5 unmissable Dutch paintings to help you learn the language
Trying to learn Dutch but tired of staring at your textbook full of boring exercises? Here is a good tip: buy yourself a museumkaart and start visiting some museums! In this article, Ruud Hisgen from Direct Dutch Institute will give you a few (personal) recommendations for excellent art museums as well as some of the most beautiful paintings you shouldn’t miss!
If you live in the Netherlands, you can count yourself extremely fortunate, since this small country next to the North Sea possesses an enormous treasure in the form of historic museums and beautiful art. With a museum card, which can be bought online or at any museum, you get free access to over 450 museums across the Netherlands for a year.
Visit an unlimited number of Dutch museums with a museumkaart
The price is 64,90 euros for adults and 32,45 euros for those under 18. If you think about it, the museumkaart is a worthwhile investment because after just three or four visits to a museum, your card has already paid for itself.
Here are some of the best artworks featured in Dutch museums that you should consider taking a look at:
1. The Girl With The Pearl Earring (Het meisje met de parel, 1665) by Johannes Vermeer
The Girl With The Pearl Earring, also known as the “The Mona Lisa of the low countries”, is a famous painting by Johannes Vermeer. Dated 1665, this Golden Age masterpiece can be admired in the centre of The Hague in Het Mauritshuis. The museum, although small, displays a wonderful collection of various Dutch masterpieces.
You may be surprised to know that The Girl With The Pearl Earring is not a portrait, but a painting of an imaginary figure known as a tronie. This tronie depicts a girl with a unique expression wearing an oriental turban. If you go to see the painting, you will learn that Vermeer is the master of light - just look at the softness of the girl’s face, her moist lips and of course, the improbably large, shiny pearl.
Het Mauritshuis is also home to Vermeer’s other masterwork, View of Delft (Gezicht op Delft), which was and still is an inspiration to many artists and authors, like James Joyce and Marcel Proust.
The museum is a 17th-century mansion that is situated on the Hofvijver, a small but beautiful dune lake whose water reflects the sunlight to the building in a fairytale-like way. It is also right next to the House of Parliament and the Dutch Prime Minister’s Torentje (Little Tower).
2. The Night Watch (De nachtwacht, 1642) by Rembrandt van Rijn
Rembrandt's largest and most famous painting is the Night Watch (De nachtwacht), which you can find at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. In the 17th century, there was no formal police authority in the Dutch capital. Instead, there was a group of voluntary civilians (burgers) who defended the city. This civic guard in Amsterdam then commissioned Rembrandt to create a painting for them.
The Leiden-born painter was the first person to paint this group of individuals in action. The image in the painting could be a still from a movie, with the captain of the civic guard seen giving an order to march out to the civilian guardsmen, who then move into formation.
Similarly to Vermeer, Rembrandt uses light to focus on certain details, like the young girl in the foreground who was, apparently, the company’s mascot. The painting was given the name The Night Watch because later generations thought that it represented a scene which took place at night. However, the proper title of the painting should have been “Officers and other civic guardsmen of District II in Amsterdam, under the command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch” - not a very memorable name, so let’s keep calling it De nachtwacht.
3. Wheatfield with Crows (Korenveld met kraaien, 1890) by Vincent van Gogh
If you happen to be in Amsterdam to see the Rijksmuseum, why not extend your visit to go to the nearby Van Gogh Museum. Here, you can see Wheatfield with Crows (Korenveld met kraaien) by Vincent van Gogh. People believe that this menacing painting was Van Gogh’s last piece before he died, because of the stormy sky, the crows, and the dead-end path depicted in the painting. But that is just a myth and, in fact, Van Gogh made several other works after this one.
Van Gogh wanted Wheatfield with Crows to express sadness and extreme loneliness. But according to the Van Gogh Museum, he also wanted to show how the countryside can be healthy and fortifying for people.
4. Tower of Babel (De Toren van Babel, 1560) by Pieter Bruegel de Oude
Visiting museums is like time travel. With Vermeer and Rembrandt, you land in the 17th century and with Van Gogh and Mesdag, you witness the end of the 19th century. Further, when you go to the ultra-modern Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s collection, you stand in amazement before Bruegel's 16th-century Tower of Babel painting.
The biblical Babel was the first city built by the descendants of Noah after the Great Flood. Their arrogant leader, Nimrod, planned to build a tower that could reach heaven. God was far from pleased at this and thus turned the people, who used to speak one common language, into numerous peoples, each speaking a different tongue. Bruegel depicted the Tower of Babel just moments before God’s punishment.
You could look at this painting for a very long time, admiring all of the details; you can almost hear the activity in the harbour below as well as the sounds of the workmen carrying the bricks up the tower.
5. Panorama Mesdag (1881) by Hendrik Willem Mesdag
Speaking of time machines, the Panorama Mesdag Museum in the Hague is an experience through time and space that you will never forget. You go through a tunnel, climb the stairs to reach a beautiful sight: a panoramic dome that completely surrounds you with a single painting. You can see, hear, and even smell the sea, the beach, the village and the dunes - just as it was when it was painted in 1881.
The Panorama of Scheveningen, in particular, is the oldest painting of its kind that is still in its original location. It stands at 14 metres high and has a circumference of 120 metres.
According to the Panorama Mesdag Museum, Vincent van Gogh was among the first guests to view the paintings when it first debuted on August 1, 1881. It is believed that Van Gogh said, “The only thing wrong with the Scheveningen Panorama is that nothing is wrong with it …”
Learn more about the Netherlands through art
These are just a few of the pearls that you should not miss if you live here. With your museumkaart, you can explore over 450 museums in the Netherlands. If you make it a habit to visit a museum once a week, you’ll not only learn a lot about Dutch culture and have a lot of fun with loved ones or on your own, you’ll also learn new bits of vocabulary.
If you’re feeling courageous, you might even practise your Dutch by joining a tour or just by asking a guide some questions. Make sure to wear your “Spreek Nederlands! Met mij!” badge so you can practise the language while enjoying the beautiful scenes and portraits painted by Dutch masters.
Ready to start speaking Dutch like a local? Direct Dutch Institute has been offering Dutch language courses since 1985 for learners of all proficiency levels. Whether you need an online, in-person or in-company course, they’ve got you covered.