Portraits in Oil

I do not know what it was like to go, French or otherwise, to the original Louvre when it opened in its revolutionarily repurposed palace in 1793. Maybe everything felt borrowed, maybe it was just as hard to tell the salvage from the wreck. The original Louvre had no qualms about trading on the artistic grandeur of former empires. Nor did the nouveau riche Americans of the late 19th century, eagerly snatching up European art and European prestige. The Louvre Abu Dhabi hardly breaks from tradition.

Riches without embarrassment

Image via Flickr.

The most pleasant way to experience the Louvre Abu Dhabi is the same as with any monied museum: in total ignorance of the real circumstances of its creation. A broad steel dome of 7500 tons (the Eiffel Tower weighs about as much, in iron) rests on an archipelago of galleries and buildings. As you approach, it floats like a giant alien saucer from Independence Day. But from below the sunlight streaks through its delicate lattice of layered octagonal forms. This “rain of light,” both stunning and calm, evokes sun through palm leaves. The floors are gray, the walls are white, and all around is the blue of water and sky. The Louvre is on the island of Saadiyat, which means “happiness,” and Abu Dhabi’s gridded phalanx of skyscrapers stands at a relaxing distance across the water, like a shinier Chicago of the Middle East.

The circumstances of creation have not been harmonious for the first encyclopedic museum of art and civilization in the Middle East, nor has its western reception. “See humanity in a new light” is the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s slogan, but new light isn’t necessarily best light. First came the clamor over the Louvre label: in 2007, Abu Dhabi rented the name, until 2037, for 400 million euros. Is the Louvre, asked French custodians of culture, a mere franchise, like—scoff—the Guggenheim? “Les musées ne sont pas à vendre,” proclaimed an online petition and an editorial in Le Monde: museums are not for sale. Leaving aside the adage about stones thrown from glass pyramids, the transaction, surely, was rank, and unflattering to all parties, not least because (as The New York Times noted) the United Arab Emirates had also bought $10.4 billion in weapons from France over the preceding decade.

Then came the building. The museum opened in 2017, five years later than originally planned, a delay due largely to the collapse of oil prices in 2014. (This sudden vulnerability led the UAE’s rulers to strategize a “post-oil economy,” of which the tourism represented by the Louvre is now a more prominent part.) Designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, the Louvre is the centerpiece of the Saadiyat Cultural District. Starchitectural neighbors now in the works are set to join it: a national history museum designed by Foster + Partners, a performance hall by Zaha Hadid Architects, and another Guggenheim by Frank Gehry—“un inévitable Guggenheim,” sniffed the polemic in Le Monde. The campus of New York University Abu Dhabi was completed in 2014, after bitter disputes among NYU faculty and administration over the country’s treatment of workers.

Every step of construction has been controversial. High-profile alliances with the hoary cultural institutions of the West raised more scrutiny than the UAE was used to, and those hoary institutions were henceforth implicated in the already obvious and already staggering exploitation of migrant labor on which practically every structure in the UAE depends. During the Louvre’s construction, most of the island’s laborers were required to live in the euphemistically named Saadiyat Accommodation Village, operated by Abu Dhabi’s official Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC). It opened in 2009, partly in response to protests and outrage over the UAE’s squalid labor camps. This “Village” can hold 20,000 people; 8,000 lived there in 2016. The TDIC proudly trumpets the compound’s pool tables, televisions, wifi, and cricket field as hallmarks of benevolence. In raw material terms, it beats the usual camp, sure, but as Human Rights Watch reported in 2015, workers’ conditions still resemble indentured servitude: many or even most arrive in massive debt to recruiters in their home countries—technically illegal, but the law is rarely enforced, and reliable numbers are hard to come by. Workers are bound to particular employers (“sponsors”) and have their passports confiscated. Strikes are punished with deportation. In May 2013, Bangladeshi strikers were deported and replaced with Pakistani migrants.

The completed structure pushes those battles from view. That is a mark, I suppose, of its successful execution. In early March, I’d come from Amsterdam to give a talk at NYU Abu Dhabi, the campus of which also felt oddly harmonious now, like a friendly American liberal arts college plopped into a desert. The people I met there are fully aware of the ideological bind. Then I went to the Louvre as a tourist.

I found myself staring across the bay at an older-style industrial grain elevator, about a mile away: the tall gray silos, the conveyor slanting to a parked barge. It is operated by Grand Mills, subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi–based Agthia Group. It looked a painting. Think of those Charles Sheeler landscapes of factory architecture in the 1920s and ’30s, bleak vistas that turn serene on a canvas. In The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, a classic text of my provincial field, Leo Marx suggested that industrialization always interrupts a culture’s pastoral myth, itself artificial. The book ends with a twist, for Sheeler shows us “the industrial landscape pastoralized,” the false flower in concrete. “By superimposing order, peace, and harmony upon our modern chaos,” Marx wrote, “Sheeler represents the anomalous blend of illusion and reality in the American consciousness.” It’s a keen insight, but not an anomalously American blend.

via Museum of Modern Art

Charles Sheeler, American Landscape. Via Museum of Modern Art.

Anyway, the first encyclopedic museum in the Middle East has the requisite Napoleon on a horse, the requisite Leonardo da Vinci, and the requisite mummy. The Leonardo, La belle ferronnière, is on loan from the Paris Louvre, and everyone photographed it like they photograph the Mona Lisa. In 2017 Abu Dhabi paid a cool $450.3 million for another Leonardo, Salvator Mundi, which might now be on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s yacht (nobody knows) and therefore not displayed. But Whistlers Mother, the pious old lady with the dissolute son, is on show. That awkward icon of American motherhood looks dour and disconcerting wherever one encounters her; in Abu Dhabi, the black dress blends in fine, but her Victorian foot warmer feels unnecessary.

The original Louvre categorized its items by geography and nation, but in the Louvre Abu Dhabi you move through a supra-geographical, thematic array. Gone is the specific arc of, say, Egyptian civilization. Instead we get juxtaposition: an 18th-century ewer from Turkey beside a 16th-century ewer from China beside a 17th-century ewer made in India and decorated in Italy. They all look more or less alike. “Do they share something universal?” asks the wall text, in English, French, and Arabic. “There are not a thousand and one ways of pouring water. It requires balance and sets a rhythm.” To pour is human. But to desalinate water on the scale that Abu Dhabi has had to desalinate water—well, that is a more colossal thing! The poetry of the universal ewer rests on the fossil-fueled desalination of seawater, Abu Dhabi’s signature conquest of nature.

But I was there, I guess, for the transplanted art of my adopted country. I’ve lived in Amsterdam since 2011. The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s exhibition on Rembrandt, Vermeer and the Dutch Golden Age opened on Valentine’s Day of this year and ran through May. The parallel between the Netherlands of the 17th century and the United Arab Emirates of our own era—the exhibition’s overt premise—was not obvious to me, but it was to Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman of Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism. “It is always valuable to look to precedents when devising a strategy for cultural and economic development,” he writes in the catalog. The Dutch Republic “is an excellent paradigm for the United Arab Emirates and fellow Gulf states in the twenty-first century—a moment when a small country became the economic heart of Europe, a hub for trade, tourism, travel, culture and education.” It is curious to look upon the Dutch Golden Age from our global gilded age.

Many of the works were on loan from the private Leiden Collection in New York. The fortune of its owner, the American billionaire Thomas Kaplan, derives from silver mines and oil properties; he began to acquire Dutch art with his wife Dafna Recanati Kaplan in 2003, the same year he founded Leor Energy, a Houston-based onshore oil and gas company. He details his long love affair with Dutch art in an essay called “A Portrait in Oil,” borrowing the title from the autobiography of an earlier oil-man-turned-art-collector: “I annexed the title for its wonderful turn of phrase,” which captured, Kaplan writes, “the improbable role hydrocarbons as well as paintings have played in my life.” Improbable. The role of hydrocarbons in everyone else’s life needs a different word. The Leiden Collection has made the international rounds, but Abu Dhabi offers specific parallels to the actual city of Leiden, where Rembrandt van Rijn was born and began painting: Abu Dhabi is second in size to Dubai, as Leiden was second to Amsterdam, and so on.

The UAE’s broader claim on the Dutch Golden Age might raise some Dutch hackles: the Netherlands was a Republic, not a model for an autocratic petrostate! And yet it was also a newly wealthy small country, the cities of which were powered primarily by immigrant labor—from southern neighbors, Germany, and Scandinavia in the Dutch case. The Dutch Golden Age, as the Louvre’s Blaise Docus argues in the catalog, was inseparable from the Dutch trading empire and “far-flung colonial ventures.” The big felt hat that a soldier wears in a Vermeer painting began as a beaver pelt in North America. Timothy Brooks charted these early stirrings of globalization in Vermeers Hat; Vermeer’s porcelain bowl of fruit was made in China.

