Poor – and rich – in The Hague

The Groninger Museum focuses on life of the wealthy. In the Hague, there are two exhibitions which lift a tip of the veil of what life was like for the poor and rich there. The The Hague Historical Museum’s summer exhibition “Poor and Rich – Rich and Poor” is the first one. This museum is housed in a historic guild building, just a few steps from the Mauritshuis.

One of the exhibition posters contrasts an image of a boy and girl. The boy clearly belongs to a wealthy family. The girl could have stepped out of Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl”. Both paintings can be found in the exhibition, though not at its start.

The exhibition which starts on the building’s first floor, introduces visitors to the lives of the wealthy and poor during the middle ages and renaissance. Fortunes were left to found orphanages, hospitals, “Hofjes“. As elsewhere, these Dutch almshouses were for the poor, elderly, widowers and widows.

Right at the start of this exhibition hang portraits of a husband and wife team. Like many wealthy contemporaries, they donated money. Their wealth was used to support a hospital, orphanage, or to build a “hofje“. These early, wealthy Dutch burghers are not unique. Plenty Dutch towns still have such buildings.

In The Hague, some “hofjes” consist of just a few houses along a street. Others have the more common shape of a rectangle or square of houses around a communal garden and pump. Often a special room can be detected, across the entrance gate. It was used by the regents to hold meetings about the running of the charities.

For not just anybody was admitted. As elsewhere, the Dutch Republic was a class-society. The wealthy regents ensured the rules were applied. Any of the inhabitants in need of charity but daring to breach the rules, would be out on the streets again.

The poor and needy had to be of impeccable character and behaviour. In fact, in some groups of almshouses, inhabitants were expected to go begging in the streets during the day, anyway. In other cases, strict dress-code ensured inhabitants stood out in the town.

From the middle ages and renaissance, this exhibition moves to the Dutch Golden Age. Contrasts between the lives of the rich and poor increase.

Wealthy aristocrats, burghers, merchants no longer had just a town-house or only a few country estates. During summer, the lack of a sewage system ensured stench and diseases made life unbearable to both rich and poor. The wealthy migrated to their country estates for a few months. The poor? They had to make do, surviving as best they could.

Apparently, in The Hague, inhabitants claim the rich lived and live on sandy soil closer to the sea. The poor and their slums could be found on the swampy peat grounds further into the country. This exhibition shows, this is not a hard and fast rule.

From the 19th century, the sorry state in the many slums of the town are recorded not just in drawings but also early photos. In this section, I came across two drawings by Vincent van Gogh.

Van Gogh – as well as his brother – worked a few years for his art dealing uncle in The Hague. Vincent mingled with other artists, drew and painted. He also fell in love with a local poor woman and prostitute. This was of course, totally unacceptable to the burghers and well-to-do. Moreover, with his difficult character, the relation soon deteriorated and in the end, Vincent left Sien.

Here she is. Not a portrait. Vincent drew Sien, while she stood with her back turned to him. The other drawing shows a small house and garden. Apparently, it is the poor cottage and small garden belonging to Sien’s mother, somewhere in town.

Near these drawings are also the two paintings of the children used in the exhibition’s posters. Master Adolf Johan Bernard Wattendorff – painted aged five years old – was born in Batavia, in the Dutch East Indies in 1827.

Much later in his life, he would become governor of the colony and undoubtedly managed to increase the family’s fortunes. He returned to the Netherlands and embarked on a politician career. His family owned at least one country estate, as well as a town house – and had plenty servants.

The girl selling match-sticks? Look at her: she is obviously handicapped. Her crutch is clearly visible. Polio, or accident? A badly set and healed leg, because there was no money for a doctor or hospital – no money for proper care?

She stands uncomfortably, leaning against a wall and huddling in the drizzle and cold. Unsurprisingly, she scowls. Though young, her life must already be full of pain, misery, deprivation.

Her name, place of birth, date of birth? She belongs the many anonymous poor this town counted – and still counts. Only the name of the painter is known: Floris Arntzenius.

The exhibition continues with developments, redevelopments, improvements. On leaving, one is glad most slums have disappeared, a sewage system exists, healthcare has improved so much.

Yet, wouldn’t it have been nice for the girl’s name to have been recorded, remembered? Did she not matter? Even in Andersen’s story, she remains anonymous.

The Hague Historical Museum, Poor and Rich – Rich and Poor in The Hague can be visited till the 3rd of September 2017.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s