Mata Hari the Dancing Spy

How many people in history have become famous for their deaths? Countless. Death has the power to shock the world, whether it be natural, murder, heroic or mysterious. Death also has the power to erase life, and not just physically. The world’s morbid curiosity can become so focused on the end of a life that it forgets everything that came before. A recent article in BBC History magazine (June 2020) that discusses the disappearance of the American aviator Amelia Earhart (1897- unknown) in 1937 urges readers to “pay more attention to why we are collectively so enamoured with Earhart’s tragic moments, rather than the incredible achievements of her life.” The same could be said about a multitude of historical celebrities, for example, the exotic dancer Mata Hari.

Often cropping up in online quizzes is the question, “What was the nationality of the exotic dancer Mata Hari who was executed for being a German spy during WWI?” The answer, as many quiz players will know, is Dutch. How many of the same quiz players can provide more details about the dancer other than she was Dutch and she was executed for being a spy? Has her life been reduced to these few details?

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Mata Hari, 1905

Born on 7th August 1876, in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest child and only daughter of Adam Zelle (1840-1910) and Antje van der Meulen (1842-91). Both her parents were Dutch, which proves false the rumours that Mata Hari was of Javanese ancestry. Her father, a hat shop owner, led a fairly affluent life, earning money through successful oil industry investments. As a result, Margaretha received an exclusive education until the age of 13.

Unfortunately, this lavish lifestyle was not to last; her father went bankrupt in 1889, which led to her parents’ divorce. Margaretha’s mother died suddenly in 1891 and her father remarried two years later to Susanna Catharina ten Hoove (1844 – 1913), after which the family completely fell apart. Margaretha was sent to live with her godfather in Sneek, a city southwest of Leeuwarden, and when she was old enough, began to study to be a kindergarten teacher in Leiden. The headmaster of the school, who was presumably somewhat older than Margaretha, began to openly flirt with her. When her godfather found out, he instantly removed her from the institution. It is unknown whether Margaretha had reciprocated the headmaster’s advances, however, she no longer wished to live with her godfather and fled to The Hague where her uncle resided.

mata-hari-9402348-1-rawYet, Margaretha did not stop running. At 18 years old, Margaretha answered an advert in a newspaper placed by a Dutch Colonial Army Captain who was seeking a wife. Captain Rudolf MacLeod (1856-1928) was a descendant of Clan MacLeod of the Isle of Skye. His father, John, was also a captain and his mother, Dina Louise, was the Baroness Sweerts de Landas, therefore, he was of high social standing and financially secure.

Margaretha sent a photograph of herself, emphasising her raven black hair and olive skin, to MacLeod who was stationed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The Dutch Empire had colonised the area in 1800 and MacLeod was the captain of one branch of the Dutch army stationed there.

On 11th July 1895, Margaretha and MacLeod were married and, two years later, settled in the city of Malang on the east side of the island of Java with their newborn son, Norman-John (1897-99). The following year, their daughter Louise Jeanne (1898-1919) was born. Margaretha’s dreams of a happy marriage, however, were shattered when she learnt about her husband’s philandering ways.  It was socially acceptable for Europeans to keep a concubine in the Dutch East Indies at that time, which MacLeod did, as well as visit prostitutes.

Captain Rudolf MacLeod was an alcoholic and prone to violence when drunk. He beat Margaretha for attracting other officers with her beauty; he beat and blamed Margaretha when he did not receive a promotion; he beat her for any petty reason he could find. To escape the abuse, Margaretha temporarily moved in with another Dutch officer where she began to study Indonesian traditions and embrace the local culture.

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Legong dance – Freeind Santosa

What interested Margaretha the most was Indonesian dance, which reflected the diversity of their culture. Indonesia can be split into three eras: Prehistoric, Hindu/Buddhist, and Islam; all of which can be observed in folk dances and court dances. Tribal dances from the Prehistoric Era gradually combined with influences from nearby countries, such as India, China and the Middle East. Later, European culture was thrown into the mix.

Margaretha joined a local dance company where she adopted an artistic name: Mata Hari. As she explained in letters home to her Dutch family, Mata Hari was the Malay word for “sun” (literally “eye of the day”). Here she would have learnt many different dances. The population of Indonesia was made up of different ethnicities, each of whom had their own dances. There is an estimated total of 3000 dances that have their origins in Indonesia.

Mata Hari was only able to escape her husband for a few months when she was persuaded to return. The beatings resumed but Margaretha was able to find moments of solace in her studies of the local culture and dance. Sadly, tragedy was soon to befall the MacLeod family. In 1899, the children fell violently ill from which Norman-John never survived. Many believe this was due to complications with the treatment of syphilis, which the children had contracted from their father. Others claim the children were poisoned by a servant or enemy of MacLeod. Whatever the cause, Norman-John was dead.

The MacLeod’s returned to the Netherlands in 1902 where they officially separated, although their divorce did not become official until 1906. Margaretha was awarded custody of Louise Jeanne and MacLeod was legally required to provide financial support – which he did not. After one of Louise Jeanne’s visits with her father, MacLeod refused to return her to Margaretha. Although Margaretha had every right to take her ex-husband to court, she did not have the resources. Despite MacLeod’s abusive nature, he had never hurt his daughter, so Margaretha conceded defeat. It is unlikely mother and daughter saw each other again. Not much is known about Louise Jeanne’s life other than she passed away aged 21 from complications due to syphilis.

