Vermeer was here

There’s an incredible exhibition on at the Rijksmuseum showcasing the largest collection of his works ever assembled in one place, a total of 28 of the 37 paintings known to exist. From the moment the exhibition was announced I knew I’d have to go. I bought tickets in January and today I went.

It’s an astonishing exhibition, grouped by theme which is a great way to do it, and the explanations in each room help put it in context. There’s also a timeline in the last room of all the known paintings to help you see the chronology of the paintings – my one quibble with the exhibition would be that the tiny scale of the timeline means you can’t see the images unless you’re right up close and given the popularity of the exhibition it is almost impossible to ‘read’ the timeline. And there was a whole empty wall next to they could have used.

I’ve seen the Dutch-held works plenty of times, and seen a few held in museums around the world, but to see them all at once was truly wonderful. You could see similarities across works, and even costumes or props re-used. Such as the painting of Cupid used in the two paintings below, which resembles a painting from Vermeer’s own collection of art, a painting by Cesar van Everdingen.

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Johannes Vermeer, 1657-58, oil on canvas. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, Johannes Vermeer, 1670–72, oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London

The painting on the left, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, has recently been restored, until 2019 the painting of cupid behind her had been painted over to give a plain white wall. The rediscovery and restoration make it even clearer that the letter is a love letter. The change is so recent that the Vermeer books in the giftshop still include the old unrestored version of the painting.

There is one painting held by the Mauritshuis that I’ve never felt super sure about. It doesn’t have that quiet feeling of a stolen moment that I associated so strongly with Vermeer, but seeing it today in context with two other early works it finally made sense and that’s “Diana and her Companions“.

Diana and her Companions, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1653-1654. Mauritshuis, Den Haag.

As I live in the Hague I visit the Girl with a Pearl Earring fairly often, but today she seemed paler and less interesting in her surroundings. I’m not sure if it’s the black background she was hung against or the company she was keeping.

The exhibition is currently on until the 4th of June but is sold out, the Rijksmuseum currently has this statement on their website

“Interest in the Vermeer exhibition is very high. Unfortunately, there are no more tickets available at the moment. The Rijksmuseum is working hard to give more people the opportunity to see the exhibition. From 6 March, we will provide a new update via the Rijksmuseum website.”

So keep your eyes peeled, and book your tickets quickly if more become available, they will sell out again.

If you can’t make it to Amsterdam, or don’t manage to get tickets, the Rijksmuseum has created a virtual experience that lets you view each image in detail and presents insightful detail of the paintings, including connecting all paintings that share a prop or feature. You can also watch an exploration of each image narrated by Stephen Fry (the Dutch version has Joy Delima as the narrator).

And if that sounds like too much work, this Artnet article lists all the works in the exhibition

Don’t take my word for it; the reviews of this exhibition have been absolute raves, The Guardian called it “one of the most thrilling exhibitions ever conceived“, Washington Post “there will never be another Vermeer show as great as this one” and Forbes “worth a trip to Amsterdam“.

So what is showing at the Mauritshuis while the Girl with a Pearl Earring is visiting Amsterdam? Apparently five works inspired by her, but that’s also been controversial, I might have to drop by and see for myself.


We Remember

Today is Remembrance Day here in the Netherlands, flags are flown at half mast and there will be a minute’s silence at 8pm this evening. But there are other signs of remembrance in the country, and sometimes the absence of something is also an act of remembrance.

Last year the new North-South line was opened, and many tram lines changed their routes. In among the change I stumbled upon a random fact. There is no tram number 8 in Amsterdam.

From 1905 there was a Tram 8 in Amsterdam, here’s the route that it followed in the 1930s.

The area around the J.D. Meijerplein and Nieuwmarkt was known as the Jodenbuurt, or Jewish Quarter, and Zuider Amstellaan is in the Rivierenbuurt, another area where many Jewish people were living. In the early 20th century this tram was known as the “Jewish Tram” because it connected these areas. After the German’s occupied Amsterdam in 1940 they began limiting what Jews could do, including banning them from using public transport, and the number 8 tram stopped running in 1942.

However the tracks of the number 8 tram were still used, after curfew, to transport Jews from Rivierenbuurt to Amsterdam Central station as the first step of their exile to concentration camps further east. An estimated 80% of Amsterdam’s 80,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

In the late 90s a new tram route was launched with a circular route that was promoted for tourists. The city had planned to use the number 8 for this route, playing on the likeness of the number to the infinity symbol. The circular route was very different from the historic line 8, but even so the memories were too strong and the circular route was eventually given the number 20. (This circular line was never that popular and only lasted from 1997 – 2002).

