Willem II: kunstkoning

Willem II & Anna Pavlovna: Royal Splendour at the Dutch Court Exhibition: 5 March - 16 June 2014

Information from the museum, September 2013

The first large exhibition devoted to the magnificent collection of King Willem II and the splendour at the court of Willem and Anna Pavlovna. The exhibition will feature a small reconstruction of the collection and it will also focus on the historical context (marriage of Willem II and Anna Pavlovna in St. Petersburg, courtly life and the Gothic Hall in The Hague where the collection was exhibited for example). This ambitious project is part of the bilateral Russian-Dutch year (2013), 400 years of Romanov and is also part of the bicentennial celebration of the kingdom of the Netherlands.

On 21 February 1816, in the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg, the marriage took place between the Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna and Willem, Prince of Orange, heir to the throne of the Netherlands. The royal couple enjoyed a luxury lifestyle and surrounded themselves with beauty. Both Willem II and Anna Pavlovna had a taste for the arts and collected in their own way. Anna Pavlovna brought a substantial dowry with her from Russia and she would become famous for her jewelry. Her influence would greatly change the court in Holland. Willem II collected old master paintings and was a patron for contemporary artists.

However, on the 12th of August 1850, and the days following, the world famous art collection of King Willem II was sold at auction in The Hague. The dispersal of this royal collection was regretted greatly. In 1923 the prominent Dutch art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot called it ‘one of the most devastating blows to Dutch heritage ever’. Virtually all the important art collectors of the time, such as the Marquess of Hertford (Wallace Collection), the Russian Tsar, the Rothschilds, the Luxemburgian collector Pescatore and many museums (amongst others in Brussels, Antwerp and Frankfurt) secured important paintings for their collections at the auction in the Gothic Hall of the Kneuterdijk Palace. Where many others seized upon this unique opportunity, the Dutch government remained completely passive. Paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Flemish Primitives such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling, works from Italian, French and Spanish schools and drawings by Michelangelo, Raphael and Da Vinci forever disappeared to foreign collections. The Russian Tsar Nicolas I was amongst the most successful buyers at the auction.

The art gallery in the Gothic Hall was open to the public as of 1842 – the year in which the Dordrechts Museum was also founded. However, after the sudden death of Willem II on the 17th of March 1849, his inheritance had a high burden of debt. Prior to his death Willem II had borrowed one million guilders from his brother in law Tsar Nicolas I in the utmost secrecy. The art collection turned out to be given as security. In the end the brother of the deceased king, Prince Frederik, was prepared to pay off the debt to the tsar, provided that the collection would be sold at a public auction forthwith. Consequently the heirs, King Willem III, Prince Hendrik and Princess Sophie, were forced to sell the paintings and drawings.

Willem II, alias ‘the Hero of Waterloo’ had been quite popular during his reign. In February 1816, he married Anna Paulovna, the youngest sister of the tsars Alexander I and Nicolas I, with great pomp and circumstance in St. Petersburg. In 1823 the Prince of Orange laid the foundation for his collection by buying no less than 42 paintings through the Brussels art dealer L.J. Nieuwenhuys. The collection would steadily grow to a number of 350. Even if he displayed a clear preference for the art of the Flemish Primitives, he also became an important patron of contemporary artists. Willem bought paintings by B.C. Koekkoek, J.C. Schotel and Ary Scheffer, amongst others. After his ascension to the throne in 1840 King Willem II added an elaborate structure of neo gothic halls to the palace at the Kneuterdijk in The Hague. Being an enthusiastic amateur architect he drew the initial plans himself. Inspired by the Great Hall of Christ Church College in Oxford, he designed the Gothic Hall for his collection of paintings (the Gothic Hall can still be found in The Hague).

The exhibition will shed light on Willem II as an art collector and on his relationship with the Romanov dynasty. A small selection of paintings from the State Hermitage Museum would illustrate the high quality and scope of the collection of Willem II while at the same time it offers an insight into the history of the collection of the Hermitage. These paintings from St. Petersburg can be supplemented by old and modern (19th Century) masters, once part of Willem II’s collection, from different museums to give a more complete overview of his taste and ambition as a collector. Not only does the exhibition focus on the art collection of Willem II, but also on the historical background – it is not the intention to create an accurate reconstruction of the collection. Portraits of members of the Orange and Romanov dynasties, depictions of the Gothic Hall, letters, documents, auction catalogues etc. further illustrate this unique event in Dutch and Russian (collecting) history.

During the short period of his reign (1840-1849) Willem II visited the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg five times. He was accompanied by the romantic painter B.C. Koekkoek in 1845. Willem II acquired estates in Luxemburg and commissioned B.C. Koekkoek to depict the romantic landscape. At the 1850 auction not only the Russian Tsar but also the Luxemburg collector Pescatore was among the most successful buyers. Therefore, the Villa Vauban – Musée d’Art de la Ville de Luxembourg is also involved in the project.

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