I am Dutch-American. What I got out of it was good bone structure, “Kraklen” cookies (so good!), a fondness for black licorice, a few mild swear words such as swatakat (translation: “black cat”), curly hair (more on that later), and the phrase, “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much.”
That last one is tongue-in-cheek, of course. After all, we are Dutch American. But if you look at history, it does neatly encapsulate the national attitude.
One Cheer for the Dutch
The Dutch had their national moment, as it were, during the seventeenth century (1600s). They provided a refuge of religious freedom for the Pilgrims, mostly because at that time the Dutch didn’t care about separatism nearly as much as King James did.
In North America, they set up a trading post at New Amsterdam (Manhattan Island), but made the mistake of fixing upon a feudal-style system where only Dutch West India Company members could own land, and their serfs were forbidden by law from leaving. This did not encourage growth, and the place struggled until the English conquered it, re-named it New York, and allowed English things like local control of government, free immigration and trade, and land ownership for everyone. After that it really took off, and … well, you see it today.
Meanwhile, the Dutch East India Company was distinguishing itself in Indonesia, where in order to ensure its own access to spices, it would eventually become a harsh colonial power and rule for centuries, until its grip was weakened by Japan (on-site) and Hitler (back home).
While in Indonesia, the Dutch did manage to get a monkey named after them. The Indonesians called the proboscis monkey kera Belanda, i.e. “Dutch monkey,” because of its big nose and reddish skin.
I don’t think the Dutch sent their nicest people to Indonesia. Or to Manhattan. But, during this same period, Holland did have some amazing citizens. For example, they had Rembrandt.
Rembrandt van Rijn
“Rembrandt van Rijn was born in Leyden, Holland [the same city where the Pilgrims took refuge] in 1606. He was one of nine children and the son of a miller [and so they probably had a windmill!]. His family was Calvinist by faith … Rembrandt married Saskia, a Dutch woman whom he dearly loved. For a short period they enjoyed a life of happiness and prosperity and many were acclaiming him to be the greatest artist of the century. But Rembrandt never displayed an exalted opinion of himself… During the early years of success, he obtained a studio in the ghetto where he spent much of his time painting the impoverished people of Amsterdam. The ghetto was where he found his characters for biblical paintings, such as Abraham, Isaac, and many of the old prophets. Meanwhile, Saskia enjoyed the luxury that came with her husband’s success. Unfortunately, all this was short lived.
“They would have two daughters who died during infancy. Then, there was good news as they gave birth to a healthy son whom they named Titus. Shortly thereafter, Saskia fell ill and died. Rembrandt was greatly grieved by these family losses, and never remarried. It wasn’t long after these tragedies that he had to declare bankruptcy, losing everything he owned, including his great art collection. All that was spared him were his paints and brushes. Then, one year before his own death, the only remaining member of his family, Titus, died at the age of 27.
“Truly Rembrandt was a man of sorrows. But none of his emotions or energy went for naught, as he continued to paint with all the fervor of his youth. During his deep moments of suffering, he would always revert back to doing paintings of Jesus Christ. These biblical stories were done more for his own satisfaction [than for sale], as there were over seventy biblical paintings in his possession just a few years before his death.” (God & the History of Art, pp. 65 – 68)
Rembrandt did approximately 100 self-portraits, which brings me to what this Dutch-American blogger has in common with him besides the national origin and, of course, the crazy talent. If you want to see a few of them (and they are delightful), follow this link to the Human Pages site.
Of course there are so many things to love about these portraits, especially the Impressionist-looking one where an aged Rembrandt is smiling at the camera. (That must have been fun to paint.) But one thing that struck me about them was the curly hair. Look at that curly hair! In the very young self-portrait, it shades his face in a hood of frizz. Perhaps he had just washed it.
I have hair of about the same texture. When treated well (i.e. not washed for while), it settles into loose curls. When treated poorly, it frizzes. I got this curly hair from my Dutch American grandfather. Never got to see it on his head, because he went bald before I was born, so I didn’t know what was coming. But the hair lives on in me and in several other members of my family. It wasn’t until I saw these self-portraits of Rembrandt that I realized these are genuine, trademark Dutch curls.
Every nationality has things to be ashamed of and things to be proud of. I am proud of Rembrandt (though I can’t take any credit for him), and I am happy to share, if nothing else, his hair.
DeMar, Gary, et. al. Building a City on a Hill. American Vision, Inc., 1997, rev. ed. 2005. Chapter 25: “New Netherland Becomes New York,” p. 289 ff.
Stebbing, Barry. God & the History of Art I, 2nd ed. How Great Thou ART publications, 2001.