‘The most beautiful picture in the world.’ That was Marcel Proust’s judgment on a painting by Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675), the Dutch painter who remained Proust’s favourite painter. That painting is one of three by Vermeer in the Mauritshuis museum in Den Haag or the Hague in the Netherlands. Which one was Proust’s ‘most beautiful picture’ and among the paintings that he dragged himself from his sickbed to see on his last excursion from home before his death? The painting that Proust, in part 6 of the ‘Remembrance of Times Past’, has his literary character Bergotte stagger to see then collapse before and die?  

The Mauritshuis museum is itself an exquisite neoclassical building in an exquisite natural setting (see photo of the back view). Built around 1640 on the Hague Hofvijver Lake, and named after Johan Maurits hence the Mauritshuis or Maurits’ house, its walls are hung with masterpieces from the Dutch Golden Age as well as works by 17th century Flemish masters such as Anthony van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Brueghel the Elder, and early Flemish and German paintings by Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling, Hans Holbein and Lucas Cranach.

In May 2006 I made the trip to Amsterdam to take in the stupendous Rembrandt-Caravaggio exhibition at the van Gogh Museum. Caravaggio is my all time favourite painter but Vermeer is among the others that I enjoy, having seen his works in London’s National Gallery and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. His tiny paintings of interiors are full of stillness and light, with characters playing musical instruments, writing and reading letters, drinking wine, studying maps, amid sumptuous furnishings. The Mauritshuis was therefore a must-see on my itinerary, once I’d been to the Rembrandt-Caravaggio exhibition and visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

A short 55 minute train ride from Amsterdam’s Centraal, I disembarked at Den Haag Centraal. I wasted precious time looking for the right tram; I found out only later that the museum is a pleasant 10 minute walk from the station. Indeed when I finally boarded the correct tram, the tram driver waved aside my ticket, told me it was a single stop and motioned me to get off at the right stop, indicating the direction I should go. I turned a corner, and the Mauritshuis shimmered over the lake.

I first explored the temporary exhibition ‘Dreaming of Italy’ drawing together canvases by Claude Lorrain, Turner, Poussin, Corot, Ingres, Thomas Jones, Michael Sweerts and others on the theme of Italy in the 17th to 19th century imagination. I am an avid traveller to Italy and the paintings of the Campagna, the Aventine and Palatine hills, the Roman Forum, the temples at Paestum, Naples’ decrepit buildings, evoked wonderful memories.

Most moving was Anselm Feuerbach’s ‘Iphigenie’ (1871, in the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart) based on a Greek myth but with an Italian woman as the painter’s model, hence its inclusion in the exhibition. Iphigenia, the Greek princess in exile, looks over the sea homesick, full of longing. For the curator of the exhibition, Henk van Os, this painting encapsulates the essence of the fascination with Italy: yearning, longing, the dream that beckons us on, desire for its own sake…For a long time, Italy embodied that longing in the European imagination, until Impressionism made Paris the new mecca for artists.

The Mauritshuis’ permanent collection is small by most standards. But smaller collections are easier to navigate and appreciate; the larger ones can overwhelm with the sheer number of their canvases. Two Rembrandts have pride of place: ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp’ and a portrait of an elderly man. Apparently, Rembrandt meant to display his ingenuity and versatility in ‘The Anatomy’, painting hands in every gesture and position, while also laying bare the innards of the arm of the corpse. Following the line of sight of the medical spectators, one sees that they are looking at the open book on anatomy and not the autopsy taking place before them!

Peter Paul Rubens’ ‘Old Woman and a Boy with Candles’ has a little boy lighting his candle from an old woman’s candle; youth learning from old age. Rubens appeared to have painted this for himself, as it was in his collection when he died. The painting may have been based on a line from Ovid’s ‘The Art of Love’ that one can take light from a greater light without diminishing it…Rubens was an admirer of Caravaggio, he took artistic light from Caravaggio’s flame, as did many others, including Rembrandt though at second hand.

Holbein’s portraits, Hans Memling’s ‘Portrait of a Man’, Rogier van der Weyden’s ‘The Lamentation of Christ’, Gerard ter Borch’s ‘Woman Writing a Letter’, Carel Fabritius’ ‘The Goldfinch’, van Ruisdael’s ‘View of Haarlem’; they all lead up to the last room, at the top of the building, full of light, where the three Vermeers are displayed. ‘Diana and her Companions’ is an early piece which disappoints me by its lack of classical depth. Vermeer was no classicist – with two exceptions, he excelled at Dutch interiors and close-ups of women, all stillness and interiority, as exemplified by the second painting here, the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, long famous as the ‘Mona Lisa of the North’. The two exceptions (at least among his extant paintings, though he may have painted more landscapes now lost) are ‘The Little Street’ in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the third Vermeer in the room, ‘A View of Delft’, a landscape painting, and Proust’s most beautiful picture in the world.

It is a truly magnificent painting. The painting glows, luminous, it shimmers and shines, seeming to give off light. Light and shade, cloud and shadow of this view of Vermeer’s hometown, Delft, with the town in the background, and river and shore in the foreground, the sun shining through rain clouds, make an iridescent whole. As Arthur Wheelock says “The View of Delft is a painting for which one can never be properly prepared. Its grandeur is difficult to convey in reproductions because of the importance to the painting of scale and texture.” (Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr ‘Vermeer’ 1988 Harry Abrams Publishers page 72) One has to stand before it, experience that splendid light, be drawn into the painting to stand on the pink sands on the near bank of the river, study the red roofs on the left, the blue on the right, and the yellow wall, the patch of yellow wall that transfixes Proust’s character Bergotte: “In a celestial pair of scales there appeared to him, weighing down one of the pans, his own life, while the other contained the little patch of wall so beautifully painted in yellow. He felt that he had rashly sacrificed the former for the latter…He repeated to himself: ‘Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall.’ Meanwhile he sank down on to a circular settee…A fresh attack struck him down; he rolled from the settee to the floor, as visitors and attendants came hurrying to his assistance. He was dead.” (quoted in Anthony Bailey’s ‘Vermeer: A View of Delft’ 2001 Page 250) What better place to die, to expire before so much beauty?!

We each have our ideals of beauty. Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’ remains for me the most beautiful landscape painting in the world. And the most beautiful picture in the world for me? That would be any of half-a-dozen Caravaggios: ‘The Calling of St Matthew’, ‘The Conversion of Paul’, both in Rome, the ‘Taking of Christ’ in the Dublin Art Gallery. Or his ‘Triumphant Love’ in Berlin: a highly sexualized Eros trampling over crowns, laurel wreaths, armour, all the trappings of power, wealth, fame and valour. Look it up on the Net, as you should all the paintings mentioned here: easily done by googling the painters and looking at the galleries of their paintings. Unlike the ‘View of Delft’ though, Caravaggio’s ‘Triumphant Love’ requires explanation of its symbols. But that’s for another occasion.


The Mauritshuis overlooking Hague Hofvijver Lake


Another view of  Hague Hofvijver Lake