Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Hero of Waterloo, part II plus Hermitage

Last Sunday we went to the Hermitage in Amsterdam to watch the Van Gogh collection that’s temporarily housed there, as well as a nice collection of impressionist and contemporary paintings.

In the museum shop I picked up a book by Michel Didier, De Ridder en de grootvorstin. Kunst en leven van Willem II en Anna Paulowna. This can be loosely translated as The knight and the Grand Duchess. Art and Life of … The book looks at this couple mainly from an art historical viewpoint, but includes a lot of biography. The advantage is that this also brings a lot of illustrations.

Willem was rarely out of uniform, nor were his sons

For me the interesting bits were how Willem’s actions at Quatre Bras and Waterloo were remembered in Dutch (and foreign) art. It’s not my style of poetry or painting, and its purpose didn’t lend itself well to better characterisations of the man. But it illustrates well how Willem's military successes (deserved or not) served the nation building and legitimacy of the Orange monarchy. 

Didier is not too sure on military details, as even I could spot. It is unlikely that Willem would have received his honours for the battle of Nivelles already in 1814. Willem’s tactical abilities are not questioned but his bravery is highlighted.

The book also glosses lightly over the darker side of Willem’s life, the many scandals, affairs and schemes and his political failures. I think this book (and publisher, from the other books it publishes) is aimed at the loyal monarchist crowd and therefor not too critical. What does get a fair amount of attention is the difficult relationship with Willem’s father and other family relations, as well as dynastic concerns.

So not much to recommend it to military historians, unless you have a particular interest in the artistic expressions rendered in tribute or in commission of Willem. Or if you are a loyal monarchist, of course.

Of course, this book was in the shop because of the link between the Netherlands and Russia, as the Hermitage's home is in Petersburg. 

A interesting combination of two great artists:Van Gogh's 'copy' of a woodprint by Hiroshige

The Van Gogh collection is amazing and charts Vincent’s progression as an artist in detail. From his peasant painter period to impressionism to expressionism, continuously learning and adapting his style. And all this in the span of only 10 years. He must have been an exceptionally driven person.

It's hard to capture the mastery of this painting, as the picture of a postcard dulls the colours, but you can see how the strokework emphasises the lightfall

We also enjoyed the exhibition on the impressionists. I enjoyed how the exhibition opposed the impressionist with the established art from the Academie Francaise and how the impressionist were forced to create their own parallel network of exhibitions. I found it telling to see that many of the impressionist, such as Renoir, still attempted to gain access to the Academie, and thus to the galleries and collectors.

The exhibition really mixed impressionism, conventional artists and contemporary event very well. You get this view from the perspective of Russian art collectors that have wound up in the Hermitage collection.

If you're in Amsterdam in the coming months, I highly recommend you add this to your programme.

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