Committees Are What Will Save Us

2015-06-10 09.42.32We made a special trip to the Hermitage Museum.  In fact we were so eager to get the day going that we arrived at 9.40am and had to wait till 10am for it to open.  While waiting we wandered alongside an adjacent canal and were treated to a bridge opening for a large barge.

The Hermitage Museum has a background that reflects the communal spirit and pride of the Dutch Republic in the Golden Age. 

“The building in which Hermitage Amsterdam is currently housed was for 324 years a home for the elderly. When at the close of the twentieth century it became apparent that Amstelhof care facility no longer met contemporary requirements it was decided to find a new use for the building. Since June 2009 the site has been home to Hermitage Amsterdam.”

A wealthy family donated the site and the wherewithal for a home for the elderly.  This is just one of many examples of the enlightened self-interest or 2015-06-10 10.46.08altruism of the Dutch elites of the time.  What we learned from the very impressive collection of group portraits exhibited together in a single hall was the strength of this commitment to a collective responsibility through which the individual gained the respect of his or her peers, as women participated just as much in these activities.  The men would run the defence committees and “watches” while the women would run the homes for the destitute and both would be involved in the providing of food relief to the poor or sick.  The portraits below illustrate the two themes of public defence groups “posing” and “eating and drinking” for posterity.

Policing together
Policing together

Eating and drinking together
Eating and drinking together
2015-06-10 10.51.16 2015-06-10 10.47.30

These group portraits that were a singular feature of Dutch art of this period.  They were highly significant as they portrayed successful individuals who were nonetheless part of the democratic, republican collective.  I certainly learned the centrality of the committee in Dutch life which persists to this day.  Below is a great set of quotes on this topic and the Dutch virtues:

2015-06-10 11.20.03

And to drive the point home a set of modern day group photographs of contemporary committee members were displayed, to demonstrate the continuity of this aspect of Dutch culture, showing them sitting around tables in rooms often still preserving the 17th century style.

In complete contrast the museum was currently showing a special exhibition called “Alexander, Napoleon & Joséphine” to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo.

More than two hundred magnificent paintings, sculptures, personal possessions, gowns and uniforms, objets d’art and impressive weapons will tell the story of two mighty rulers and a woman with great personality. The central themes are friendship, war and politics, as well as Joséphine’s great art collection, which included Dutch and Italian masters such as Potter, Van der Werff, Luini and Canova.

So, two despots engaged in being “great men” of history thereby inflicting untold misery, suffering and in many cases death on a significant part of Europe and Russia and a mistress being praised for her great art collection that was acquired primarily from pieces looted from all over Europe by Napoleon.

I don’t subscribe to the view that Napoleon was justified in conquering much of Europe and installing his own family as rulers by being a son of the enlightenment and a great lawgiver, administrator and visionary.  Give me the Dutch Republic any day.

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