Flashy Dutch orientalism takes on a different flavor when you’re looking at it in, as it were, the Orient. There stands the portly young Rembrandt, contrapposto, wearing a burgundy kaftan, fur cape, and feathered turban, as painted by Isaac de Jouderville in 1631. Also beturbaned is the haughty and blue-eyed Prince Rupert of the Palatinate, twelve years old, in a 1631 portrait by Jan Lievens. On loan from the Bibliothèque Nationale are Rembrandt’s etchings, “Man with a Turban” (known as the “Third Oriental Head”) and “The Persian.” The oriental dress that was exotic for Dutch painters of the 17th century—or modish, or ridiculous, or the means by which the West distinguished itself from its Other—can become, at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a point of Emirati pride: the orientalism of yore reimported as that most universal cultural capital, the masterpiece.


via the Leiden Collection

Above: Isaac de Jouderville, Portrait of Rembrandt in Oriental Dress. Below: Jan Lievens, Boy in a Cape and Turban. via the Leiden Collection.

A Golden Age is always a fabrication. The Dutch one is remarkable in part because it was not an after-the-fact label, but a fully conscious invention of Dutch scholars, poets, and artists themselves. They reached back and rewrote myths in order to bolster their own gouden eeuw as it flowered. Their images of stately burghers, drunken peasants, dying flowers, and peeled lemons contributed to the grand fiction of it all: sometimes critical, sometimes celebratory, often aspirational, rarely a straight representation of the world in which they lived. “The Dutch Golden Age, in that sense, was a successful fiction,” the art historian Jan Blanc observes in the catalog, and that is what made it modern. That fiction is also where its lesson for the present lies: “to form a society and to construct a civilization, a human community always has need of imaginary representations, that is, of fictions, capable of transcending the conflicts inherent in social, economic, political, and religious life.” Such fictions can also let rulers let themselves off the hook.

2019, President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan has decreed, is the Year of Tolerance, and “#yearoftolerance” punctuates many of the museum’s signs. Maybe this is one of those fictions—and maybe it will succeed! The Year of Tolerance kicked off with a visit from Pope Francis himself. The UAE could, I suppose, find some precedent in the much-celebrated religious toleration of the Dutch Golden Age, traces of which are visible in the exhibition. Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Old Man (Possibly a Rabbi) is wonderful. The wall text for Head of a Young Man, with Clasped Hands: Study of the Figure of Christ notes that Rembrandt’s model was “probably from Amsterdam’s Jewish community.” European Jews found freedom in ghetto-less Amsterdam, though the Dutch motivation for tolerance was as mercantile as it was bighearted, and intermarriage was not allowed.

via the Leiden Collection

via the Leiden Collection

Above: Rembrandt, Portrait of an Old Man (Possibly a Rabbi). Below: Rembrandt, Head of a Young Man, with Clasped Hands: Study of the Figure of Christ. Via the Leiden Collection.

What was Dutch, after all, about the Dutch Golden Age? The refrain of Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches is that the Netherlands’ rather sudden riches were, in fact, embarrassing: to Calvinist orthodoxy, to the unkept commitment to frugality, to the historical cliché of Dutch prudence. What we call Dutch culture, in this account, was the collective, accumulated attempt to resolve or expiate that tension—or, really, to skirt it. Their success was ingenious, for they held in suspension the most conspicuous consumption and the most pious minimization of both economic and spiritual risk (their own, at least). They acquired and they abstained, and they managed, in the end, to justify themselves to themselves.

It is not surprising that modern Emiratis would want to borrow that Golden Age, though in Abu Dhabi it feels like riches without embarrassment. Is borrow right? Maybe claim. Or inherit? All the terms falter, for who really owns it? Do the Dutch? A leavening embarrassment remains part of the Dutch cultural repertoire: the Dutch of today—mostly churchless and generally untucked—can see themselves reflected in the steady gaze of Rembrandt’s formal burghers, can even frame the Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild as proto-egalitarians. But that imagined lineage falls away when you see the Golden Age in Abu Dhabi. What really concerned the Syndics who commissioned Rembrandt’s portrait was the Persian fabric on the table before them.

The hierarchies too become more obvious. Two of the paintings in the exhibition feature black servants in the background. In Woman at Her Toilet, Assisted by a Black Servant (1678), by Frans van Mieris the Elder, a white woman combs her hair in a mirror. Behind her, the black servant’s gold robe is as shiny as the tray and pitcher she carries into the room. More mysterious is the Portrait of Frans Meerman and His Family (1668), by Pieter Cornelisz van Slingelandt. The standing Meerman and his seated wife look calmly at the viewer; the two children look devotedly at their mother. Just behind her, a black servant, mostly in shadow, hands a letter to Meerman. Visually, the servant is on the same hierarchical plane as the family’s pet parrot, and above both bird and servant hangs an empty birdcage. Who are these people and what are they doing? The painting is supposed to convey status and familial comfort, sure, and black servants were a not infrequent generic element of Dutch family portraiture. Even knowing all this, I could only puzzle at the painting’s awkward and opaquely mannered world. The Meermans seemed to me as remote as the Emirati citizens, that twelve percent of the country’s population whose lives, in general, are lived in luxurious segregation from the expats and migrant laborers who vastly outnumber them.


via Wikimedia Commons

Above: Frans van Mieris the Elder, Woman at Her Toilet, Assisted by a Black Servant. Below: Pieter Cornelisz van Slingelandt, Portrait of Frans Meerman and His Family. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I do not know what it was like to go, French or otherwise, to the original Louvre when it opened in its revolutionarily repurposed palace in 1793. Maybe everything felt borrowed, maybe it was just as hard to tell the salvage from the wreck. The original Louvre had no qualms about trading on the artistic grandeur of former empires. Nor did the nouveau riche Americans of the late 19th century, eagerly snatching up European art and European prestige. The Louvre Abu Dhabi hardly breaks from tradition.

Art museums in the modern Netherlands have tended to minimize the history of the Dutch empire or, more recently, to handle it with some embarrassment or apology. The masses of unfree labor were mostly on the imperial periphery, kept at safe distance from Dutch self-definition. (The national museum of the Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum, will open its first major exhibition about the history of slavery next year.) But the exhibition in Abu Dhabi foregrounded empire with frankness and at times even pride. The timeline on the wall noted the foundations of the East India Company in 1602, the West India Company in 1621, and the Cape Colony in present-day South Africa in 1652. The first image in the catalog, and one of the first in the exhibition, is from the Golden Age’s latter decades: Peter van der Werff’s Portrait of Boy with a Miniature Three-Master, from 1696. The boy wears a fancy red hat and plays with an ornate toy boat: an East Indiaman, a ship deployed by the East India Company. The portrait was likely commissioned by the Company’s Rotterdam branch. Later in the exhibition a young woman feeds a blue parrot imported from the disastrous Dutch colony in Brazil.

via the Leiden Collection

Peter van der Werff, Portrait of Boy with a Miniature Three-Master. Via the Leiden Collection.

Once back in Amsterdam, I made my way to the Rijksmuseum. The Dutch national museum began as a nephew of the Louvre, after the Dutch Republic had been thrown over by revolutions both Batavian and French. In 1795, the Netherlands became the first of Napoleon’s sister republics, and eventually a client state of the French empire; the National Art Gallery first opened in the Hague, in 1800. In the post-Napoleonic era, its treasures were moved from site to site, before landing in the current building, which opened in 1885, not as an encyclopedic Enlightenment museum but a post-revolutionary, Romantic Dutch one: red brick, with neo-Gothic and even Catholic flair, charming in a city that had expelled Catholics during the Reformation. A decade-long renovation completed in 2013, restored the color and stenciled patterns of its gallery walls. That renovation also turned what was originally a tunnel for horse-drawn carriages into a route for bikes. Pedestrian tourists jump aside as locals pedal past, looking at their phones.

The Rembrandts and Vermeers hang in the museum’s “Gallery of Honor,” along with Saenredam’s meticulous renderings of spare Dutch church interiors, purged of their Catholic statues. (The Romantic Rijksmuseum can frame Calvinist iconoclasm as a moment of regrettable but passing zeal.) I made my way through the crowd, past Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, past the lesser but still large group portraits of civic militias that flank it. The only Black figure in the Gallery of Honor, about whom I’ve always wondered, is the young servant standing anxiously behind the paunchy Captain Bicker in van der Helst’s Militia Company of District VIII, his red cloak painted in a wholly different style from the thirty white men in the crowd. The Gallery of Honor intensified the sense that how you experience a Rembrandt in Abu Dhabi is closer to how you’d have bought and sold one in Rembrandt’s own lifetime.

via Wikimedia Commons

From Bartholomeus van der Helst, Militia Company of District VIII. via Wikimedia Commons.

