If you return in two years, you’ll notice other changes,” he says smiling.

Rob Soetenhorst
Rob Soetenhorst is former editor-in-chief of the Haagsche Courant.

    Rembrandt

    Leiden 1602 - 1669 Amsterdam

    The Miracle of the Floating Axe

    Pen and wash drawing, 145 x 197 mm
    Bredius Museum, The Hague

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    Salomon van Ruysdael

    Naarden 1600/’03 - 1670 Haarlem

    Catch of Dead Birds

    Signed and dated SVRUYSDAEL 1662 (bottom centre)
    Panel, 41 x 36.5 cm
    Bredius Museum, The Hague

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    Jan Steen

    Leiden 1625/'26 - 1669 Leiden

    The Wedding Night of Tobias and Sarah

    Signed JSteen (below right)
    Canvas, 80.5 x 138 cm
    Bredius Museum, The Hague

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    Johannes Vermeer

    Delft 1632 - 1675

    Allegory of the New Testament

    Canvas, 114.5 x 88.9 cm
    Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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    Antoon van Welie

    Druten 1866 - 1956 The Hague

    Portrait of Dr Abraham Bredius

    Signed and dated ANTOON VAN WELIE/FT 1918 (top left)
    Canvas 100 x 70 cm
    Bredius Museum, The Hague

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