Den Haag (The Hague) is markedly different from any other Dutch city. In a country built on municipal independence and munificence, it’s been the focus of national institutions since the sixteenth century, but is not – curiously enough – the capital, which is Amsterdam. Frequently disregarded until the development of central government in the 1800s, Den Haag’s older buildings are a comparatively subdued and modest collection, with little of Amsterdam’s flamboyance. Indeed, the majority of the canal houses are demurely classical and exude that sense of sedate prosperity which prompted Matthew Arnold’s harsh estimation of 1859: “I never saw a city where the well-to-do classes seemed to have given the whole place so much of their own air of wealth, finished cleanliness, and comfort; but I never saw one, either, in which my heart would so have sunk at the thought of living”.
If the crowded seaside antics of Scheveningen don’t appeal, then head about 3km south to the Zuiderstrand, a long, sandy beach that is often deserted. Even at peak times there’s oodles of space – and you can watch the ships pulling through the waters of the North Sea. To get there, take tram #12 from The Hague HS train station to its Duindorp terminus and it’s a 5min walk through the dunes of the Westduinpark to the beach.
More than one hundred paintings from the permanent collection of the Mauritshuis are currently on display at the Gemeentemuseum during the Mauritshuis’ renovation. Expect to see the fine canvas by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543): a striking Portrait of Robert Cheseman, where all the materials – the fur collar, the falcon’s feathers and the cape – seem to take on the appropriate texture. Of Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), the acclaimed painter and diplomat, Old Woman and a Boy with Candles, is an intriguing canvas with dappled, evocative shades and light. Another of his highlights is The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man, a collaboration between himself and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625). Rubens painted the figures and Brueghel the landscape and animals, from monkeys to deer and lions coexisting peacefully. The Mauritshuis owns no fewer than twelve paintings by Rembrandt (1606–69). Pride of place among them goes to the Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, the artist’s first commission in Amsterdam, dating from 1632. The peering pose of the students who lean over the corpse solved the problem of emphasis falling on the body rather than the subjects of the portrait, who were members of the surgeons’ guild. Hopefully Tulp’s skills as an anatomist were better than his medical advice, which included the recommendation that his patients drink fifty cups of tea a day. Also look out for Young Bull by Paulus Potter (1625–54), a massive canvas that includes the smallest of details, from the exact hang of the testicles to the dung at the rear end.
Although Johannes Vermeer’s (1632–75) most famous painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring, is not on display here, his superb and somehow thrilling View of Delft can be seen. A deceptive canvas: the fine lines of the city are pictured beneath a cloudy sky, a patchwork of varying light and shade, but all is not quite what it seems. The painting may look like the epitome of realism, but in fact Vermeer doctored what he saw to fit in with the needs of his canvas, straightening here, lengthening there, to emphasize the horizontal. Interestingly, the detached vision implicit in the painting has prompted some experts – like Wilenski – to suggest that Vermeer viewed his subject through a fixed reducing lens or maybe even a mirror.