Fine art has played an important role throughout the history of the family of Orange-Nassau. From the outset, even the less art-minded members of the family were in constant contact with artists because the different art forms fulfilled specific functions in the dynamics of a rising dynasty. Portraits proudly introduced the next generation, and played a key role during marriage negotiations and after the ceremony, when husband and wife would present themselves together. Works of art were sent to allies or displayed a ruler in full regalia to his opponents. They added lustre to military victories or wise decisions. On coins, prints and as book illustrations, they introduced the rulers to everyone in the Netherlands and far beyond.
During an eventful history, however, the continuity of the family collections was interrupted a number of times. Not only the revolt, wars, the stadholderless periods and successions, but also fashion and taste meant that collections that had been amassed were again dispersed. In addition, it is particularly characteristic of the collections that the artworks were seldom collected with an eye to completeness and preservation for posterity. Rather, they are living collections, whereby the artworks come and go.
The stadholders William of Orange and his sons Maurits and Frederick Henry had their hands full with the Dutch Revolt. All three were famous as army generals, yet at that time in particular, art was playing an increasingly important role. For William of Orange and Maurits, art commissions were above all investments in representation. Especially during the Revolt, a practice of self-propaganda arose that was in keeping with their military position. After the assassination of the country’s founder, his image as a great freedom fighter was strengthened, but now the commissions came from the cities and provincial councils, not from members of the House of Orange themselves. The oldest paintings in the Royal Collections are by Joos van Cleve, Antonio Moro, Daniël van den Queborn, Michiel van Mierevelt, Jan van Ravesteyn and Wybrandt de Geest. These works were purchased centuries later, however.
The Golden Age
Under Frederick Henry and Amalia of Solms, interest in the arts increased on a large scale. Facilitated by a percentage of the yield of the treasure-fleet, among other things, they were important patrons of painters and sculptors, and amassed a collection of almost royal quality over time. For Huis ten Bosch alone, their intended summer residence, Amalia acquired paintings by masters such as Rubens, Van Dyck, Flinck and Honthorst. Their colleague François Dieussart created the statues that decorated the entrance hall. Although Amalia was interested in French art and architecture in particular, her collection consisted mainly of Dutch art. There was a striking emphasis on the Southern Netherlands, which, besides Rubens and Van Dyck, was especially well represented with works by painters such as Jordaens, Van Thulden, Willeboirts Bosschaert, Gonzales Coques, Daniel Seghers and Jan Breughel. The exhibition catalogue Princely Patrons: The Collection of Frederick Henry of Orange and Amalia of Solms in The Hague, Mauritshuis 1997/98, gives a detailed picture of their love of art.
In the end, most of the art treasures that had been amassed were lost to the Netherlands. Due to the terms of a will that favoured Amalia’s four daughters, and especially as a result of the later dispute over William III’s legacy, what would become known as the Oranische Erbschaft (including the art collection) went to Germany. Today, only thirty or so paintings from Amalia’s collection remain in the Royal Collections next to the Oranjezaal. These paintings would come back into the family’s hands in later centuries. Likewise, the series of equestrian portraits by Anselm van Hulle, produced in 1649, would come back into the House of Orange’s possession only in the 19th century. The works are displayed in the throne room of Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam.
William & Mary
William III (1650-1702), the son of stadholder William II and Mary Stuart I (1631-1660), grew up at the court of his grandmother Amalia, under the guardianship of the States General. In 1677 – in the midst of the turbulent Franco-Dutch War – he married his cousin Mary Stuart II (1662-1694). She was the daughter of James II, the Catholic king of England, against whose brother and predecessor, Charles II, the Netherlands had gone to war some years earlier. So long as her father failed to produce a son, she would inherit the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. When this indeed came to pass in 1688, it took little time before English Protestants invited William and Mary to liberate them from the Catholic monarchy. In what is known as the Glorious Revolution, William & Mary became the joint sovereigns of the three countries.
William III is known for his impassioned fight against Louis XIV and for his love of hunting. With the great riches at his disposal, he also amassed a princely collection. Although he was personally more interested in architecture, especially landscape architecture – during his reign, Daniel Marot (1661-175) produced many of his celebrated designs and Christopher Wren was the king’s preferred architect in England – Het Loo palace and the other palaces were also decorated with splendid paintings. He too collected Dutch art with a focus on the Southern Netherlands, and Rubens remained a favourite. But his collections were more international in scope; he bought many Italian masters and developed a love of Holbein and other early works. His taste for Italian art would have been encouraged by Robbert Duval. The latter, who founded the academy of drawing in The Hague and was made court painter in 1682, was also William’s ‘art custodian’ and restorer, and had spent many years in Italy. There, he had befriended Godfried Kneller, who, together with Sir Peter Lely, was one of his most prominent portrait painters. William III made a name for himself in England with his progressive ideas about making great works of art, such as the Raphael cartoons, accessible to the general public by displaying them a special gallery at Hampton Court. As John Wilkes said in 1777, in response to the gallery’s closing: King William, although a Dutchman, really loved and understood the polite arts. …The English nation were then admitted to the rapturous enjoyment of their beauties.
In addition to portraits of the king-stadholder and his wife (by Caspar Netscher, Brandon, Kneller and Johannes Mijtens, among others), the Royal Collections contain two sculptures that have remained in the family’s possession over the centuries. In 1683 William III commissioned Rombout Verhulst to produce a series of six busts portraying himself and his wife in a sequence with his ancestors William II, Frederick Henry, Maurits and William of Orange. The latter two form part of the Royal Collections (the other four are now in the Mauritshuis collection) and have always been kept at Soestdijk palace, where they can still be seen today. When the French invaded in 1795, the busts of William of Orange and his son Maurits were buried in the park, to be dug up again in the nineteenth century. From this period, other portraits by Jan de Baen, Carel de Moor and Godfried Schalcken were also added to the Royal Collections.
The book The auction of king William's paintings 1713: Elite international art trade at the end of the Dutch Golden Age, Amsterdam 2008, by Koenraad Jonckheere, and the exhibition catalogue William & Mary and their House, Morgan Library 1979, contain detailed information about the collections of William III.
The Frisian branch
When William III died childless in 1702, naming John William Friso as his sole heir, the States General supported the succession pretensions of the Prussian King Frederick I (the grandson of Frederick Henry). This marked the beginning of the Second Stadholderless Period and the eruption of the protracted conflict, mentioned above, over the succession. Only in 1732 was the issue resolved by granting large parts of the inheritance to the Prussian king. When John William Friso died in 1711, his widow, Maria Louise of Hessen-Kassel – who gave birth several days later to the future stadholder William IV – was forced to auction the Italian and Flemish masters from William III’s collection. John William Friso and Maria Louise liked to have portraits of themselves and their family painted by Louis Volders, and a number of these paintings are still in the Royal Collections. Many of them are kept at the Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam.
William IV and Anna of Hannover
In the first half of the 18th century the court was based in Leeuwarden, which also became home to Anna of Hannover, the second daughter of the future English king George II, after her marriage to William IV in 1734. During this period, the well-educated William began to build a collection of paintings, antiques, medals, reliefs and scientific instruments. Only when the stadholdership was completely restored in 1747 did the entire court move to The Hague. Huis ten Bosch palace was extended and the Stadholder’s Quarter on the Binnenhof was built. The prince had paintings purchased for this, including Potter’s famous Young Bull (Mauritshuis). The family’s hold on power was now more tenacious than ever, because the stadholdership had been declared hereditary. In 1751, however, William died. His son, the future William V, was just three years old at the time. His mother, Anna of Hannover, who was both unusually musical and artistic in a broad sense, acted as stadholder for him until her death in 1759. She was also a collector, especially in areas that she considered relevant for the education of her son: books, naturalia, curiosities and antiques. In 1756, she asked Arnout Vosmaer to become director of the stadholder’s collection of natural curiosities, instructing him, ‘for the least possible expense’, to create a ‘pleasant and also instructive display for His Royal Highness’, which in her opinion would further the honour of the House of Orange-Nassau and ‘benefit the place where it was located, attracting strangers from all around.’ In this way, she too made parts of the family collections accessible to the public, be it a select public of travellers.
William V and his gallery
Given that William V was still a minor, the regency reverted to his grandmother, Marie Louise of Hessen-Kassel. Unfortunately she would not live to see his inauguration, which was celebrated in 1766 to the music of Mozart. A year later, William V married Wilhelmina of Prussia, a cousin of Frederick the Great. Even in those early years, his collecting reached a high point with the acquisition of Govert van Slingelandt’s painting collection in 1768. The latter consisted mainly of high-quality Dutch masters, but even with this addition, the collection as a whole, with its 200 or so paintings and rather low level of diversity, remained quite modest in comparison to large royal collections. One notable development was the building of a special gallery for the paintings, which was separate from the stadholder’s rooms and open to the public. In 1774 the Prince William V Gallery opened its doors, and – having been restored to its old glory in recent years – it still offers the visiting public a unique experience.
The nationalisation of the stadholder's collections
During the Patriot period, discontent among the population, which had started around 1781, escalated. William and Wilhelmina eventually fled to England in 1795, with French troops on their heels. In their haste, they took with them those valuables that were easy to transport, but the lion’s share of the House of Orange’s collections was left behind in the Netherlands. As was the case all over Europe, the most interesting artworks were selected by a Napoleonic committee and taken off to the Louvre as spoils of war. The remaining art and palaces that had belonged to the stadholders no longer had any function in the Batavian Republic. For this reason, the then Minister of Finance decided to establish the first national art museum in the Netherlands, in Huis ten Bosch palace. The Rijksmuseum was thereby born, and the nationalised art of the stadholders could be – and still can be – admired by all.