There is still no number 8 tram.

Image:Tram sign via wiki media: CC-BY-SA, allowed by Amsterdam Museum

Amsterdam’s Coat of Arms

Amsterdam has an emblem with a bold design, and it’s used in a flag. 
It might be a surprise to learn that in this secular, even sin-filled, city that the crosses
 have religious significance. It’s the cross of St. Andrew, but no-one is sure how it ended up on the Amsterdam flag, it may have been part of the arms of the Persijns, a landowning family. The black centre stripe may represent the Amstel, the river after which Amsterdam is named, or not. The 
flag passes the Roman Mars design criteria and gets a nod in this TED talk on flag design (at about 10 minutes in).

The same design is used in an escutcheon or shield shape, and is applied to tourist souvenirs from key rings
to clogs, to beer mugs.

The shield forms part of the city’s arms, it “wears” a crown, which 
is the Imperial Crown of Austria, and the right to use it was granted to
 Amsterdam by the Emperor Maximilian I  in 1489 as a reward for the money lent in the 
Hook and Cod wars. The same crown sits atop the Westertoren, and turns 
up on the Blauwebrug.

Amsterdam emblem on Westertoren

Sometime in the 16th century two golden lions were added flanking the shield. I can’t find any particular reason for them being added, but it did bring the city’s coat of arms in line with the national coat of arms where the lion comes from the family arms of Nassau – one title still held by today’s Dutch royal family.  This version of the coat of arms is common around Amsterdam on older buildings.

The most recent addition to the coat of arms is less than 100 years old, and it’s 
the city’s motto “Heldhaftig, Vastberaden, Barmhartig”, meaning “Valiant, Steadfast, Compassionate”. It was granted to the city by Queen Wilhelmina in 1947, in recognition for the bravery and compassion shown by the city in the General Strike of 1941. So on older buildings you won’t see the motto. Here’s today’s coat of arms for Amsterdam.

So this secular, liberal, anything goes city has a coat of arms that features the crown of a
 Catholic monarch, the cross of a Catholic saint and a motto recognising a very humanitarian protest. It tells you a lot about the city.

The image of the city’s coat of arms is in the public domain, but its use is restricted within 
the city, however there are variants of it created and appearing on buildings around the city, and in local art. Including this by Amsterdammer street artist Hugo Mulder.


Animals at the Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum is filled with animals at the moment! They’re on loan from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden and they’re accompanying an exhibition of works by Frans Post, sketches and paintings made during his time in Brazil. In many cases the exhibition displays a stuffed version of the animal next to the sketch. You can see the precision of Post’s work. Here’s the Capybara, positioned under an oil painting view that includes a capybara.

Capybara and Frans Post paintingThe exhibition is on until 7 January – so hurry up!

In the main entrance hall there are animals from other places to admire – including a pair of polar bears looking down on you.

polar bears

12 Doors of Christmas

Many Amsterdam homes are adorned with Christmas decorations, including these creative wreaths on the front doors.

Some of these images already appeared on my Instagram account.

A makeover for Zwarte Piet?

Today is Sinterklaas, tonight children who have been good will get gifts left by Sinterklaas in a tradition mirrored in the Christmas tradition of Santa Claus. In fact there are similar traditions across Europe from France’s Père Noël, to Italy’s La Befana. The traditions have become more benign over the years and now all children get gifts and candy. However the Dutch version is problematic due to Sint’s helpers. It’s become a really controversial issue in the Netherlands, and it’s so sensitive for many of my Dutch friends that I’ve avoided writing about it. I want to present here what the debates are on both sides.

Here goes.

There’s a tradition in the Netherlands and Belgium that Sinterklaas arrives in December for St Nicholas’ Day (6 December), accompanied by his assistants who are all known as “Zwarte Piet“, in English “Black Peter”.

This is what Zwarte Piet looks like.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 09.50.05If it’s your first time seeing images of Zwarte Piet it’s a shock, because in most western countries we have stopped using blackface in entertainment.

Zwarte Piet accompanies Sinterklaas, and gives out sweets. It’s a much loved tradition in the Netherlands but it has come under fire in recent years for being racist, culminating in a question a few years ago from a UN official asking the Dutch government to investigate complaints that the tradition is racist. The complaints are relatively few but have, apparently, been growing in recent years, as have protests at Sinterklaas events.

To many foreigners the appearance of Zwarte Piet comes as a shock, the link seems very clear, and it’s incomprehensible that such a tradition in a country famed for its tolerance. So how do the Dutch see it?

