A few years before the Rijksmuseum began its 10-year-long renovation project, my father and I visited the galleries. Dad stopped in front of a Van Ruisdael and examined it with the eager scrutiny of a collector: “You don’t see clouds like that anywhere else.” Whether observing an artwork or critiquing my tooth-brushing technique, my father is of that infuriating breed which, due to some fortuitous collision of pragmatism and intelligence, is rarely wrong about anything.
At the age of 9, the weight of his statement did not hit me; I was far too busy finding my favorite painting in the room. Apparently I haven’t outgrown the game. Upon entering Golden Light, Selections from the Van Otterloo Collection, a truncated version of a 2011 exhibition at PEM, I was immediately drawn to a painting on the back wall.
Ships in a Gale on the Ij before the City of Amsterdam by Ludolf Bakhuizen is a maritime painting, but neither the boats nor the water are what initially attracted me to it. Rather, the beautiful rendering of the sky caused me to pause. Subsequent homesickness forced me to linger. The painting immortalizes the moody rounds of whiteness that also exist within the frame of my Dutch bedroom window. Their form is as emblematic of my home country as associations more familiar to foreigners: clogs, tulips, windmills and a government that does not condemn vices illegal elsewhere. Having swapped my hometown of Heiloo, the Netherlands, for Norton, Mass., where I recently graduated from Wheaton College, I was grateful to see Dutch landscapes without traversing six time zones.
Gradually, wandering through the exhibition exacerbated my yearning for home – I was overwhelmed by alternating memories of wintry bike rides spent fighting the sea wind of my semi-coastal hometown and heavy steps through sunny dunes in warmer months. Although I was saddened, Golden Light had afforded me the unique opportunity to return home, unscathed by airport inefficiency or the delusions of jet lag.
In retrospect, PEM wasn’t the first place to grant me a boarding pass for the price of admission. I’ve flirted with different nationalities – American with Andy Warhol at the MOMA, French with Jacques-Louis David at the Louvre and English with Joseph Mallord William Turner at the V&A. Admittedly, I have neglected my fellow countrymen since my pre-teen obsession with the audio tour at the Vincent van Gogh Museum.
Golden Light reintroduced me to my nationality by painting a portrait of the Netherlands true to my visions of home. As I stood before the Bakhuizen, my eyes drifted from the painting to the wall label, which mentions the tremulous relationship between the Dutch and the sea (about one fifth of our land is below sea level). It’s a small detail, especially to those who don’t own a Dutch passport, but it made me feel for a second that I was back in my kleine kikkerlandje, or “small frogland.”
Siri Schoonderbeek is the creative services intern at PEM and spends her time writing for PEM’s member’s magazine, Connections, and deleting Oxford commas. At the end of the workday, she bakes treats and explores the mean streets of East Boston.