After the Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon’s definitive renunciation of the throne, the Netherlands succeeded in retrieving the captured art. At first, the paintings were re-hung in the Prince William V Gallery, until King William I decided that the art works should be made accessible in a museum, although he did not want them added to the collection of the Rijksmuseum, now established in Amsterdam. Instead, a second national art gallery was founded in 1822, this time in the royal seat: the Royal Cabinet of Paintings in the Mauritshuis. As a result, only a fraction of the art from the time of the stadholders remains in the Royal Collections. Supplemented by later acquisitions, and in addition to the above-mentioned older works, the collection now also contains 18th-century paintings by artists including Bernardus Accama, Johann Heinrich Keller, Johann Valentin Tischbein, Tethart Philipp Christian Haag, Guillaume de Spinny, Aert Schouman, Jean George Teissier, Johann Heinrich Schröder, Willem Kett, Johann Friedrich August Tischbein and John Hoppner.
A fresh start: the 19th century
The fine art in the Royal Collections was therefore amassed mainly during the 19th and 20th centuries. William I was not an avowed collector, and many of his art purchases were destined for the two national art museums. He did buy paintings to decorate the palaces, however, and naturally he also commissioned portraits.
King of the arts
By contrast, his son – the hero of Waterloo and the later King William II – was the greatest art-lover in the history of the Royal Collections. With her love of royal display, his wife Anna Pavlovna, daughter of Tsar Paul I and sister of the future Tsar Nicolas I, also contributed to the assembly of a splendid collection. A true connoisseur, William chose works of great artistic value and amassed a collection of old masters, with an interest – unusually modern for the time – in the Flemish primitives. Rembrandt occupied a prominent place on William’s list of wishes and purchases, of course, but the Italian masters of the Renaissance were also great favourites. In this latter area, William obtained a world-class collection of drawings. Contemporary paintings by artists such as Koekkoek and Schotel were also chosen for their artistic value. The commissions given to Cornelis Kruseman, Nicolaas Pieneman and Jean Baptiste van der Hulst can be seen in the current Royal Collections. William II also put his beloved art on display for visitors and the general public. He even had a dedicated building designed to house the art: the Gothic Hall (see above) was linked to Kneuterdijk palace, where the couple lived and where the Council of State is now established. The website of an exhibition held in Dordrecht in 2013 and the accompanying catalogue Willem II, De koning en de kunst (William II: King and Art) give a wonderful impression of this collection.
Unfortunately, however, most of these treasures were also destined for dispersal, because when William II died unexpectedly in 1849, it was found that purchasing all this beauty had led to great debt. As a consequence, his collection was auctioned in 1850 and 1851, and the works thereby ended up in many of the world’s major museums. This also marked the beginning of William III’s reign. Although he did not develop a distinct love of fine art, he did purchase some contemporary art, especially watercolours. He also founded a Royal Grant for Painting in 1871, and sometimes bought works by the contending artists. As far as watercolours were concerned, gifts were an increasingly important source of acquisitions. In order to mark anniversaries and family celebrations, various associations got together to present albums, the one sometimes out-doing the other.
King William III’s first wife, Sophie of Württemberg, Anna Pavlovna’s niece, made a special contribution to the Royal Collections. She assembled a systematic collection of portrait miniatures, a practice in keeping with royal collecting traditions. Naturally, the collections of the stadholders had also featured miniatures. William V had taken many of his miniatures with him to England in exile, but when William I returned to the Netherlands as king, very few of them remained. With around 140 miniatures from his sister’s legacy and those that Anna Pavlovna brought in her dowry, a basic collection was established on which Sophie could build. She and her son Alexander became true collectors of portrait miniatures. In 1993, an English-language catalogue was published on the collection of miniatures in the Royal Collections: The portrait miniatures in the collections of the House of Orange-Nassau, by Karen Schaffers-Bodenhausen and Marieke Tiethoff-Spliethoff. A small virtual exhibition of miniatures has also been published on the Royal Family’s website.
King William III’s second wife, Emma of Waldeck and Pyrmont, was also a systematic collector. She purchased many paintings and watercolours, whose artistic value was subordinate to their historical importance. She also commissioned artists to copy portraits in other collections that were of importance to the House of Orange-Nassau. She thereby put particular emphasis on dynastic continuity, and bought many portraits with the help of the experts Abraham Bredius and Cornelis Hofstede de Groot. Her daughter Wilhelmina continued in this line in her younger years. The Royal Collections were also enriched by the many gifts received by the young queen upon her coronation in 1898 and her marriage to Henry, Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, in 1901. Queen Wilhelmina was herself a keen painter. She left a large oeuvre, a good impression of which is given by the exhibition catalogue Koningin Wilhelmina – schilderijen en tekeningen (Queen Wilhelmina: Paintings and drawings), Het Loo palace 2006.
The following 19th-century painters are well represented in the Royal Collections: Jean-Baptiste van der Hulst, Nicolaas Pieneman, Nicaise de Keyser, George Dawe, Franciscus Josephus Kinsoen, Jacques Joseph Eeckhout, Jan van Ravenswaay, Johann Friedrich Bury, Herman ten Kate, Pieter de Josselin de Jong, Cornelis and Jan Adam Kruseman, Thérèse Schwartze and A.H.N. de Lamare.