Several museums in Istanbul are holding major exhibitions of famous Dutch paintings to mark 400 years of diplomatic relations between Turkey and the Netherlands. Ties between the two countries go back to 1612, when Cornelis Haga presented his credentials to Sultan Ahmet I as the first ambassador the Dutch Republic sent to the Ottoman Empire.
The dark galleries of Istanbul’s Sabanci Museum are now being lit up by Golden Age masters, including Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Lievens and Jan Steen. The works are on loan from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, which has been closed for several years due to a much delayed renovation.
Over 100 paintings, carefully packed in climate controlled cases, have been flown to Istanbul, where the Rijksmuseum’s director of collections, Taco Dibbits, opens them with visible excitement. “Your heart beats faster once the works arrive—and when you see people here react to the collection.”
Suddenly Dutch art is everywhere in Istanbul. A slideshow in the old Golden Horn port recounts the life of Vincent van Gogh. Istanbul Modern is showing a collection from Rotterdam’s Boijmans van Beuningen museum. Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum and the new Salt museum, located in the city’s busiest shopping street, are putting on a joint exhibition. Close by, the Pera museum is staging 'The Chamber of Levantine Commerce: Dutch Merchants and Ottoman Sultans'.
Despite Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam Freedom Party, despite the ongoing integration debate or the interminable discussions surrounding Turkey’s possible accession to the European Union, in Turkey’s former capital Dutch and Turkish citizens are seeking each others’ company.
The Rijksmuseum’s curator of 17th-century Dutch painting, Pieter Roelofs, has selected the works on display in Istanbul to reveal the way Dutch masters absorbed Ottoman culture. Jan Lievens and Rembrandt, for instance, were fascinated by the Oriental men ambling through Amsterdam’s city centre donning rich robes and gaudy turbans. Amid the black attire favoured by the Dutch, one couldn’t fail to spot them, Roelofs notes. “In their depictions of Old Testament scenes, the Dutch masters used Turkish models. The Oriental was a type, a source of inspiration to represent everything that was exotic.”
The careful observer will notice, in the paintings, the presence of Ottoman carpets, as well as influences from beyond the Ottoman Empire. One of the paintings on display, by Jan Baptist Weenix, depicts a visit by the Dutch ambassador to Isfahan, in what is now Iran. The point was, Roelofs says, to show certain commonalities the paintings share with the place where they are on view.
Roelofs says he is fascinated by a view of Amsterdam’s IJ, the capital’s old waterfront, painted by Ludolf Bakhuizen in 1673. “This is where ships berthed from all over the world, where news arrived about the fate of husbands and loved ones. The sea brought riches just as it took lives.”
Turkey’s Golden Age
Standing on the Galata Bridge, Roelof says, one is overwhelmed by the same awe. Ferries shuttle back and forth between the European and Asian shores as huge ocean liners file past the palaces dating back to Ottoman times. While Europe slowly decays, Turkey’s economy grows apace, Roelof broods. “Surely this is Turkey’s own Golden Age.”
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