In a 2013 survey by de Telegraaf 92% of Dutch people did not see this as racist and don’t connect him to slavery, and 91% were opposed to altering his appearance. The tradition of Zwarte Piet is defended in a couple of ways.

The Chimney Sweep Theory

Zwarte Piet is black because he’s a chimney sweep; this is a common defense. But it raises more questions than it answers; if Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep why does he have curly hair and exaggerated lips? What’s with the feather in his hat? Why is his skin evenly blackened, not randomly as would be the case with soot? Why does he wear gold earrings? Where’s his brush?

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 10.21.50The costume and appearance of Zwarte Piet are much closer to the Moors depicted in 17th Century paintings than to chimney sweeps. No, this theory makes no sense.

This defence is the one most commonly presented – I suspect it’s a rationalisation developed at some point to cover a level of discomfort when the underlying stereotype was recognised.

A Suriname journalist summed it up during the heat of the debate; “the problem is that Dutch people do not know their own history”. There’s some truth in that, slavery barely gets a mention in the nation’s museums – look at the exhibits in the Rijksmuseum of the so called “golden era”, slaves are all but invisible. The text below is from a current exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, note the passive voice abdicating responsibility for  slavery.

text rijksmuseumI commented once, some years ago, that the Golden Era of the Dutch was built on slavery and was just about thrown out of the room; the defence given was that it was Dutch companies rather than the Dutch state acting in slavery. Which might be technically true, but both companies were acting as proxies for the state and certainly with the endorsement of the government.

The Tradition Theory

It certainly is a tradition, and because it’s something embedded in childhood memories it’s perhaps more loved than other traditions.

But it’s not as old as a lot of people think, and the form has changed.

The first time Zwarte Piet appears as a black person is in a book from 1850 by Peter Schenkman. Legend has it that he will give you sweets if you’re good and whip you with a rod or put coal in your shoes if you’re bad. Well the rod has long gone, I don’t think coal gets a mention any more. If you were really bad Zwarte Piet would put you in his sack and take you back to Spain with him (yeah, you thought Santa lived at the North Pole, but Sinterklaas lives in Spain). The sack abduction rarely happens any more, just kidding, it’s only mentioned as a joke. So apparently the tradition can change.

In any case “it’s tradition” doesn’t seem a particularly sound argument. Traditions are subject to change as humans learn and cultures evolve; traditionally we didn’t fly across the world in aeroplanes, traditionally men followed their father’s occupation, traditionally women didn’t vote, wear trousers or smoke in public. Traditionally Zwarte Piet was only played by men.

Is Zwarte Piet a Slave?

Most Dutch people would answer “no” without hesitation. There’s nothing I can find in the history of Zwarte Piet that indicates he was ever a slave. In fact his arrival in the Sinterklaas comes after the African slave trade had ended (although it would be another thirteen years before slavery was made illegal in Suriname). Initial references to him call him a “knecht”, which means “servant”, think high level servant perhaps for royalty. I have heard from more than one Dutch or Belgian person that the original Zwarte Piet was a slave, but was rescued and freed from slavery by Sinterklaas. I don’t think this is in the original story, it’s probably a later rationalisation.

The Dutch Reaction

Many many Dutch people love Zwarte Piet and cannot see any racism attached to the traditional performance. I don’t think any Dutch person woke up this morning thinking excitedly of how much they could annoy Dutch people of Suriname or African decent. I don’t think the intent behind the celebration comes out of deliberate or explicit racism.

I think that because children become aware of Zwarte Piet as children long before rational discussions of racism begin (at least in white families), the associations with the tradition are genuinely not racist. When others (foreigners, the press, the UN, other Dutch people) describe Zwarte Piet as racist it is shocking to Dutch people, killing childhood innocence and trampling on tradition. People with good liberal middle-class white values are confronted with the idea that they might be racist.

No wonder the reaction is defensive; I can see how calling the practice racist feels painful to Dutch who were brought up with Zwarte Piet.

One Dutch woman who now believes that the tradition needs to change said the moment she got it was out on a bike ride with her three-year-old son. He saw a black person, and pointing at him, shouted out “Zwarte Piet”. She suddenly realised the association children were making. I asked her what she was doing differently now; no more Zwarte Piets in her house and clear discussions about tradition and change.

