Artists' Homes in the Low Countries

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Amsterdam, Delft and Antwerp have in common the former homes of three of the most famous, interesting and popular artists in Europe - Rembrandt, Vermeer and Rubens.

Photography by the authors

Amsterdam, Delft and Antwerp have in common the former homes of three of the most famous and popular artists in Europe — Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer and Peter Paul Rubens. They are also, understandably, the most interesting European artists because while it may be hard for some to relate to Greek Orthodox icons and Italian pious pictures of popes, it’s easy to enjoy Northern European art of the interiors of simple homes and the features of common people.

[Eric: What interest I have in Dutch art was provoked by two paintings from my childhood in Scotland, favorites my mother (a farmer’s daughter) had hanging in her kitchen — reproductions of Vermeer’s The Milkmaid and The Lacemaker. Much later I found the book Vermeer’s Hat a classic window into the work of that artist and it furthered my interest.

As a country doctor in New Hampshire, I picked up an old oil painting at a flea market. An innocent in flea markets — I was looking for surgical collectibles — and in art, I showed it to an acquaintance in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts wondering if its obvious age and apparent Franz Hals style meant it might be important.

“Ah yes,” he said. “A miniature Jester with a Lute, and you’re wondering if you’ve got the original! Only if you bought it from the Louvre because that’s where the original is.”

He felt, however, it was indeed from the early mid-1600s and probably copied contemporaneously by a student in Hals’ studio. The frame was probably that old too and perhaps worth more than the painting, even although the frame was crumbling in places. I don’t remember going back to a flea market after all that!]

Today some think of artists starving in a garret, offering paintings to restaurants in trade for meals, but in the Dutch Golden 17th century so many shopkeepers and traders became wealthy, they created an incentive for artists to stop painting Biblical scenes and religious figures, who might not pay their bills, but instead go paint the common people and in their homes to boot. And as the fees came in artists could afford to buy well-built homes that would survive the passing years.

The Rembrandt Home, Amsterdam

The kitchen, says a placard, was “the most comfortable room in Rembrandt’s house. The fire was kept burning most of the time.” Rembrandt’s bed shows how people in the 17th century were smaller than those of today.

The house really was Rembrandt’s home and it was his very downfall. It had been built in 1607, the year after he was born, and he bought it with a huge mortgage in 1639, the same year he was given the esteemed commission to paint the Night Watch. He was earning big money then but somehow never paid off his mortgage. By 1656 he had significant financial problems and was forced into bankruptcy. His property and assets were auctioned off in 1656. He died in 1669 arguably the greatest Dutch painter in history, greater even than Vincent van Gogh.

The house on Jodenbreestraat (Jewish Street) became a home for two families in 1662 and was finally restored after the Rembrandt exhibition in 1906 and converted to a museum when Queen Wilhelmina opened it in 1911.

His studio shows the clutter of a successful artist and how painstakingly he mixed his colors. An unexpected corner reveals the importance of convenient models and even bric-a-brac when artists created still lives.

This is the only place in the Netherlands where Rembrandt’s famous etchings are on display. Although there is a special toilet for the disabled, the old house part of the museum has narrow staircases and many floors. The new building has an elevator.

Parking can be a problem at the museum unless you come by bicycle! One delight is seeing the original artifacts used in one of Rembrandt’s still lives. In the 1647 etching of Ephraim Bueno, a Portuguese Jew who was both a poet and a physician, he is shown “descending the stairs in well-to-do attire and wearing a ring on his index finger representing the insignia of the medical community.”

Vermeer Centrum, Delft, Netherlands

After the creaking stairs and smell of oil and furniture polish in Rembrandt’s house, which allows visitors to imagine they’re here to visit the painter himself, the attempt to portray Vermeer in the city he made famous comes as a disappointment.

The disappointment is that the town of Delft and the Netherlands government wasn’t able to preserve his dwelling for the public or somehow obtain originals for his museum here. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to find all the paintings on show in this Delft exhibit are reproductions as it’s pretty well known Vermeer’s output may have been only 34 paintings and when he died in poverty, as Rembrandt did, all his personal effects were sold off.

Those who are visiting this interesting 17th century city for its other attractions (and there are many) will find the Vermeer Museum as part of a package well done and informative. A marvelous website, the EssentialVermeer.com, will keep any enthusiast busy.

It has been said “every place where Vermeer ever lived or worked has long been pulled down,” but local historians Willem Annema and George Buzing cautiously say they believe Vermeer lived between 1635 and 1641 at 26 Voldersgracht almost next door to where the museum now stands.

The shop there, now with a 19th century updated facade, is an antiques shop and when we wander inside the proprietor is pleased to show us his modern toilet that has, however, the original floor and Delft wall tiles that date back to Vermeer’s time. “I believe this was one of Vermeer’s cupboards,” he tells us proudly.

We walk a few steps to the Vermeer Centrum and chat with Clema Vreede, an assistant there, to find out what makes Vermeer special.

“First, the way he worked with light almost like a photographer today,” she replies. “Second, he makes the ordinary special, such as a milk woman or a little street that is just a house and a few children! Third, he achieved so much in so few colors, as for example in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.”

The centrum has quality reproductions of all Vermeer’s paintings. “He painted only two a year,” a local woman tells us in perfect English, “and this one has made our city famous.” A room is dedicated to explanations of how Vermeer worked and upstairs is a studio where today’s point and shoot photographers are encouraged to work as Vermeer did and even are provided with a model if they wish to stage a scene.

The Rubens House, Antwerp, Belgium

We finally find in Rubens an artist who grew fabulously wealthy from contracts. He ended up with an estate in the country and a mansion in the city — the latter has become Antwerp’s Rubens Museum.

Rubens, it is said, “had a virtual lock on the portrait market in northern Europe. He was feted and died before he outlived his talent” — a contrast to Franz Hals who lived so long his style became dated and nobody wanted to be painted by him.

The Rubens House dominates the street the way some very expensive hotels can intimidate travel writers without expense accounts. From the furniture it’s obvious Rubens lived well. He was more than a famous artist — he was acclaimed by the public and even knighted. More than 250 letters written by him have been preserved and two are on display written from Rome in April 1607 and Antwerp in January 1628. “His handwriting is surely more legible than most doctors!” says a guide who knows our background.

Rubens painted several self-portraits, though not as many as Rembrandt, who is credited with about 90 including pencil drawings and etchings. There are many theories as to why painters did this. Was it to save the cost of hiring a model? Experts feel no, it was mostly because they were popular and respected figures within the community and therefore people wanted to possess such a piece of art. However, it was also because the self-portraits could be and were done in different styles to show the range of the artist who was seeking a commission to paint a wealthy citizen.

The rooms show heavy impressive fittings, the kind of solid furniture you expect in a country like Belgium that could never be described as “flashy.” A Rubens self-portrait hangs on a wall and in the next room his bed occupies a corner beside a warming pan and what looks like a painting of a baby in the same bed. Ruben’s bed seems better than Rembrandt’s but that is subjective just as some doctors may be thought by their patients to have better bedside manners than others.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.