The Peabody Essex Museum and Amsterdam
Taken from my latest book, the opening quotation describes a springtime trip to Amsterdam (Judy’s Journal, 2005 May). John and I are now planning a return visit in October. What changes will eleven years have made in Amsterdam? One certainty is that the Rijksmuseum has reopened in all its glory. What will have remained the same? What else will we learn about the city, its history and its people?
Two elements in the joy of travel are anticipation and organized study, which will include a homemade flashcard set of Dutch phrases. As luck would have it, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts is hosting “Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age.” The PEM website’s description whetted our appetites:
Amsterdam in the 17 th century was a vibrant city with global connections. The largest and most powerful trade and shipping company in the world, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) filled Dutch homes with Asian porcelain, lacquer, sumptuous textiles, diamonds and spices. Inspired by these novel imports, Dutch potters, textile designers and jewelers created works of art we now perceive as distinctly Dutch. Artists such as Rembrandt, Willem Kalf, Jan Steen and Pieter Claesz were also quick to incorporate these luxuries into their paintings. Co-organized by the Peabody Essex Museum and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, this exhibition of 170 superlative Asian and Dutch works of art explores the transformative impact that Asian luxuries had on Dutch art and life in the 17th century, bringing new perspectives on the Dutch Golden Age and its relationship to Asia.
Armed with my travel journal, we drove to Salem with the added hope that there would be a docent tour scheduled. The day did not disappoint, but had its share of surprises.
Three hundred year-old maps, supplemented by lively film loops showed trade routes from Amsterdam to Indonesia, India, China, and Japan. Gazing at luxuries collected in the homes of the wealthy provided some mesmerizing moments – patterns in the Indian cotton rugs, silver chargers and pots, carved ebony chests. Commissioned paintings reflected their owners’ good taste: tables laid with fine cloth, tankards, plates, and sumptuous foods. Casually inserting quantities of spices sent the message: “I can afford a lot of pepper (or nutmeg).” The glow and sparkle factor was supplied by artifacts such as a mother-of-pearl inlaid cradle made for the privileged infant and an ivory, jewel-encrusted carved box, made in the 1500’s for the Queen of Portugal. I studied the craftsmanship of Japanese gilded leather and lacquered wood cabinets. The “culture of luxury” was exhibited in detail, even to Dutch paintings of the “Golden Bend” homes of the rich, situated on the Herengracht canal. To make the point, a wall label compared the neighborhood to a 17th century version of Park Avenue.
Every exhibition is curated with a point of view. Visual evidence of wealth and taste was underpinned with an effective tactile one: a “Please touch” display of Indian cotton chintz and Dutch wool asked: Which one would you want next to your skin? Even though chintz tended to be on the sheer side (and therefore “immoral” in the Protestant view), fashionistas overruled that religious principle, and dressmakers ran up garments for their clients. Jewelry glowed in women’s portraits – pearls the size of bird’s eggs hung from pious throats and ears, their Indonesian slaves poised in the background.
Artists even prospered and tapped into the good times, which were ripe with commissions. Willem Kalf (1619-1693) cherished an exquisite porcelain bowl so much that it found its way into at least 9 of his paintings. To achieve the perfect blue, he used costly ultramarine, which is made from lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan.
What did it take to supply the Dutch Golden Age’s 1% with their collections of luxury goods? An answer was supplied by one man’s portrait and a short film nearby. He was Jan Coen, who in 1619 founded Batavia, now Jakarta. Its natural treasures of nutmeg and mace prompted him to have thousands of local people slaughtered or enslaved. The film’s narrator explained the history of the Banda Islands, where nutmeg originated. The Dutch arrived, sought out the chiefs and systematically murdered them. Under threat of death, the people were told to remain silent. To this day, the ceremonial dancers honor their ancestors by performing with flowers in their mouths. I’ll never make my mother’s pumpkin bread recipe again without recalling this image.
No docent tour was scheduled on the day we visited, but the curators’ mission to show the good, the bad and the ugly of human nature was accomplished by our careful progression through the galleries. Did seeing this exhibition enrich our visit to Amsterdam, even though it’s months before we board the airplane? Of course it has. Why? The answer goes to another question: What are the differences between being a tourist or a traveler? That is the subject for a future Judy’s Journal.