Charting his life and legacy, Shifting Image – In Search of Johan Maurits looks at the man who built the Mauritshuis and is part of the year-long celebration of Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age. The exhibition was shown at Mauritshuis in The Hague from 4 April to 7 July 2019.
Who was Johan Maurits?
Johan Maurits was the Count of Nassau-Siegen, and later Prince. He came to be known as ‘the Brazilian’ as a result of his time as the governor of Dutch Brazil between 1636 and 1644, a short but significant period of Dutch rule that casts a dark shadow. On return to Europe in 1644 he was appointed to the command of the cavalry in the Dutch army leading successful campaigns in Westphalia before returning to the Netherlands in 1664. He would command further missions until 1675 when he gave up active service due to poor health. He moved to Cleves in Germany where he lived until his death in 1679 at age 75. This exhibition turns back time on Johan Maurits offering new perspectives on his life and times with colonialism being the overarching theme running through Shifting Image.
Although his mission to Brazil was military in nature, Maurits championed art, architecture and science. He took painters Frans Post and Albert Eckhout along with him as well as physician Willem Piso and the naturalist Georg Markgra. Between them they would produce the first visual and scientific studies of Brazilian flora and fauna.
Shifting Image sets out to balance the overall positive image of Maurits’s governorship by presenting a more inclusive perspective about his life and times. In both the Netherlands and Brazil, he’s considered a hero for his successful missions and work promoting the arts and sciences. But there is a shadow that hangs over his legacy.
Slavery was a fact of life at the time, and yet is barely mentioned in relation to Maurits. As governor, he sent fleets to Africa to conquer and capture, which increased trade in enslaved Africans. Thousands of men, women and children were captured and taken to Brazil. Maurits himself owned dozens of enslaved people.
Shifting Image is an apt title for the exhibition as it sheds light on the power of hindsight, allowing difficult questions to be raised. It features work from the permanent collection, including a replica of a bust of Maurits that sparked a social outcry when it was moved. The exhibition also shows the earliest known work of Frans Post, View of the Island of Itamaracá, which is considered to be one of the first paintings to depict enslaved people in Dutch Brazil. Including this controversial piece encourages viewers to consider whether it represents an accurate or idealised view of the time.
Contributions and insight from internal staff and external writers which are included in the exhibition, offer new narratives that give deeper context to the works. One of Rembrandt’s paintings, Two African Men, is an intriguing addition, and may be linked to Dutch Brazil. It is thought that the two men depicted ended up in Amsterdam as a result of the dissolution of Dutch Brazil in 1654. Around this time, Amsterdam had a big community of free African men and women and Rembrandt likely met the two men during one of his walks though the city’s streets, always a major source of inspiration for the artist.
Shifting Image is a fascinating insight into Johan Maurits and Dutch colonialism. It represents the beginning of a research project aiming to explore heritage, history and legacy. Since the Mauritshuis reopened in 2014, there has been discussion about Dutch colonialism and the role Maurits played. This exhibition responds to criticisms by exploring the issues rather than shying away from them, and facilitating an open discussion of this period of Dutch history.