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In and out of storage: Mauritshuis exhibits rarely seen works from its collection
A man stands in front of a series of twenty-five officers portraits on February 2, 2016 at the Mauritshuis art museum in The Hague during the exhibition "In and out of storage" which presents paintings that are usually kept in the museum's depot.

THE HAGUE.- The store rooms of the museum are off limits to the public. This might make you curious. What paintings are stored there? How did they end up there? Why aren’t they hanging in the museum? And do they really hold unknown treasures, as is often thought to be the case? The exhibition In and Out of Storage answers these questions and, for the first time, acquaints visitors with this invisible part of the collection of the Mauritshuis.

Mauritshuis Collection
The collection of the Mauritshuis is not only coherent and manageable in size, but also quite visible. Of the approximately 850 pieces in the collection, some 250 are on permanent display in the Mauritshuis itself, another 150 are exhibited in the Prince William V Gallery, and an additional 150 are on long-term loan to museums in the Netherlands and abroad. Only 300 artworks – not many, in comparison with other collections – are kept in storage. Even so, it’s a pity that these store-room pieces are seldom if ever on view.

Behind the scenes
Visitors to the exhibition will gain access to the inner workings of the Mauritshuis, where storage - the repository for items in the collection that for various reasons cannot be displayed to the public – plays a key role. The paintings selected for this exhibition illuminate this aspect of museum practice. A representative selection of twenty-five paintings are presented in groups. The central question is always: why are those works not on display in the galleries?

The Mauritshuis has high standards with regard to the quality of the works exhibited, owing to the limited space in the museum and the fact that the collection contains so many first-rate pieces. Paintings that would be displayed without a second thought in other museums are forced to remain in storage, because there’s simply no room for them in the Mauritshuis. They are often used as spares, the so-called reserve bench; they make an appearance when an artwork in the permanent display is sent for conservation or given on loan to an exhibition. Some artists are so well represented in the collection that a choice must be made. A good example is the productive landscape painter Jan van Goyen, by whom the Mauritshuis owns no fewer than eight works, only one of which is currently considered good enough to hang in the museum. Five Van Goyens, including the work normally on display, are included in the exhibition, so that visitors may decide for themselves if they agree with the curator’s choice.

Some paintings never leave storage, because they are hardly worth seeing. In some cases, curators don’t even know how they even came to be in the collection. Now and then a donation or bequest allows a work to slip in that the museum would really rather not have. An Old Man with Tankard and Pipe by an anonymous Dutch painter of the seventeenth century was donated in 1906 by the charismatic, but deceitful art dealer Leo Nardus, who probably intended, through this and other gifts, to build up a good relationship with the Mauritshuis. However, the panel cannot be said to enrich the collection.

Royal Mistake
Sometimes a celebrated purchase later reveals itself to be a ‘royal’ mistake. In 1821 King William I acquired a collection for the Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis that included works by great masters such as Raphael, Titian and Velázquez. Unfortunately it turned out to be a collection of inferior works that would quickly be sold on. One of the few paintings that did remain in the Mauritshuis was a highly optimistic attribution to Raphael. This Female Figure is now thought to be the work of an anonymous Italian artist and the painting has not left storage for many years. The artwork had initially been selected for this exhibition to illustrate a low point in the Mauritshuis' holdings, but it suddenly proved to be much more interesting than expected. In fact, technical research has shown – to the delight of specialists in this field – that it is one of the earliest surviving examples of a figure piece on gilt leather.

The heart of the Mauritshuis’s collection consists of Dutch and Flemish paintings of the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Artworks that do not fit into this core area usually remain in storage, even if they are of high quality. This is the case, for example, with Amor Triumphant by the German painter Friedrich Bury, a beautiful example of early nineteenth-century classicism. Also, It might come as a surprise to many visiting the exhibition that a piece by the famous American artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987) is among the art from the store rooms. It is a portrait of Princess Beatrix, the former Dutch queen. In 1987, this silk-screen print was hung in the underground entrance lobby. The artwork was not only a modern way of complying with the practice of hanging a portrait of the ruling monarch in a government building, but also a reference to the royal provenance of many of the paintings in the museum’s collection. In 2000, a passageway was created in this place to facilitate the flow of visitors, with the result that the portrait ended up in storage – many years before the queen’s abdication.

Too Large
The Mauritshuis was built as a private residence, not as a museum. This explains the intimate character of the rooms, where there is little space for large works. Apart from a few exceptions, such as Paulus Potter’s The Bull, the collection therefore consists of paintings of modest dimensions. In 1821, however, the museum acquired a monumental still life of a dead swan by Jan Weenix. At the time, it was praised by the seller as a worthy pendant to The Bull. In those days it was common to hang paintings close together, arranged according to size. But ideas about presentation have changed since then, and Weenix’s dead swan has not been on display for some time, owing to lack of space. The Mauritshuis is therefore looking for another museum that can accommodate this oversized canvas, since it has long been museum policy to give works on long-term loan to institutions with more suitable places to show them.

