Two inaugurations in Amsterdam : former City Hall restored and Hermitage Museum

1. Jacob van Campen (1596-1657)
Royal Palace (Former City Hall)
Photo : Didier Rykner

26/6/09 – Heritage and exhibition – Amsterdam – The Dutch capital held two inaugurations last week. One was for the interior restoration of a major historical monument, the former City Hall, known as the Palais-Royal since the reign of Louis Bonaparte. The other one celebrated the reopening of the Hermitage Museum Amsterdam and its exhibition Life court in Russia, palace and protocol in XIXth century. These two events were extremely different in nature although both are related to art history. While the first attracted only the local press, the second drew the attention of journalists worldwide. But in fact the importance of each is the direct opposite of its media coverage.

2. Jacob van Campen (1596-1657)
Hall of Citizens
Sculptures by Artus Quellinus (1609-1668)
Amsterdam,Royal Palace (Former City Hall)
Photo : Didier Rykner

Built between 1648 and 1665 from a design by the architect Jacob van Campen, the City Hall is an imposing structure, still surrounded by fencing (ill. 1). The interior, on the first floor, is centered around a large room, the Salle des Citoyens (Hall of Citizens) (ill. 2). On the floor, three big maps represented inside a circle illustrate Eurasia (ill. 3) and Africa, the Americas and, in the middle, the northern sphere of the heavens. Originally, these maps appeared in coloured cement and copper, but were replaced in the 18th century with inlaid marble. The wooden vaulted ceiling reveals a painting of the Allegory of the city of Amsterdam by Jan Goere (1670-1731). The sculpted decor is by the Flemish artist Artus Quellinus. Of special notice is the large Allegory of Justice (ill. 4).

3. Map of Eurasia and Africa (detail)
Flour of the Hall of citizens
Amsterdam, Royal Palace (Former City Hall)
Photo : Didier Rykner

4. Artus Quellinus (1609-1668)
Allegory of Justice
Hall of citizens
Amsterdam, Royal Palace(Former City Hall)
Photo : All Rights Reserved

Several of Rembrandt’s students decorated the different rooms, notably Ferdinand Bol, Govaert Flinck and Jan Lievens. The ceiling of one of the halls (the Salle des Ediles or Officials) was painted by Erasmus Quellinus, Artus’ brother. The City Hall also holds many portraits.

5. Ferdinand Bol (1596-1657)
Fabritius and Pyrrhus
Oil on canvas - 485 x 350 cm
Burgomaster’s cabinet
Amsterdam, Royal Palace (Former City Hall)
Photo : Stichting Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam

6. Tribunal
Royal Palace(Former City Hall)
Sculptures by Artus Quellinus (1609-1668)
Photo : Stichting Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam

The visit ends (or begins depending on one’s choice) with a small room entirely decorated in Baroque sculptures, again by the same Quellinus, and was used as a courtroom. The three main scenes represent respectively Mercy (The Blinding of Zaleucus), Wisdom (Solomon’s Judgement) and Justice (The Execution of Brutus’ Son).

It would be hard to say if the restoration was pertinent as we were not familiar with the building’s condition before. The results are very impressive. However, we regret the lack of signs or leaflets explaining briefly the subjects of the paintings and sculptures as well as the artists’ names. Visitors have to resort to the long explanations provided by the audioguides if they want to obtain this information, not very practical. Finally, we would like to point out that the building also welcomes exhibitions. The next one will be in 2010 and highlight a follower of Palladio, Vincenzo Scamozzi.

7. Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873)
Portrait of the countess
Varvara Musina-Pushkina
, 1857
Oil on canvas - 147 x 112 cm
Saint-Petersburg, Hermitage Museum
Photo : Hermitage Museum

It is well known that the Hermitage has been a pioneer in establishing satellites around the world, from Las Vegas to Ferrara, including Amsterdam. Clearly, the works presented in this inaugural exhibition, which marks the reopening after adding an extension, will not be missed in Saint Petersburg (there is not even a Fabergé egg). The Russian museum will receive one euro per visitor, probably not adding up to a fabulous amount. There is nothing really scandalous therefore in such a practice, just total boredom. Claiming to reflect the life at court in 19th century Petersburg, the exhibition lines up mediocre paintings (except for a few – including several by Winterhalter – ill.) often hung too low, average engravings and a multitude of clothing items, boots, gloves and hats, not entirely devoid of interest but too many to maintain attention. Only those visitors fascinated by costumes will find them perhaps worth studying. The highlight of the exhibition seems to be the presentation of ball gowns in round display cases which turn to waltz music !

If one also considers the fact that the building housing the new Hermitage Museum, located right next to the old one, is a hospice dating back to the late 17th century which no longer holds anything of the original building (even the façades appear to have been built yesterday), it is easy to understand that someone in a hurry need not bother, especially since the entrance ticket costs 15€ (free under 16). This is a purely business operation. The catalogue presents a series of essays with no index or entries for the works on display, which in this case is not too serious [1]. Future exhibitions may perhaps be more attractive. Let us point out however that the next one, Les origines de l’art moderne. Matisse et Picasso, besides the fact that it appeals once again to the trend for Picasso, will deprive the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg of some major works, but for a retrospective of dubious scholarly interest. Visitor information : Royal Palace (Koninklijk Paleis). Open every day, June to August from 11 to 18, September to May from 12 to 17. Rates : 7.50€ (full rate), 6.50€ (discount).

Internet website for the Royal Palace

Hermitage Museum, Amstel 51, Amsterdam. Open every day from 10 to 17, Wednesdays from 10 to 20 ; Price : 15€ (free under 16).
Internet website for Hermitage Amsterdam.

Version française

Didier Rykner, vendredi 26 juin 2009


[1] A CD includes a simple list (of 145 pages !) of objects, without numbers, photographs, commentaries, nor reference back to the catalogue, thus of no use.

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