Portret van Johan Maurits, bouwheer van het Mauritshuis, geschilderd door Jan de Baen

Johan Maurits

The Mauritshuis was built as a residence for Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen. Who was this man?

Told by

Deborah Cameron

Deborah Cameron

Host, storyteller and program maker

Mark Carolina

Carolina Monteiro & Mark Ponte

Researchers Mauritshuis

Junadry Leocaria

Junadry Leocaria

Dancer

Josephine Zwaan

Josephine Zwaan

Singer

Almost everything at the Mauritshuis revolves around the 17th century – the building is a 17th-century monument and most of the artworks date from this exceptional period of Dutch history. When we talk about the Dutch 17th century, colonial history plays an important role. Think of ‘commercial’ enterprises such as the VOC and WIC, which were engaged in international trade, war- waging, colonisation and slavery. The Mauritshuis and many of the paintings on display there also have links to colonial history. This starts with the man who built the Mauritshuis: Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679). From 1636-1644, he was governor of the colony ‘Dutch Brazil’.

Let’s take a closer look at where we can find Johan Maurits, the Netherlands’ colonial past and the history of slavery in the museum.

Test your knowledge

Before we dive in, let’s first see what you already know about Dutch 17th-century colonial history and Dutch Brazil.

Detail Frans Post Gezicht Op Eiland Itamaraca Mh0915 Mauritshuis

Johan Maurits worked as governor of Dutch Brazil in the service of the WIC for around seven years. When he left for Brazil in 1636, he not only took soldiers with him, but scientists and artists too. They produced paintings, drawings and scientific studies of the country, its inhabitants and natural habitat. These artworks and books are still extremely important for our understanding of Brazil in the 17th century. However, the colony didn’t revolve around science and art: Dutch Brazil was a plantation colony that was captured by the Dutch for its sugar industry. The hard work on the sugar cane plantations wasn’t done by the Dutch themselves – enslaved Africans were used for this instead. Johan Maurits sent warships to the African Gold Coast (Ghana) and Angola, where his troops captured two large Portuguese slave forts. In doing so, Johan Maurits paved the way for the Dutch contribution to the trade and transport of enslaved people to the Americas. During his seven-year governorship, at least 24,000 men, women and children were transported to Dutch Brazil. Many didn’t survive the journey.

Johan Maurits himself owned dozens of enslaved people, who he branded with his monogram. This is visible in a drawing of this woman, who bears Johan Maurits’s mark on her chest. The slave market in Mauritsstad (today’s Recife), where Africans were traded, also appears in another drawing by the same person. These drawings are rare 17th-century examples in which the inhuman reality of slavery and the trade in people is visible.

Johan Maurits was well paid by the WIC for his role as governor. But he also had other sources of income. We recently learned that he traded in enslaved people for personal gain. He smuggled people into the country on ships flying the Portuguese flag. Among other things, he used his Brazilian earnings to build the Mauritshuis. Which is why, as early as the 17th century, the building gained the nickname ‘the Sugar Palace’.

Vrouw Met Brandmerk Van JM Op Haar Borst Small
The Mauritshuis made from suger cubes Part of the exhibition Shifting image

Looking at history

At the Mauritshuis, we long considered Johan Maurits primarily from an art historical perspective. But by exclusively looking at Johan Maurits through this lens, we only see a limited part of his story. Which is exactly why we want to look more broadly at his time in Dutch Brazil, a time in which the slave trade and slavery played a central role.

In the museum, we have installed a room with paintings that shine a light on Johan Maurits, Dutch Brazil and the history of the Mauritshuis. In the video, our director Martine Gosselink explains why we installed this room. And why it’s important to look at 17th-century artworks and the history of the Mauritshuis from different perspectives.

Sugar Coated

In her solo dance Sugar Coated, choreographer and dancer Junadry Leocaria expresses the history of slavery in a powerful and moving way: ‘To dance in the Golden Room felt like a small victory for myself and my ancestors. As a Curaçaoan, I was given the chance to honour the story of my ancestors in the Sugar Palace’s most beautiful room. The pain, the grief, the injustice and the struggle. But also the power, the perseverance, the creativity, the victory, the relief and the ability to forgive. My ancestors come partly from West Africa, the Gold Coast where Johan Maurits enslaved the population and transported them to South America on his fleet. As a result, I feel a direct connection to the Sugar Palace. Performing my solo in the Golden Room felt like healing. An ultimate opportunity to acknowledge and embrace our shared history through art. Healing for everyone, black and white.’

What do you see and how do you feel?

Let the Hague PowerQueen Deborah Cameron take you into the Mauritshuis and show you what the museum and paintings mean to her.

What can – and can’t – you see?

Most of the paintings at the Mauritshuis date from the 17th century. So it comes as no surprise that many of them have a link to Dutch colonial history.

Sometimes the link is immediately clear. For example, in paintings with subjects from Dutch Brazil. Or a portrait of a white princess with a black servant. But sometimes the link is in details that you might otherwise overlook. Like a tortoise, colonial products in a still life or a sugary treat.

It is important to remember that these paintings were made by European artists, with a European gaze, for European collectors. Which is why you see nothing of the harsh reality of slavery in Dutch Brazil. We are presented with a perfect picture.

Most of the paintings at the Mauritshuis date from the 17th century. So it comes as no surprise that many of them have a link to Dutch colonial history.

Sometimes the link is immediately clear. For example, in paintings with subjects from Dutch Brazil. Or a portrait of a white princess with a black servant. But sometimes the link is in details that you might otherwise overlook. Like a tortoise, colonial products in a still life or a sugary treat.

