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Johan Maurits

The Mauritshuis was named after the man who had it built, Johan Maurits, Count of Nassau-Siegen (1604–1679). It has been home to the Royal Cabinet of Paintings since 1822. King William I acquired the impressive portrait of Johan Maurits by Jan de Baen especially for the Mauritshuis. The count has played an important role in the museum in exhibitions and publications right from the beginning. In terms of art history, the museum has always emphasised his importance to art, architecture and science. But Johan Maurits’s life story is also part of Dutch colonial history, particularly its role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In Shifting Image we examine how his story can be seen from different perspectives. We are going in search of Johan Maurits.

Most of the Mauritshuis (1633–44) was built while its future occupant was away: in October 1636 Johan Maurits boarded a ship bound for Brazil to take up the position of Governor-General of the colony of ‘Nieuw Holland’ in the service of the West India Company (WIC). The colony was a coastal area in the northeast of Brazil that had been captured from the Portuguese. They had set up a lucrative sugar industry there, with sugar plantations and sugar mills reliant on the labour of enslaved Africans. ‘Dutch Brazil’ was the Republic’s first large plantation colony. At first, the Dutch regarded slavery as an ‘unchristian’ act perpetrated by their Catholic Spanish and Portuguese enemies, but the vast profits to be made from sugar changed their opinion. For this reason, the period when the Dutch were in Brazil (1630–54) is a crucial episode in the history of the Dutch slave trade.

Although slavery is inextricably linked to Dutch Brazil, this is barely reflected in the prevailing image of Johan Maurits. The governor of the colony has traditionally been commemorated for his love of art, architecture and science – and for his governance, which allowed a remarkable degree of religious freedom. 

Exhibition and research

In the exhibition Shifting Image (4 April - 7 July 2019) we examine how his story can be seen from  different perspectives. We are going in search of Johan Maurits.  

Shifting Image is not structured as a historical retrospective. We are well aware that there are many research questions yet to be answered. This is why the Mauritshuis started a project to inventory possible research questions and sources in 2018. This will be followed in 2020 by a long-term research project that should result in a number of publications. Part of this new research focuses on getting a more detailed insight into the financing of building the Mauritshuis (known as the ‘Sugar Palace’ in the seventeenth century) and on Johan Maurits’s influence on the trade in enslaved Africans. 

Shifting Image is not the end of a research programme, but a starting point – a moment to reflect on the complexity of the Netherlands’ image of the past, in particular that of Johan Maurits and Dutch Brazil. Public programming has played a more crucial role than ever for this exhibition: the many activities (such as workshops, lectures and public debates) provide the opportunity to share information and ideas. We want Shifting Image to promote discussion and we hope for a connection – between the present and the past, but also between people.

More information about Johan Maurits and the exhibition.

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