This was less of a journey than last week’s three-hour drive to Antwerp, since my parents live in a town on the outskirts of The Hague, the city which is home to the Netherlands government. We cycled there in about half an hour, left our bikes at my parents’ church (‘Do you think God will protect them if we leave them here?’ I asked. ‘Oh yes,’ Mother replied) and walked into the city centre. The Hague – or Den Haag to call it by its Nederlandse name – is the third largest city in Holland and is generally overlooked by tourists in favour of Amsterdam or Rotterdam. But that’s why I like it. It’s got a big city feel but still has plenty of green space and beautiful old Dutch architecture.
The Mauritshuis sits beside the Hofvijver, a rectangular body of water that’s too grand to be called a pond, but that’s apparently what it is. The museum was originally a house built by a guy called John Maurice in 1641, but since 1822 it’s been a museum dedicated to housing paintings from the Dutch Golden age. In 2012 major rennovations started, when around 50 paintings, including The Goldfinch, were loaned to the United States and Japan, and it reopened in June 2014.
When I read Donna Tartt’s third novel, also called The Goldfinch (I realise this could get confusing), last year, and discovered that the painting the book centres around actually exists, and not only that but it was due to come home to The Hague this year, I was ecstatically excited. If you’re reading this I imagine you’ve already read the book, and can understand why I would be so keen to see this work that is relatively tiny but monumentally significant (at least in a fictional world). If you haven’t, I can’t urge you strongly enough to read the book that instantly became my favourite of all time.
So how did the painted goldfinch compare to its fictional counterpart? We got our tickets (€14 for an adult) and went straight up to the second floor to find out. I was afraid that the framed bird, captured by Carel Fabritius in 1564, would be a let down, a disappointment compared with the greatest book I’d ever read. But it wasn’t. Unlike his contemporaries who set their subjects against dark backdrops, Fabritius painted light backgrounds, so The Goldfinch truly shines, especially as it’s surrounded by so many dark and moody Rembrandts and Vermeers. When I first read narrator Theo Decker’s description of the painting I didn’t really understand the appeal, but up close I got it – the glint of the gold bar the bird sits on and the yellow flash on its wing are particularly astonishing.
What was also astonishing, and not in a good way, was the number of people crammed into the two floors of the collection. We went on a Wednesday afternoon in September, thinking that as it was a weekday it wouldn’t be too busy, but we were wrong. Especially round the most famous paintings like Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (also mentioned by Tartt in The Goldfinch) visitors dithered three rows deep, and doddered between rooms at an infuriating pace. The museum is beautiful even without the artworks – a stunning mix of marble, gleaming glass and faithfully restored original fixtures – but it’s not huge, and my enjoyment was somewhat tempered by the sheer volume of humans walking around the galleries. I can’t imagine what it must be like on weekends or in the holidays. If you too prefer a more zen-like art experience, go when it opens at 10am.
Anyhow, it was still a joy to behold the object of Theo Decker’s fictional affections with my own eyes. And Since I was so Goldfinch focused I hadn’t realised all those other uber-famous paintings were going to be there, so that was a bonus. After a gander in the giftshop (I bought a Goldfinch postcard, obviously) and a selfie outside, Mother and I wandered over to The Hague’s main shopping street Grote Marktsraat for lunch at V&D, Holland’s answer to John Lewis (or maybe Debenhams, actually, because it’s not quite as posh).
My parents are leaving Holland next year, so recently I find I want to get the most out of my visits here. I’m happy to say that with this cultural excursion and last week’s window shopping stop in Antwerp I feel as though I am.