Too Many
Not only their format but also their number can influence the decision whether to hang artworks or keep them in storage. Between 1611 and 1624, the Hague painter Jan van Ravesteyn and his studio produced twenty-four portraits of officers in the army of the stadholder, Prince Maurits. The series was completed with a twenty-fifth portrait, executed by the otherwise unknown painter Fransise de Goltz. Since the seventeenth century, the series had hung in Honselaersdijk Palace, one of the stadholder’s country estates. The portraits ended up – but not all at the same time – at the Mauritshuis, where they initially lay gathering dust in the attic, until they were rediscovered in 1875. Because there were so many of them, they have never been exhibited as a series in the Mauritshuis. In the course of the twentieth century, a number of these portraits were given on long-term loan to other museums and government institutions. Of those remaining in the Mauritshuis, only two are normally on display. This is regrettable, since there are few surviving examples of such an extensive portrait series. For the first time since the eighteenth century, all of the officers have been called up for active duty in ‘Prince Maurits’s army’ – for the duration of the exhibition.

Poor condition
Behind the scenes at the museum, the store rooms are indispensable as a repository of paintings that cannot be shown to the public for various reasons: because they are totally lacking in quality, for example, or just not quite good enough, or unsuited to the collection, or too large or too numerous. Another reason for keeping paintings in storage: their poor or problematic condition, however the store room does not have to be a cul de sac. After restoration, for example, some paintings can be reinstated at in the permanent presentation.

An example of a painting in poor condition is the Portrait of a Man by the painter Karel Slabbaert of Zeeland. It hung in less than ideal conditions for many years in the then Dutch East Indies. Among other problems, the extreme climate caused the painting’s paint layer to crack dramatically. Any restoration of this panel would have had to be quite invasive, and anyway, there were other priorities, so we decided several years ago only to conserve and not to restore this painting – at least for the time being.

Front and Back
A masterly example of modern framing techniques has made it possible to put the colourful painting The Baptism of the Chamberlain of Queen Candace of Ethiopia on display once again. It is painted on a large panel consisting of six horizontal planks. The wood had warped over time and the panel, which no longer fitted its frame, had been standing on its side in storage for fifteen years. several years ago, conservators put it into a new frame with the help of the Belgian panel expert Jean-Albert Glatigny. How they managed this can be seen at the exhibition, where both front and back of the panel are visible. Meanwhile curators also learned more about the makers of the painting. It used to be attributed to the German artist Hans Rottenhammer, but it is probably a collaborative work by the Flemish painters Hendrik van Balen and Jan Brueghel the Younger, in which Van Balen painted the figures and Brueghel executed the landscape.

A trawl through the works in storage sometimes even offers up surprises for the curators, who are very familiar with the collection. Some paintings that were removed from public display and subsequently disappeared from view now appear to fit in beautifully with the permanent presentation. Imaginary Landscape with Saint John on Patmos, painted by the Flemish artist Hans Bol in 1564, is thought to be one of the earliest landscapes in large format. With the recent acquisition of a mountainous landscape by Paul Bril and a flower still life by Ludger tom Ring the Younger, the Mauritshuis now has more examples of sixteenth-century predecessors of such genres as landscape and still life, which were to become very popular in the seventeenth century. This led to the decision to frame this exceptional painting by Hans Bol after all, so after the exhibition it can be returned to the permanent display.

Merry Company in a Park of 1614 by Esaias van de Velde, a painter active in Haarlem, is now also available for a place in the museum. Its yellowed layer of varnish had made it unfit for display, but its splendid colours and fluent brushwork are clearly visible again, since its recent restoration. During the restoration, research carried out on the materials and technique revealed that Esaias van de Velde had made quite a few changes while painting. For example, the old woman at left, behind the chair, was initially planned as an elegantly dressed young woman, and the standing woman in the yellow dress was first holding a bird rather than a fan.

Visitors’ Choice
The Mauritshuis has carefully selected fifty-two artworks for the exhibition, but one space was left vacant when it opened its doors on 4 February. Curators left the choice of painting to be taken from storage and displayed in the empty spot to the visiting public. The Mauritshuis will use social media outlets to ask: What would you choose? Which painting do you think deserves to be brought out of storage?

There will be three rounds of voting, each with a choice of six paintings. The first round will be open until 7 February. The painting that receives the most votes will be put on display in the exhibition space in mid-February. Voting will continue and the public will then be able to choose another work to be put on display.. In total there will be three public favourites on display for the duration of the exhibition (until 8 May). The painting with the most votes overall will take a spot in the Mauritshuis’s permanent exhibition.

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