It is important to remember that these paintings were made by European artists, with a European gaze, for European collectors. Which is why you see nothing of the harsh reality of slavery in Dutch Brazil. We are presented with a perfect picture.

First glimpse of Dutch Brazil

Frans Post was one of the artists who travelled to Brazil with Johan Maurits. This landscape with a view of the island Itamaracá is the first painting that we know of by Post. And the first that a European artist made of and in Brazil.

Four men stand at the water’s edge: two Portuguese and two enslaved Africans. Their presence turns this painting into more than just a simple Brazilian landscape – Post unintentionally shows us that the inequality between black and white was tied to skin colour.

All audio clips

  • Carolina Monteiro

    Researcher Mauritshuis

    Carolina Monteiro
  • Mark Ponte

    Researcher Mauritshuis

    Mark Ponte
  • Deborah Cameron

    Host, storyteller and program maker

    Deborah Cameron

Gift for the princess

This painting is a portrait of three people. Standing in the centre is Princess Maria of Orange, with to the left her nephew Hendrik and to the right a second boy. His name wasn’t recorded. He was one of the black servants at the court and, like many other young boys, he was probably brought to the Dutch Republic by the WIC. In his case, as a gift for the princess.

Mijtens Maria Van Oranje Mh0114 Mauritshuis

King

Singer-songwriter Josephine Zwaan was inspired by this painting to write the song King: ‘Looking at the paintings of Dutch Brazil, I was moved by the gazes of the black workers. What questions, emotions and memories were hidden in those eyes? Maybe I was looking into the eyes of a prince. After all, royals were transported from the west coast of Africa too. Last year, my father became the chief of our tribe in Ghana, a traditional ceremony that hasn’t changed for centuries. This brought those eyes even closer. In the present-day, the paintings ask us to respect that which we don’t know. Sometimes a king might look different from what you imagine.’

All audio clips

  • Josephine Zwaan

    Singer

    Josephine Zwaan
Josephine Zwaan (1)

Appropriation of cultures, and people

The English princess Mary Stuart stands ready for a fancy-dress ball. She wears an ostrich feather turban and a Brazilian feathered cloak. Her outfit is a clear example of what we today would call ‘cultural appropriation’: Mary, a European princess, is using cultural expressions from other, non-European people. As a fancy-dress outfit for a party.

Mary’s servant is still fastening a string of pearls, but Mary seems not to notice him. The boy is reduced to an ‘exotic’ accessory – with his presence, the artist is emphasising Mary’s white skin and elevated position.

All audio clips

  • Carolina Monteiro

    Researcher Mauritshuis

    Carolina Monteiro
  • Deborah Cameron

    Host, storyteller and program maker

    Deborah Cameron
Hanneman Maria Stuart Met Bediende Mh0429 Mauritshuis

A powerful painting

In Dutch 17th-century painting, people with African roots often have stereotyped roles. They appear in portraits of wealthy Dutch citizens, for example, as servants or enslaved individuals. But this painting is entirely different, because Rembrandt painted these two men just as they were, paying attention to their character and individuality. For this reason alone it is a unique and powerful painting, which demonstrates that Dutch society in the 17th century was more diverse than you may have thought.

All audio clips

  • Mark Ponte

    Researcher Mauritshuis

    Mark Ponte
  • Deborah Cameron

    Host, storyteller and program maker

    Deborah Cameron

Sugar

A girl aged around three poses next to a high chair. She is beautifully dressed and wears gold jewellery. Lying on the high chair are some sweet treats, made with sugar from Brazil. These connect the luxury world of this young girl to the harsh reality of the people working on the sugar cane plantations: a reality that often remained invisible, both in the Dutch Republic and in Dutch painting. And yet all these luxury goods such as coffee, tea, tobacco, cocoa and sugar were made by people who had been enslaved.

All audio clips

  • Mark Ponte

    Researcher Mauritshuis

    Mark Ponte
Flick Meisje Bij Een Kinderstoel Mh0676 Mauritshuis

Shifting Image

In 2019, we organised an exhibition about Johan Maurits and Brazil at the Mauritshuis. In the exhibition we considered Johan Maurits’s story from different perspectives. Many of the paintings that you see here also appeared in the exhibition.

Exhibitions are often organised as the culmination of years of research. This exhibition was different: it was only the starting point. We invited a group of experts to write stories to accompany the artworks based on their professional and personal backgrounds. This created a rich picture of the different ways in which you can look at paintings. And at the histories they recount.

Zaalfoto Bewogen Beeld 2019 Mauritshuis

New research into Dutch Brazil

The exhibition Shifting Image was the starting point for an international research project: Revisiting Dutch Brazil and Johan Maurits. The focus of this research is subjects that until now have received little attention, such as Johan Maurits’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. Although there has been a lot of research into this period, there is still much we don’t know. New findings from the project will be added to the room that focuses on Johan Maurits in the museum.

In 2020, a ground-breaking article resulting from the research project was published. In the article, Erik Odegard (head of the research project) and Carolina Monteiro (Ph.D. student at Leiden University) describe how Johan Maurits earned money from smuggling and illegally trading in enslaved Africans.

Four further historians are working on the research project: Mark Ponte, Irene Maria Vicente Martín, André Luís Bezerra Ferreira and Miguel Geraldes Rodrigues. They are working on their research in the Netherlands, Italy and Brazil and are consulting archives around the world.

Frans Post Gezicht Op Het Eiland Itamaracá In Brazilië MH915 Mauritshuis

Read more and discover

Want to know more about Dutch colonial history, Dutch Brazil or the history of the Mauritshuis?