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Performing in 1905

In 1903, Margaretha moved to Paris in search of work. Some say she posed as a model for an artist, but this claim is uncertain. She did, however, find work in a circus as a horse rider and performed under the name of Lady MacLeod. This, naturally, met with disapproval with her ex-husband’s family.

Orientalism” was all the rage in Paris at the turn of the century, which Margaretha was able to use to her advantage. Modern dancers were incorporating Asian and Egyptian cultures into their costumes and dance moves and Margaretha, who had learnt to dance in the Dutch East Indies, fitted right in. Using her Malay name, Mata Hari billed herself as a Hindu artist and choreographed “Temple Dances” using her knowledge of Indonesian culture, religion and symbolism. The dances often involved the removal of clothing, although she self-consciously kept her breasts covered with bead-covered brassieres.

Mata Hari was the contemporary of several established modern dancers, including Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), an American dancer who toured Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Duncan’s technique incorporated ballet with Ancient Greece. Although her movements were as fluid as a ballerina, her costumed were based on Ancient Greek art. Rather than leotards or corsets, Duncan preferred tunics and performed most of her dances barefoot.

When Mata Hari first learnt of her, Duncan was on her European tour. Popular for her distinctive style, many artists were inspired by Duncan and wished to create works based on her. The French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was one of many who were intrigued by the movements of Duncan’s body.

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Gabriel Astruc

On the other hand, French journalist and theatre manager, Gabriel Astruc (1864-1938), did not think much of Isadora’s Duncan’s dancing, believing it to be too subtle to attract an audience. He was, however, attracted to Mata Hari’s Oriental-inspired style and became her booking agent in 1904. Around the same time, Astruc was also working with musicians and singers, such as Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) and Nellie Melba (1861-1931).

Mata Hari debuted her act at the Musée Guimet on 13th March 1905 where she became an overnight sensation. The Parisian museum is famous for being one of the largest collections of Asian art and owns several items from Indonesia, which complimented Mata Hari’s style of dance. Her audience was captivated by her body and flirtatious nature.

In her dance, Mata Hari posed as a Hindu Javanese princess, which led many people to believe she was of Asian ancestry. She let them believe she had grown up learning the art of sacred Indian dance when, in fact, it had only been a matter of years. As she danced, she progressively removed her clothing until she was left in nothing but a breastplate and jewels.

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Émile Guimet in his Museum, by Ferdinand Jean Luigini, 1898

It was not only the audience at the Musée Guimet who were captivated by Mata Hari’s performance; she had also caught the eye of millionaire and founder of the museum, Émile Étienne Guimet (1836-1918). Guimet had originally set up the museum in Lyon but transferred its contents to its current location in Paris in 1885. Soon after meeting Mata Hari, she became his mistress.

In August 1905, Gabriel Astruc booked Mata Hari into the Paris Olympia where she made many appearances over the following decade. Thousands flocked to see her shows and many photographs were taken, including some during her semi-naked acts. Unfortunately, some of these photos reached the MacLeod family who used them to strengthen their custody claim over Louise Jeanne.

Nonetheless, Mata Hari continued to have a successful career in Paris. Her type of act made her a popular woman amongst male spectators but also brought exotic dance to a more respectable status and greatly appealed to “oriental” obsessed Parisians. Mata Hari herself was thought of as exotic and many believed the stories about her origins to be genuine. Very little was known in Europe about the Dutch East Indies, so any form of art from that area garnered a lot of attention from intrigued Europeans.

A French journalist described Mata Hari as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.” News of her success in Paris saloons spread to other cities and countries, who wished to book Mata Hari for their halls and exhibition spaces. Her dance act travelled as far as Vienna, where a journalist commented on her body, “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair.” He claimed that even her face made “a strange foreign impression.”

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In 1910 wearing a bejewelled head-dress

The popularity of Mata Hari’s dance style inspired other dancers to appropriate traditional Asian movements. By 1910, Mata Hari was competing for bookings with younger women. Critics, who were in favour of these new dancers, spread the opinion that Mata Hari’s success was down to her revealing clothes and exhibitionism rather than her dancing ability. In fact, some critics claimed she did not know how to dance at all.

Having begun her dance career relatively late in life, Mata Hari was hindered by the signs of ageing. Although she was not yet 40, Mata Hari had begun to put on weight, which made her body less appealing than the younger dancers. On 13th March 1915, she performed her last show as an exotic dancer, however, her fame, sensuality and eroticism led her to become a successful courtesan. She had relationships and liaisons with high ranking military officers and politicians, both in France and across country borders. Some of these men were German officers, which in hindsight was a foolish move.

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Amsterdam, 1915

Despite the growing tensions in Europe and the outbreak of World War One, Mata Hari continued to work as a courtesan, travelling from one country to another to avoid the fighting. Her constant movements came to the attention of British and French intelligence who put her under surveillance as she moved about between France, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands. The Netherlands remained neutral during the war, which allowed Mata Hari to travel unquestioned despite the surveillance.

At the beginning of 1916, Mata Hari began a very intense relationship with a Russian pilot who was serving with the French. Captain Vadim Maslov, who was in his early 20s, met Mata Hari at the Grand Hotel where he was staying for a short break after being granted military merit. Within a few short weeks, Mata Hari was deeply involved with Maslov, who she called the love of her life.

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Mata Hari and Vadim Maslov

When Maslov returned to work, he joined the 50,000 men in the Russian Expeditionary Force who were sent to the Western Front in the spring of 1916. During a dogfight with the Germans, Maslov’s plane was shot down. Although he survived, he was badly wounded and had lost the sight in both eyes. Naturally, Mata Hari wished to visit her wounded lover, however, as a citizen of a neutral country, she was not allowed near the front.

Mata Hari kicked up a fuss, which resulted in a meeting with agents from the Deuxième Bureau. The Deuxième Bureau de l’État-major général (“Second Bureau of the General Staff”) was France’s external military intelligence agency concerned with enemy troops. They proposed that Mata Hari could see Maslov if she agreed to spy for France. One of the agents, Major Georges Ladoux (1875-1933), believed her courtesan contacts would be able to provide useful information.

Ladoux also believed Mata Hari would be able to worm her way into Crown Prince Wilhelm’s (1882-1951) presence. The prince was the eldest son of the last German Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) and served as a general at the western front. Before the war, Mata Hari had performed for Prince Wilhelm, therefore, she would be a familiar face and, hopefully, appear trustworthy.

The Deuxième Bureau offered Mata Hari one million francs if she could seduce and obtain information about German war plans from the prince. Unbeknownst to the French organisation, the prince had very little to do with the military. German propaganda had painted the prince as a great warrior and leader of the Heeresgruppe Deutscher Kronprinz (Army Group Crown Prince). In reality, the prince had never commanded an army and was far more interested in partying and drinking.

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Painting of Mata Hari by Isaac Israëls, 1916

Mata Hari began her spy career by liaising with the contacts she had amassed during her work as a concubine and dancer. This took her to Spain from where she was returning by steamer ship in November 1916 when she was arrested by the British. The ship had called in at Falmouth, Cornwall, where she was detained and brought to London.

Sir Basil Thomson (1861-1939), the Head of the Criminal Investigation Department during the First World War, interrogated Mata Hari at length. She was held at Cannon Street police station but was released when she eventually admitted she was working for the Deuxième Bureau. After a brief stay at the Savoy Hotel, Mata Hari returned to Spain.

In Madrid, Mata Hari met the German military attaché, Major Arnold Kalle (1873-1952), with whom she began an affair. She asked Kalle if he could arrange a meeting with the Crown Prince but he appeared to be reluctant to do so. Mata Hari offered to share French secrets with Kalle in exchange for money, which she hoped would reward her with some German information in return. Indeed, Kalle did share some information, however, only things the French would already have known, for example, German submarines were refuelled in Spanish ports and German agents were being smuggled into Monaco.

Referring to Mata Hari as Agent H-21, Kalle transmitted telegrams to Berlin about the information she had revealed. Although it was written in code, Kalle had used encryption that had already been cracked by the French. The telegrams were intercepted by the British and French who easily identified Agent H-21 as Mata Hari. As a result, they began to suspect she was a double agent.

As it transpired, the information Mata Hari revealed to Kalle was mostly insignificant gossip about the sex lives of French politicians and generals, rather than useful information. German intelligence officer General Walter Nicolai (1873-1947), however, was annoyed that Kalle had paid for useless information and began to expose her as a German spy to the French.

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On the day of her arrest

Meanwhile, Mata Hari managed to obtain the names of six Belgian officers, five of whom were suspected of working for the Germans and one who believed to be a double agent. The latter was executed but the others evaded arrest and continued their work. The Deuxième Bureau believed Mata Hari had also given the names to the Germans who subsequently protected the five spies.

On 13th February 1917, while staying at the Hotel Elysée Palace in Paris, she was arrested by the French and placed in a rat-infested cell at Prison Saint-Lazare. At her trial, which took place on 24th July, Mata Hari was accused of spying for Germany, which led to the deaths of 500,000 soldiers. Captain Georges Ladoux of the Deuxième Bureau was one of her principal accusers, as was Sir Basil Thomson who had interrogated her in Britain. Both were convinced she had been a double agent, however, neither could produce substantial evidence. The most incriminating thing they could find was a bottle of invisible ink in her hotel room.

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Margaretha Zelle mugshot

Captain Pierre Bouchardon (1870-1950), nicknamed The Grand Inquisitor, was the prosecutor at Mata Hari’s trial and built his case around her invented persona. He drew attention to the story she had weaved about being a Javanese princess and revealed her real name as Margaretha Zelle.

During the trial, Margaretha admitted to accepting 20,000 francs from a German diplomat she had met in the Netherlands to spy on France. She insisted, however, that the only information she revealed was trivial as her loyalties remained with France.

A harlot? Yes, but a traitoress, never!

— Phrase attributed to Mata Hari during the trial.

 

Margaretha pleaded with the Dutch Embassy in Paris for help. “My international connections are due to my work as a dancer, nothing else… Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself.” Sadly, assistance was not forthcoming. Not even her wounded lover would come to her aid. When Maslov was asked to testify for her, he declined, claiming he did not care if she was convicted or not. Margaretha reportedly fainted at the news.

Researchers who have looked into Margaretha’s trial, such as British historian Julie Wheelwright, have concluded, “She really did not pass on anything that you couldn’t find in the local newspapers in Spain.” Despite this, Bouchardon continued to build his case by emphasising her past career. Bouchardon argued she was “accustomed to making use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy.”

Today, many believe Margaretha was used as a scapegoat for France. In 1917, the French were struggling to survive the war. The new Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), was determined to turn things around and having a German spy to blame for the recent failings of the French army would help to boost morale. Mata Hari was “… an independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. She was kind of held up as an example of what might happen if your morals were too loose.” (Wheelwright, 2014) 

Under interrogation, Margaretha had admitted to taking money to work for Germany, however, there was no evidence that she carried out any spy duties. Despite this, her defence lawyer, Édouard Clunet (1845-1922), faced an impossible battle; it was the French government versus one man. Unsurprisingly, Clunet lost the case and Margaretha was convicted.

Just before dawn on 15th October 1917, 41-year-old Margaretha Zelle was executed by a firing squad of 12 French soldiers. According to eye-witness reports, she was not bound and had refused to be blindfolded. One man claimed she blew a kiss at the squad just before they fired. British reporter Henry Wales wrote, “Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second, it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her.” To make sure she was dead, an officer then shot her in the head at close range.

No one came forward to claim Margaretha’s body, therefore, her body was donated to medical science. Records from 1918 show the Museum of Anatomy in Paris received her body and embalmed her head, however, when the museum’s collection was catalogued in 2000, Margaretha’s head and body were missing. They remain unaccounted for.

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Statue of Mata Hari in Leeuwarden, Netherlands

Mata Hari’s life has inspired many films including a Hollywood production starring Greta Garbo (1905-90). Her life has been a source of entertainment for many for over a century. In the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale, the character Mata Bond was said to be the daughter of James Bond and Mata Hari. In 1992, Carrie Fisher (1956-1016) of Star Wars fame wrote an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in which Indiana Jones had an affair with Mata Hari and became involved with her spy career. At least five musicals have been based around her life and, in 2016, the Dutch National Ballet presented a ballet called Mata Hari.

Despite her life becoming appropriated for entertainment purposes, some people wish to see Mata Hari vindicated of her supposed crimes. In 2001, MI5 released documents concerning Margaretha’s interrogation, which the Mata Hari Foundation used to form their plea to the French government to exonerate her. The spokesman for the foundation stated, “We believe that there are sufficient doubts concerning the dossier of information that was used to convict her to warrant re-opening the case. Maybe she wasn’t entirely innocent, but it seems clear she wasn’t the master-spy whose information sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths, as has been claimed.” The foundation argued the documents were proof that Margaretha was not guilty of the crime for which she was convicted.

Margaretha Zelle, a.k.a Mata Hari remains a criminal in the eyes of the law. In 2017, exactly 100 years after her execution, the French Army made the 1275 pages of Mata Hari’ trial and other documents public; it is only a matter of time before the foundation comes forward again to campaign for her pardon.

It is difficult to say how innocent or guilty Margaretha Zelle really was and it will be challenging to prove now that a century has passed. Whilst her execution remains the most notable event of her life, we must not forget the 41 years that led up to that fateful day. Margaretha’s world was turned upside-down at a young age following her father’s bankruptcy and her mother’s death. She took her future into her own hands, marrying to escape her past, only to find herself in an abusive relationship; she lost her son and was estranged from her daughter. Remarkably, this did not break her. She found solace in dance, became Mata Hari and launched her own career – albeit one that many may frown upon. For love, she agreed to spy for a country that was not even her own. The final years of her life were fraught with danger and yet she persevered, showing remarkable strength and bravery.

Whether or not Mata Hari was innocent, she deserves to be remembered for her life rather than her death.

The Rembrandt House

“Painting is the grandchild of nature. It is related to God.”
Rembrandt
— As quoted in Rembrandt Drawings (1975) by Paul Némo

The Netherlands has provided the world with a large number of great artists but one stands out above all the rest: Rembrandt (1606-69). Generally considered one of the preeminent artists to date, Rembrandt is also the most important figure in Dutch art history. Not only was he an exceptional painter, he was also a draughtsman, collector and teacher. He excelled after his move to Amsterdam, the city rich in opportunity for artists at the time. In order to celebrate this famous Dutchman, the house he once owned has been restored to its 17th-century appearance and opened as a museum. The Rembrandt House Museum (Museum Het Rembrandthuis to the locals) gives visitors a complete Rembrandt experience with furniture, art and objects from that time.

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Self-Portrait, Open-Mouthed, 1630

Rembrandt moved into the merchant house in St. Anthoniesbreestraat (now Jodenbreestraat) in 1639 but his artistic vocation had already begun long before. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born on 15th July 1606 in Leiden, a city in the Dutch Republic (now the Netherlands). He came from a large, well-off family, being the ninth child born to Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn and Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuijtbrouck. Although his parents had no creative background, it is thought that Rembrandt’s mother’s deep Roman Catholic faith influenced many of his religious works.

Remaining in Leiden throughout his schooling, Rembrandt eventually became an apprentice to the local painter Jacob van Swanenburgh (1571-1638). Van Swanenburg was known for his religious paintings, which may also have influenced the young Rembrandt. He remained here for three years before travelling to Amsterdam where he became apprenticed to the history painter Pieter Lastman (1583-1633). However, Rembrandt did not stay here for long; six months later, he had returned to his hometown to set up as an independent artist.

Whilst Rembrandt was working in Leiden, he took on his first pupil, Gerrit Dou (1613-75) and began to receive important commissions from the court of The Hague. Life for Rembrandt was going well, however, in 1630 his father died and, without his support, Rembrandt’s financial worries began. Fortunately, he was able to borrow one thousand guilders from the art dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh (1587-1661) and moved to Amsterdam to reside as his lodger.

Through Uylenburgh, Rembrandt met his future wife, Saskia Uylenburgh (1612-42), who he married in 1634. For the remainder of the decade, Rembrandt continued to teach and paint successfully, culminating in the commission to paint The Night Watch, now found in the Rijksmuseum, in 1639. In the same year, after taking out a considerably large mortgage, Rembrandt and Saskia moved into the merchant house in St. Anthoniesbreestraat.

 

Although Rembrandt continued to receive commissions and was well-known in the art community, his family life was suffering due to circumstances outside of his control.  Of Rembrandt and Saskia’s four children, only the youngest, Titus, born in 1641, survived infancy. The following year, Saskia also died. Over the next decade, Rembrandt had relationships with two women, Geertje Dircx (1610-56), Titus’ nanny, and Hendrickje Stoffels (1626-63), his housekeeper. The latter gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Cornelia, in 1654.

Throughout his career as an artist, Rembrandt also collected a huge quantity of objects and artefacts, which can be seen in a couple of rooms in the museum. He also owned a large art collection, which would not have helped his growing debts. Finally, in 1658, Rembrandt’s property was sold at auction after he was declared bankrupt.

Nonetheless, Rembrandt continued to paint and deal in art, for which he enlisted the help of both Hendrickje and Titus. Sadly, they both died before him, Hendrickje in 1663, and his son in 1668. Rembrandt followed them the following year, shortly after welcoming his only grandchild, Titia.

The life of Rembrandt van Rijn is narrated via an audio guide as visitors make their way around the rooms of the Rembrandt House Museum. The museum also owns the building next door, which contains a small art gallery on the upper floors and the entrance to the museum on the lower. The tour begins in the basement with the keucken (kitchen), which, as with all the other rooms, has been refurbished to look as it would have during Rembrandt’s residence. The furniture and 17th-century objects have been sourced or reconstructed based on a list written by the Insolvency Office.

 

The kitchen was where everyone in the household cooked and ate. Unlike upper-class families, there were no separate dining areas for the family and staff. Not only that, the maid would have slept in the box bed in the corner. These types of beds were common in the Netherlands, they could be shut-up during the day, making additional bedrooms unnecessary. They were also particularly small because the Dutch would never lie completely flat to sleep. Lying down was associated with death, therefore, people slept in a half-upright position.

 

The tour continues up a twisted staircase to the ground floor and into the voorhuys (entrance hall). This is the room people would have seen on first entering the house. It is spacious and well lit and has a good view through the windows onto the street. Today, the entrance hall contains many paintings by “Pre-Rembrandts” and his contemporaries, including his teacher, Pieter Lastman. A tiny room at the back of the hall contained Rembrandt’s study where he kept all his important papers. Whilst it is too small for visitors to go in, it is possible to peer through the door to see how it may once have looked.

To the left of the entrance hall is the sijdelcaemer (anteroom) where Rembrandt held his art dealing business. Similarly to the previous room, the walls are full of paintings by Rembrandt’s contemporaries and pupils. Another box bed can be found here where a family member may have slept. The most interesting aspect, however, is the mantlepiece above the fireplace. Whilst the floor and pillars are made of marble, the mantlepiece is not, but without an audioguide, no one would know. It is actually marbled wood, a very fashionable feature during the 17th-century. This was a lot cheaper than real marble, but not many would be able to tell the difference.

On the same floor but at the back of the house was Rembrandt’s living room or sael (salon). The artist would also have slept here in the box bed by the door. The high ceiling allows room for numerous paintings to be hung, mostly by Rembrandt’s most successful pupils.

 

Up another flight of stairs is Rembrandt’s groote schilder caemer (large studio) where he painted many of his masterpieces. This north facing room receives a lot of daylight, which would have been perfect for an artist working throughout the day. Being a large room, it would have been possible to set up scenes with models and props from which to paint. If need be, the light could be adjusted by closing the shutters of some of the windows.

During the day, the museum demonstrates the 17th-century method of paint-making in this studio. Visitors are amazed that artists had to create their own paints, whereas, today, we only need to squeeze it out of a tube. Various pigments were ground together with linseed oil to create the correct consistency of paint. Artists were limited to what colours they could make because the range of pigment was rather small. Lead, for example, was used to create white, and insects’ blood and plants could create different shades of red and yellow. A demonstration of another art technique Rembrandt frequently used: the printing press, can be observed on the floor below.

In the attic is a cleyne schilder caemer (small studio) which would have been used by Rembrandt’s pupils. It is separated into five cubicles so that each artist could work undisturbed. Often, his pupils would produce copies of his own work, for example, Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, of which a version by Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) can be seen on the ground floor.

 

Opposite the large studio is a room titled kunstcaemer (cabinet) in which Rembrandt stored his exceptional collection of art and rare objects. It is easy to see how easily Rembrandt went bankrupt from the purchase of these extraordinary items. He collected everything from plaster casts of classical statues to beautiful butterflies and shells. Since he often painted stories from the Bible, classical mythology or history, Rembrandt would regularly use these objects as references to draw from – there was a method to his collecting madness.

 

It is a shame that there are not many paintings by Rembrandt in the museum. Being one of the world’s greatest artists, galleries are quick to purchase his work when they become available. Fortunately, the museum owns 250 of Rembrandts 290 etchings. Although they cannot all be displayed at once due to their fragility, a selection can always be found in the recently added print room. These highlight Rembrandt’s exceptional artistic quality and draughtsmanship.

 

I have seen various of his printed works which have reached this country; they are very finely executed, sensitively and skilfully etched. And I regard him unequivocally as a great virtuoso.”
Don Antonio Ruffo (1660)

Rembrandt’s etchings are equally as impressive as his paintings. He began learning the printing technique in 1625 when he was working as an independent artist in Leiden. Rembrandt’s etchings were produced by making spontaneous, sketch-like lines onto metal plates that would be covered in ink and placed in a printing press to transfer the image on to paper. (As mentioned, a demonstration of this is available during the tour.) The deepness of the lines would determine how dark the image would appear, therefore, Rembrandt was able to produce several tones to create dramatic lighting within his compositions.

An etching plate could be used to print several impressions, which made them very popular with collectors. Whereas only one version of a painting would exist, numerous copies of the same etching could be owned by different people. They were also a lot cheaper to purchase.

Unlike his paintings that mostly focused on popular stories from religious or historical contexts, Rembrandt’s etchings covered a much broader range of themes. Initially, Rembrandt practised etching by drawing his face making different expressions. He continued to use himself as a model throughout his career. He also studied the heads and faces of people on the street, resulting in a number of interesting characters.

Rembrandt would go for walks around Amsterdam with his sketchbook and come home to copy his sketches onto etching plates. As well as people, Rembrandt studied and drew landscapes. Nonetheless, there are also a few etchings of the typical classical and Biblical stories.

“Rembrandt’s extraordinary manner of etching which is characterised by the free and irregular use of line, without delineation of outlines, and which results in a deep, powerful chiaroscuro of painterly quality.”
Filippo Baldinucci, 1686

Since it was opened to the public as a gallery on 10th June 1911 in the presence of Queen Wilhelmina (1880-1962), the Rembrandt House Museum has undergone many changes. Initially, the house was used as an art gallery to display Rembrandt’s etchings. It was not until 1998, when the building next door became available, that the opportunity to restore Rembrandt’s house to its original appearance became available. Historians and curators have done a phenomenal job to present a realistic as possible 17th-century home in which the greatest Dutch painter lived and worked. Everything has been completed with painstaking accuracy to provide a true insight into the artist’s life.

The Rembrandt House Museum is continually being updated as funds become available in order to provide the best possible experience. The latest updates took place earlier this year, including the print room and Rembrandt’s study.

With helpful staff and audio guides available in several languages, the Rembrandt House Museum is a wonderful place to visit. It is educational in a variety of ways, from the background of the artist to the methods painters used in the 17th-century. It is also a great way of discovering what the inside of the tall Dutch houses once looked like, imagining how a family would cope in the narrow building.

The Rembrandt House Museum is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm and costs €13 for adults and €4 for children. The audio guide is included in the entrance fee. Guidebooks are also available for purchase in a number of languages. Photography is allowed throughout the museum unless a sign requests otherwise (no flash), however, be prepared to leave large bags in the lockers provided.

“Of course you will say that I ought to be practical and ought to try and paint the way they want me to paint. Well, I will tell you a secret. I have tried and I have tried very hard, but I can’t do it. I just can’t do it! And that is why I am just a little crazy.”
Rembrandt

 

 

Simeon goes to Amsterdam

32866310_10213968890207792_2656639836118581248_nMeet Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please). Instead of swinging from tree to tree in the subtropical rainforests of Bangladesh, Borneo or Sumatra, Simeon enjoys going on trips with his human friends. Fortunately, being a stuffed toy (do not mention that to him, it is a sore subject) Simeon can easily fit in hand luggage and be taken into all sorts of places where animals are not usually welcomed. This year, 2018, was a very special year for the small ape; in May, Simeon experienced his first trip abroad to the artistic capital of the Netherlands: Amsterdam.

Jetting off from London Southend Airport, Simeon landed at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol a mere 35 minutes later. It took less time to get from England to the Netherlands than it did to get from home to Southend! Schiphol is the main international airport of the Netherlands and sits nine kilometres southwest of Amsterdam. Despite being the third busiest airport in Europe, Simeon and friends whizzed through security to discover their luggage was already waiting for them on the conveyor belt – a complete contrast to most of London’s airports!

Without any to-do, Simeon found himself on a train heading to Amsterdam Centraal. Not only was this his first trip abroad, it was his first ride in both an aeroplane and a train! And what a good experience it was, too. Despite understanding little Dutch, it was quick and easy to get from A to B, the only issue being which exit to use at Centraal Station.

 

 

Soon to be connected to the Eurostar line, Amsterdam Centraal is the largest train station in the Netherlands and has been listed as a rijksmonument or national heritage site.  The Gothic/Renaissance Revival station building was designed by the Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers (1827-1921) and first opened for public use in 1889. Like the majority of buildings in Amsterdam, the station was constructed on the canals and required 8,687 wooden poles. The structure and surrounding area have since been redeveloped to make it more pedestrian friendly.

Despite renovations, Amsterdam Centraal Station is one of the most impressive buildings in the city; it looks more like a palace than a station. The building is richly decorated both inside and out. The façade is made up of red brick with prominent carvings on the towers either side of the main entrance. Each tower is topped with a spire and displays a large dial, however, only one of these is a clock. The other, which at a glance may look like a clock, is a read-out for the weather vane that sits on top of the station.

33401578_10213993463502109_6251086077671505920_nAmsterdam has an area of approximately 84.68 square miles, which is far too much for a little gibbon to walk. Fortunately for Simeon, there are 16 tram routes across that city, the majority of which begin their journeys outside Amsterdam Centraal. So, with 72-hour travel pass to hand (other time periods are available) Simeon was ready to check in and out of the trams as he made his way from one destination to another.

Although trams travel all over the place, the best way to experience Amsterdam is on the canals. There are plenty of canal trips to choose from of varying lengths that traverse the 60 miles of water. The most famous canals in Amsterdam are Prinsengracht, Herengracht, and Keizersgracht, however, the small ones are just as interesting to travel along – gracht means “canal” and Prinsen, Heren and Keizers can be translated to “Prince”, “Lords” and “Emperor’s” respectively.

 

 

Initially, the 17th-century canals were a form of defence but eventually became a means of navigating the city. Today, they are one of Amsterdam’s greatest attractions. Simeon opted for the open-top tour by the Blue Boat Company that took its guests around the more narrow canals in the city. The trip began at the company office on the edge of the water in Stadhouderskade, which is a short walk from the Museumkwartier where the major museums are located.

Depending on the tour company and guide, not only does a canal trip offer extensive views of the city, it provides a lot of interesting information and local knowledge that may not necessarily crop up in guidebooks. On an hour and 15-minute ride, after Simeon had got over his disappointment about not being allowed to drive the boat, he learnt a lot of fascinating facts about Amsterdam.

The name Amsterdam comes from Amstelredamme, indicating its origins as a 12th-century fishing village around a dam in the river Amstel. Although the city has lots of canals, it sits around two-metres below sea level. Originally, the area was farmed for peat, which was used to heat houses, resulting in the low level of the land. Due to this, Amsterdam was not inhabitable as a city until grand developments in the 14th and 15th centuries when the majority of canals and original buildings were constructed.

Most of the buildings in the city look fairly old, however, they do not date back as far as the conception of the city. Many of the buildings in Amsterdam were built during the 17th century and, as Simeon was amazed to see, stand rather crookedly, leaning forwards, backwards or even sideways. There are a number of theories for this strange sight but do not worry, they are unlikely to topple over.

Original buildings were built on wooden poles so that they would be raised above the water level. Unfortunately, due to the peaty quality of the soil, the poles began to sink into the ground as they tried to sustain the weight they were holding. This may be the cause of many of the slanted buildings around the city. Thankfully, the situation has been rectified by filling up the gaps below houses with cement so that they would not sink any further.

What surprises some people to learn is that some of the structures were deliberately built at a slant. This is known as op de vlucht bouwen and was a building regulation pre-1800. This may have stemmed from medieval times when the top floor of a wooden building traditionally jettied out further in order to prevent rain from flooding the floors below. The strongest reason for the leaning buildings is for economical purposes. As a staple port, Amsterdam was receiving daily deliveries from merchant boats of cotton, spices and so forth. Warehouses tended to be situated in the attics of the buildings along the canals and in order to store the crates, they were winched up on ropes from a hook on the top of the building. In order to prevent damages to the walls and windows, buildings were slanted forwards to provide enough room for the boxes to swing without hitting anything.

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One thing that will not go amiss, regardless of whether you take advantage of a canal tour or not, is the width of the tall, Dutch buildings. Typically, houses are three windows wide and four windows high and were built as such due to heavy taxes imposed upon the people of Amsterdam. Similarly to London, Amsterdam had a window tax meaning that the more windows a building had, the more its owners would have to pay. Another tax was on the width of the houses – the wider, the more expensive. Large families were forever going up and down narrow, spiralled staircases in order to navigate their tall but thin houses. Any buildings wider than three windows were likely owned by the wealthier people of Amsterdam.

33167034_10213993573304854_4090493120037257216_nA good thing about travelling via the canals is, at least in Simeon’s opinion, you are not at risk of being hit by any of the 881,000 bicycles zooming around the city … or so you would think. To the astonishment of the people on the boat, the tour guide revealed that 15,000 bikes are pulled out of the canal every year. These are not necessarily a result of clumsy cyclists; thousands of bikes are parked against railings on the edge of the canals or bridges every day. It only takes one to fall over before a domino effect pushes them all into the water. Cars are also parked by the side of canals and risk falling in, fortunately, only five unlucky drivers are affected by this!

Returning to the Museumkwartier, Simeon had the opportunity to visit two of the most popular museums in Amsterdam. The city itself is one of the most visited cultural places in Europe and it is without a doubt in part due to its most famous museum, the largest museum of art and history in the Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum. Opened in 1885 and designed by Cuypers in the same Gothic-Renaissance style as his station building, the Rijksmuseum houses a number of different collections including 19th-century art and art from the middle ages. The most well-known section, however, is the masterpieces of the 17th-century painted by the school known as The Dutch Masters.

 

The majority of artworks in the museum are of Dutch origin and can be found in all the collections, however, the artist visitors flock to see is the magnificent Rembrandt (1606-99). The Rijksmuseum owns 20 of his works including the extraordinary Night Watch or De Nachtwacht, which impressed Simeon with its colossal size (363 cm × 437 cm). Initially called Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq by the artist, it portrays the eponymous company being led out by Captain Frans Banning Cocq and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch, who are captured in a dramatic use of light and shadow, giving the impression of movement. Traditionally, portraits of military groups were static and posed but Rembrandt broke away from this custom.

Visitors also get to see paintings by other famous Dutch artists such as Vermeer (1632-75), Hals (1582-1666) and Van Gogh (1853-88). Simeon was particularly ecstatic to see The Milkmaid (Het melkmeisje) by Vermeer as well as look at examples of sculpture and decorative arts.

Amsterdam is a great city for art-lovers and on the opposite of the Museumplein is a museum devoted to one of the greatest Dutch artists from the 19th-century. Vincent van Gogh was born in Zundert, a small town in the south of the Netherlands. Although he spent a large amount of his artistic career in France, the Van Gogh Museum has brought 200 of his paintings back to his home country. As well as paintings, the museum has an enormous collection of drawings and letters made by van Gogh at various times during his life.

Visitors are not allowed to photograph the exhibits, however, they have provided a couple of areas where snap happy tourists can record a few memories. Simeon was pleased to discover that one version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was in one of these areas – this vain, little gibbon loves having his photograph taken!

The museum is set out in chronological order so that guests can learn about the artist’s life as they peruse his paintings. This also allows the more art savvy to notice and compare the development of van Gogh’s paintings as he progressed through his ten-year career. These are interspersed with artworks by other notable painters who inspired van Gogh or had a personal connection to him, for instance, his friend-cum-enemy Paul Gauguin (1848-1903).

The museum is located in two buildings joint together by way of underground passage. One side houses temporary exhibition and the other contains three floors of van Gogh’s work and timeline. Designed by Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964), and eventually completed in 1973, the museum is a stark contrast to the Rijksmuseum. The architecture is modernist and features wide open spaces, although, once the crowds enter, there is not much space left!

Already seen in the Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands boasts another famous artist, however, to discover more about him, Simeon had to move away from the Museumplein and get the tram to Rembrandtplein. This artist is, of course, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.

Rembrandtplein, originally called Botermarkt, was established in 1668 as the central square for a dairy market. Today, it lies in homage to the 17th-century Dutch artist with a large cast iron statue of Rembrandt standing in the middle. Although Rembrandt was born in Leiden, South Holland, he bought a house nearby in Amsterdam, making him a significant famous association with the city.

In honour of his 400th birthday in 2006, a bronze-cast representation of his famous painting, The Night Watch, was erected in front of the statue of Rembrandt. Tourists are drawn to the square like magnets thanks to the brilliance of these figures produced by the Russian artists Mikhail Dronov and Alexander Taratynov. With so many cameras around, Simeon had to be quick to get his photograph taken with the majority of the characters.

The house Rembrandt owned is not on the square but a short walk will bring you to the very building now known as Museum Het Rembrandthuis. Decorated to look exactly how Rembrandt lived, Simeon enjoyed exploring the 17th-century rooms and seeing hundreds of collectable items that the artist had amassed during his career.

Rembrandt both lived in and worked from this building between 1638 and 1658, painting and teaching new students. His studio, kitchen and sleeping areas give the impression of an artist’s life during the 17th-century. People were shorter and did not need tall doorframes, causing visitors to duck in order to enter a room – not a problem for Simeon! Their beds were also much shorter but not because of their stature; the Dutch slept sitting up in fear that lying down would cause the blood to rush to their head and kill them.

With the main art museums fully explored, Simeon had time to visit smaller, lesser-known museums in Amsterdam. These were Cromhout Huis and Het Bijbels Museum. The former is a canal-side house once owned by the Cromhout Family who lived there for almost two centuries. The house faces the Herengracht canal and is decorated as splendidly as it would have during its Golden Age. An audio guide educates visitors about the seven generations of the Cromhouts, their ups and downs, and their unique pieces of furniture and art collection.

On the top floor of the house is Amsterdam’s Biblical Museum where the Bible is mixed in with art and Dutch culture. The collection features rare Bibles, including the oldest printed copy in the Netherlands (1477), Egyptian artefacts and many other treasures. Simeon’s favourite was the model of the Tabernacle and the 19th-century model of Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

There may be many museums in Amsterdam but there are so many other things to see. Dam Square, where the national monument and Koninklijk Palace can be found, provides several photographic opportunities and is surrounded by souvenir shops. However, the best places to buy mementoes is at one of the city’s markets, particularly the Bloemenmarkt situated along the Singel Canal. This flower market has been a tradition since 1862 and is open all year round so that both locals and tourists can benefit from the brightly coloured plants. The best time to visit this market is in the spring when the Dutch tulips are in full bloom, however, at any other time of year, the market is full of fake but beautiful tulips (Simeon thought they were real), or you can purchase bulbs to take home to plant in your own garden.

Simeon was only in Amsterdam for a few days, and although he visited so many places, there is still so much to explore. Amsterdam is the type of place tourists can visit time and again and discover something new on every trip. There is, of course, the “other side” to Amsterdam that gives it a bad name and evokes the saying “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go to Amsterdam” but that is an extreme exaggeration. Nonetheless, Simeon has compiled his top tips for those wanting to visit the Dutch capital city.

Simeon’s Top Tips

1. Be careful crossing the road. Bicycles and trams have right of way.
2. Don’t take photographs in the Red Light District. This is where all the prostitution and sex-oriented businesses can be found.
3. Avoid Coffee ShopsYou may end up purchasing 5g of cannabis with your order!
4. Try the Stroopwaffels (syrup waffles) but make sure it does not contain a certain ingredient … Marijuana
5. Book museum tickets before you go. Particularly the Van Gogh Museum, it works on a timed entry system and runs out of tickets quickly.
6. Don’t fall in the canalThat would be silly.
7. Don’t eat the cannabis lolly pops or ice creamIt may look yummy but might not do you any good.
8. If purchasing tulip bulbs, make sure you can legally bring them homeSome bulbs need special licenses to be taken abroad.
9. Always check in and out of tramsNot just in.
10. Be prepared to pay by cardNot all shops take cash.