The film version of Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, which is released next week, is unlikely to prove popular with the world’s museums. The story begins with an art lover’s nightmare – a terrorist’s bomb exploding in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It then centres around a 17th-century painting of a goldfinch that one of the surviving victims removes from the rubble.
It’s a real painting, by one of Rembrandt’s most gifted pupils, Carel Fabritius, who died aged 32 when his studio (and much of the town of Delft) was destroyed by an exploding powder magazine in 1654. Presumably Tartt had this tragic event in mind when she conceived the opening of her novel.
The tiny picture shows the pet goldfinch, tethered to its perch – an image of captured beauty conjured from a few feathery brush strokes – and is one of only about a dozen of his works to have survived. For the past 120 years, its home has been not the Met, but the Mauritshuis in The Hague. And for me the new film is a reminder not only of the Delft explosion, but of the one of the world’s most perfect art museums.
There are three reasons to champion this jewel box of a museum. First, size. The great irony – tragedy even – for art tourism is that the biggest, most famous and most popular are those most unsuited to their role. Or at least to a one-off visit, which is after all the inevitable agenda of most tourists.
They try to see as much as possible and barely have more than a moment to look at any one painting. It’s rather like trying to appreciate the world’s greatest novels by visiting a library, taking down the most famous volumes and flicking through the pages. You can’t blame them – few of us get more than one chance to visit these palaces of art. But smaller museums, such as the Mauritshuis, which has only 16 rooms on two floors, have more of the quality of an exhibition which is designed to be seen in one visit. It’s easy to find your way around, you can take time to enjoy the art without feeling you have to keep rushing onwards and you are rarely pressed by crowds.
It gets an average of only about 1,000 visitors a day, compared with seven times that number at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Second, the Mauritshuis was designed as a house – a mansion rather – not a museum. Built by wealthy Dutch aristocrat and diplomat John Maurice (hence the name) in 1641, it stands in classical splendour on a huge brick plinth that juts out by the Hofvijver – the ornamental pond in the centre of The Hague. It is right next to the Dutch parliament: in fact, from some of the upstairs rooms, you can actually peer into the prime minister’s office.
More importantly, many of the paintings on display are not hung in huge public galleries designed centuries later, but in a building of their own epoch, in rooms similar to, or at least contemporary with, those for which they were originally made, a rare quality in any museum.
Finally, and most importantly, the art itself is sublime. The Mauritshuis collection is of the very highest order, founded on the 200 or so pictures that formed the collection amassed by William V, Prince of Orange. Many more have been acquired since, though only 250 are on display at one time.
As well as some earlier art on the ground floor, they include some of the greatest paintings of the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age. Among the highlights are Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and his wonderful View of Delft, which shimmers in a haze of light shadow, deep shadow, watery reflections and brilliant sunshine. There are two rooms full of Rembrandts, including the early painting that made his name in Amsterdam, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholaes Tulp, and one of his last and greatest self-portraits. There are several Jan Steens, and masterpieces by Rubens, Frans Hals, Holbein and Van Dyck. And, of course, there is The Goldfinch, which hangs in room 14, testament to the fact that, with paintings, as with museums, small is beautiful.
The Mauritshuis (mauritshuis.nl/en). Open daily 10am-6pm (except Mon 1pm-6pm, Thurs 10am-8pm). Admission: €15.50 (£13.70), under-19s free.