Having seen the borrowed masterpieces in Abu Dhabi, I lingered longer than I used to before the Rijksmuseum’s scenes of 17th-century Dutch imperial exploits. Hendrik van Schuylenburgh’s grand painting, from 1665, of the Hooghly Factory, a Dutch East India Company (VOC) trading post in West Bengal, stood out with a new power. Inside the fort are cultivated gardens; workers move about the orderly warehouses. Beyond the fort, all the activities of imperial commerce, labor, and ritual are crowded into a single, vast prospect. There’s a formal procession of white-robed, white-turbaned locals; a diplomatic encounter between imperial envoy and Mughal emperor; a white horse mid-jump, camels and elephants mid-stride; the edge of a cemetery (a Dutch graveyard that apparently still exists); glimmers of horrible violence deep in the background. Dutch flags loom large, in the fort and on the ships in the river. All of it is precisely surveilled, from an impossible bird’s-eye view. I do not know how much this painting would garner at an auction, for it is not a masterpiece—or, rather, it is a masterpiece of imperial fantasy. It struck me now not as a historical artifact but as an unembarrassed rehearsal for, say, the Saadiyat Accommodation Village.

via Rijks Museum

Hendrik va Schuylenburgh, The Trading Post of the Dutch East India Company in Hooghly, Bengal. via Rijks Museum.

On another wall, The Castle of Batavia (c. 1664) shows a VOC fortress and a market mingling Javanese, Chinese, Japanese, Moluccan, and Indonesian people. In the foreground, the wall text notes, strides “a Dutch-Indonesian couple with their slave carrying a pajoeng (parasol).” The latter picture hung originally in the headquarters of the VOC, the Oost-Indisch Huis, a building which now houses the University of Amsterdam’s history department, and thus the office in which I am writing.

via Rijks Museum

Andries Beeckman, The Castle of Batavia. Via Rijksmuseum.

None of this is a revelation, merely a glimpse of my own contexts from above. From above, all art seems borrowed or stolen. It is a dismal recognition. Some things, though, can gain beauty in the borrowing. Or they gain the charm of strangeness.

I keep coming back to two pieces I saw in Abu Dhabi—both in the permanent collection, neither of them Dutch. The first is a Japanese map of the world, inked on a large standing screen. It dates to the late 17th century, a high point of the long Dutch monopoly on European trade with Japan. Some Japanese maps of the world placed the Pacific Ocean in the center—following, perhaps ironically, the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci’s China-centered map of the world from 1602. But the map’s projection at the Louvre Abu Dhabi is the more familiar Western one, with the Atlantic at the center. It may have been based on a map borrowed from the Portuguese or the Dutch. In the museum it becomes an oddly beautiful artifact of redrawn Eurocentrism. Political frontiers on this map are simple cartoonish lines, almost flippant; countries become mere flashes of color. France is a pinkish parallelogram bursting into the sea. The Netherlands, bland and beige, reclines above it. The weird red eye of the House of Habsburg looks back at you. It is orienting and disorienting at once.


The other is a painting from 1878: Young Emir Studying, by Osman Hamdi Bey. An emir wearing a bright green kaftan lies on a carpet, shoes off, chin propped on one hand, the other hand tracing the lines of an open book. The artist was a complex figure. Osman Hamdi would become the main visionary behind the Ottoman Imperial Museum in the late 19th century, and indeed rebuilt it to compete with the European museums that were then so busily acquiring artifacts from Ottoman territories. He had also studied in Paris with French Orientalists and incorporated their clichés into his own work. Beneath the young emir’s unhurried erudition and barefoot comfort were the threads of nation and empire, heritage and invention, archaeology and art, orientalism and clever self-orientalizing. These are all in the weave even before we ponder the final irony of its acquisition by the Louvre Abu Dhabi. I still think it was the loveliest painting under that hovering dome.

Osman Hamdy, A Young Emir Studying. Via Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Osman Hamdy, A Young Emir Studying. Via Louvre Abu Dhabi.

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