The Political

The debate became further politicised in 2013, when the right wing party VVD showed their support for Zwarte Piet and claimed that attacks on Zwarte Piet was an expression of hatred against Western Ideas. Which makes about as much sense as worrying about the plain red Christmas cups from Starbucks. But that meant that many Dutch were in a conflicted state; on the one hand they didn’t want Zwarte Piet to change but on the other hand did not want to align themselves with the VVD.

The annual protests have escalated, and the protestors have been arrested – with the arrests later judged by the ombudsman to have used excessive force. The Children’s ombudsman (Dutch only) has concluded that the current form of Zwarte Piet “violates the UN Convention because the figure can contribute to bullying, exclusion or discrimination”. In 2014 one court ruled that the Zwarte Piet character should stop, only to be overturned by another court – right before Sinterklaas should take place.

Here’s a video that goes through the practices and the history.

In 2016

It’s changing.

In the research by the Children’s Ombudsman the children (aged 10 – 16) were united “All the young people who spoke believe that the appearance of Zwarte Piet should be adjusted if there are children and young people who feel discriminated against by its present appearance.”

This year in Amsterdam the Black Piets became Chimney Piets. It’s a change that takes something of the racial sting out of the Piet’s appearance, although the wig is still there. This might turn out to be an interim change.

Chimney PietBijenkorf, one of the main department stores in Amsterdam, gave their Zwarte Piets a makeover last year, they still wear the colourful costumes but the faces are now stylised and gold.

I’ve seen fewer depictions of Zwarte Piet on products and in advertising this year, and where he is shown he less of the “golliwog” caricature. Here are some samples of Sint-themed images this year.

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It’s changing in a typical Dutch way, not by a rule being laid down by some court or government, but by people learning and changing their habits gradually. It feels too slow for those who want the change and too fast for those who love the existing tradition, it will be controversial for a while yet. Even so within a few years I believe Sint’s helpers will all be Piets.

This was hard to write, well done for making it to the end! Happy to hear your comments, questions and feedback. Play nice.


The Amsterdam lights festival starts tomorrow and some of the exhibits are already set up, I spotted two on my cycle ride along Herengracht today.

Amsterdam Lights festival When I saw this in the distance I thought it was swim lanes which changed colour, even though it’s a little chilly for swimming. The colours change every few seconds and go through the colours of the rainbow. When I got closer I could see that it was rows of floating water lilies.

lights-1In fact it’s called Flower Strip, and on a calm night the reflections will be fabulous.


This is Bridge of the Rainbow, I guess there’ll be a full rainbow by tomorrow night, but once again the reflections on this are great.

The location of all the artworks is listed on the Amsterdam Light Festival website, they’re all outside so you can wander (or cycle) the route for free. Alternatively there are boat cruises which are worth doing, as a lot of the artworks are oriented for viewing from a boat. There’s also a free walking route in the Hortus Botanicus area and guided tours. It’s one of the cool things in the city – I like finding the sculptures “accidentally”. It’s the perfect way to take advantage of the long winter nights.

Amsterdam’s Airport; 100 Years of Schiphol

This year Schiphol Airport celebrates 100 years. Here’s a bird’s eye view of how it developed over that time created by the Stadsarchief (City Archive). It starts back in 1852 when the area was still a polder.

High School Graduation

There’s a sweet Dutch tradition that when your child graduates from high school you fly the flag – with a school bag at the end of the flagpole. Sometimes school books or congratulatory banners are added. There are a few around my neighbourhood at the moment. Usually the Dutch flag is used, but I like it that one family adapt the tradition and flew the Canadian flag … I’m posting it today for Canada Day.

Open Garden Days

This weekend is the “Amsterdam Open Garden Days” event, when 29 of Amsterdam’s hidden gardens are open to the public. By hidden gardens I mean the ones at the centre of each block of Amsterdam, hidden from the street. Here’s a satellite view of the Amnesty International garden where I started my stroll, the red outline shows the area I had access to on that visit – it’s actually three interconnected gardens two of which are privately owned.

Hidden Garden Amnesty InternationalMany of the gardens are connected to companies, or NGOs, but a number are private gardens, it’s a real delight to explore this hidden side of Amsterdam, here are some highlights from Friday. (Scroll over to see garden notes – the numbers correspond to the garden numbers in the Event Guide)

To visit the gardens you need a “passe partout” which you can purchase at any of the starting points for 20 euro, tickets are valid for all three days. The gardens are open on all three days from 10am to 5pm. Take with you some bottled water and some small change, a number of the gardens offer tea coffee and snacks for  Advice for next year; you can buy tickets in advance and that gives you a 20% discount. The money raised goes to the Canal Gard Fund (part of Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds).