In Holland, Drunk on Art

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Three months have passed since my trip to Holland, but I'm still slightly foggy from –- let's be honest –- being overdosed. When I tell people that I stayed in Amsterdam, they knowingly smile and then, with a wink ask, "Did you try the stuff?" You bet I did. That's what I went to Holland for...and there was plenty of it. Rembrandt! Frans Hals!! Vermeer!!! And not only in Amsterdam, in the stately Rijksmuseum, but in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague and the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem as well.

In nine days I traveled to nine cities. I was greedy...all my life I dreamed about going to Holland, and here at last was the chance to see it all. The trip was arranged by the Mondriaan Foundation and the Center for International Cultural Activities (SICA), and my gracious hosts obliged, taking me by train and by car to amazing museums around the country. Now that I'm sobering up, I realize that next time I will not try to see in one day the remarkable collection of 20th century art at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and then drive another hour to Tilburg to see the cutting-edge contemporary art at the De Pont Museum. As if that was not enough for one day, we then drove to Den Bosch to see a former factory building smartly converted into the museum of contemporary design.

Compared to that, the day I spent in Haarlem –- less than an hour's drive from Amsterdam -– was nothing short of a picnic. The Frans Hals Museum there proved to be the most satisfying experience of the whole trip: a great collection of 17th century Dutch art, housed in a perfect, authentic setting. And the museum is not too big to overwhelm you, not too small to leave you wanting for more –- just the right size. My absolute favorite painting there is a tiny, round portrait of a smiling little boy, done by Frans Hals. The bravura brush strokes palpably convey a sense of joy and sheer excitement of life -– a trademark of Frans Hals' art. In the nearby, private Teyler Museum, the oldest museum in the Netherlands, I discovered the peaceful coexistence of art as well as natural history exhibitions, and all that amidst the splendor of 18th century interiors. And yes, the next day, I stood speechless in front of Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague.

But what about Amsterdam, the city that for a few decades of the 17th century was the most prosperous city in the world? The city that inspired Peter the Great to build St. Petersburg, the capital of the Russian empire, as a copy of Amsterdam? Its meandering canals and hundreds of bridges made me wander through the city into the wee hours every night. What can be more romantic than stumbling upon the house where Rembrandt lived during the happiest and most prosperous period of his life? If you go to the KCRW website and check out the text of this program, you will find a link to the virtual tour of the Rembrandt House Museum. (Click on "museum," then "virtual tour.") Let me tell you, it's as close to the real thing as one can hope for.

And the most famous painting of all, in a country full of treasures –- The Night Watch by Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum. The huge canvas, with its dozen or so members of local militia walking toward you, completely dominates the museum room chock full of worshipful tourists. Can you believe that in the 19th century, this masterpiece was cut on three sides, just so it would fit into the smaller space it was relocated to?

And amidst the treasures of the Van Gogh Museum, one stopped me cold in my tracks. It was a portrait of Van Gogh, painted by Gauguin, who came to Arles to share the living quarters with his slightly deranged friend. It was painted just a few days before the infamous incident with the cut-off ear.

Banner image: Teylers Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands