The Prince William V Gallery is one of The Hague’s hidden gems. Prince William V of Orange-Nassau had it built in 1774 so he could show his impressive collection of paintings to the public. This was a unique step – the first time a high-ranking figure had made ‘his’ art accessible to the public. It became the Netherlands’ first ever museum. At that time, it was common practice for walls to be completely covered in paintings, from floor to ceiling. Symmetry was important, but the main concern was to give an impression of opulence.
William V was a passionate collector, and always a welcome face at art auctions. He purchased his first piece of art – The Adoration of the Magi by Salomon Koninck – at the age of just fifteen. This painting is now part of the Mauritshuis collection.
Stadtholder and art lover
Collecting became an important activity for wealthy people and aristocrats in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As well as a hobby, owning a sizable art collection was a way to enhance one’s status among the European aristocracy. Wars overseas and growing trade also meant that the European market became swamped with exotic, unfamiliar objects. Although collecting was very ‘hip’, Prince William V’s collection was highly exceptional.
In 1766 he moved it into a number of buildings in The Hague’s Buitenhof. Once there, it grew exponentially. William V was a great art lover himself, and his mother also had a major influence on the collection. In 1751 she spent over 70 guilders on insects, which she bought from a natural historian in The Hague. In those days, the average seaman working for the United East India Company (VOC) would earn approximately nine guilders a year. .
Who was William V?
William V was born in 1748, son of stadtholder William IV and Anna of Hanover. The young William lost both his parents before he was ten years old. A friend of the family, Duke Louis Ernest of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, took on the role of guardian. When William was 19 he married the 16-year-old Wilhelmina of Prussia. They had five children. Their oldest son William would later succeed his father. Yet Prince William V was the last stadtholder of the Dutch Republic; his son succeeded him not as stadtholder, but as King William I, the first king of the Netherlands from the House of Orange-Nassau.
What is on show there?
William V wanted to overwhelm those who visited his gallery. The original way of hanging paintings was taken into account in the restoration of the Gallery. More than 150 old masters from the Mauritshuis collection (including work by Jan Steen, Peter Paul Rubens and Paulus Potter) hang side by side there. The crystal chandeliers, silk wall coverings and opulent curtains also make this a place fit for royalty. Today’s visitors to the Prince William V Gallery get a real sense of what it would have been like to visit the court of the stadtholder.
The oldest museum in the Netherlands
Two museums claim the title of ‘oldest museum in the Netherlands’. The first to open was the Prince William V Gallery, in 1774. But the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, which opened in 1784, also claims to be the oldest, arguing that it has been used continuously as a museum ever since. Though the very first Dutch museum is undoubtedly the Prince William V Gallery.
After King William I transferred the Royal Cabinet of Paintings – as the collection was known by then – to the Dutch State in 1815, regular acquisitions were made for the museum, at the king’s instigation. That is why the Mauritshuis was purchased. The Gallery then served as a repository for the archives, until the ‘original museum’ reopened in 1977. It was completely restored in the early 1990s.
A hunting party near the Hofvijver
Uniquely, this painting by Berckheyde shows the same view as we can see today from the Gallery. Before us lies the Hofvijver with the buildings of the Binnenhof, already the centre of government at that time, on the right. The stadtholder’s quarters were in the wing where the fish stall now stands outside. And where trams rattle by today, a coach pulled by six horses passes in the painting. With so many horses, the passenger must have been a high-ranking figure. Perhaps a stadtholder from the House of Orange-Nassau? This painting was not in Prince William V’s collection, though it does now hang precisely where it should: in his Gallery.