Situated in a wooded area just outside The Hague sits a small brick palace called Huis ten Bosch (House in the Woods). Designed, decorated, and built between 1645 and 1652 for the Princess of Orange, Amalia van Solms, Huis ten Bosch contains the best preserved decorative interior of the Dutch Golden Age: a lavish tribute to the role of the House of Orange in shaping the nation’s independence and success.
The building has had a complex history, and is one of very few surviving palaces built by the seventeenth-century Dutch nobility. In the 18th century, wings were added and its façade was replaced, and later it served as the first national art gallery, housed political prisoners, and was partially destroyed by bombs during World War II. These days, it is surrounded by tall fences and the apparatus of modern security, since it has resumed one of its original functions: to serve as the chief residence of the House of Orange, now the Dutch royal family. Through it all, the central room, called the Oranjezaal, has survived intact and its cycle of baroque canvases live to tell of the glories of the House of Orange.
The House of Orange played an unusual—yet essential—role in the formation of the Dutch Republic. Since the time of William of Orange in the late 16th century, male members of the family traditionally held the position of stadtholder: head of the military as well as symbolic figurehead of the Republic. The stadtholder was not a king and was subject to the ruling body, the States General. Therefore, the House of Orange, who always sought to elevate their status to compete with landed nobility elsewhere in Europe, were frequently at odds with the republican nature of Dutch politics.
Amalia van Solms was a German princess who married the Prince of Orange, Frederik Hendrik, in 1625. In the years following her marriage, she raised five children, worked to create a glittering court culture, and collected art and decorative objects, including porcelain and gemstones. She was also politically very adept, trying to arrange the best possible marriages for her children and promoting her favorites at court to situate them to their (and her!) advantage.
By 1645, as the Dutch Republic approached independence and her husband’s health was failing, she was granted land on which to build a palace for her own personal use. She used this building as a venue to showcase the virtues of her husband and her family and to create a dynastic mythology that placed the House of Orange at the very heart of Dutch identity. In this way, she sought to preserve her husband’s legacy and her own social and political status.
Dutch classicism refined
Like the Amsterdam Town Hall, which was built around the same time, Huis ten Bosch was built in the Dutch Classicist style, which uses components derived from Italian architectural treatises by architects and writers such as Serlio, Scamozzi, and Palladio. The architect was Pieter Post, who had previously worked alongside the architect of the town hall, Jacob van Campen, on commissions like the Mauritshuis.
The floorplan of the Huis ten Bosch is structured around a cross-shaped hall—a distinctive and unusual feature which may have been based on villas designed by Palladio. On either side of the hall is a five-room apartment with a salon, a bedchamber, a study, and two smaller dressing rooms. Arranged in order from public to private, these spaces enforced social etiquette by controlling access to the resident. Amalia would have occupied the rooms to the east of the central hall; it is not clear who would have used the other apartment.
The central room, known as the Oranjezaal, has received the most attention over the years because it is well preserved and is such a remarkable monument of the Dutch Baroque. The room contains a multi-story cycle of canvases and ceiling paintings that glorify the House of Orange. The cycle was coordinated by Jacob van Campen, but a team of a dozen artists from the northern and southern Netherlandish provinces did the actual painting.
These artists included some who may be familiar, such as Jan Lievens and Jacob Jordaens, but also some less well-known painters like Pieter de Grebber or Gonzales Coques. The design committee selected these artists not only because they represented the best of Netherlandish art, both Flemish and Dutch, but also because they could paint in a Rubenesque style that would best suit the lofty nature of the commission.
The room tells the story of the Prince of Orange, including allegories of his birth, education, and military victories. Biographical scenes circle the room, unifying the space horizontally, while each major wall depicts a theme. The biographical scenes are situated above a fanciful triumphal procession that weaves through the room. Painted triumphal arches contain scenes of a parade of trophies including captives and material goods. These two levels of canvases are topped by thematically related scenes of classical mythology and surmounted by a domed roof and cupola painted with putti. The room has been compared to the Medici cycle painted by Peter Paul Rubens 25 years earlier: both are large, allegorical cycles commissioned by politically active widows who traded on their husband’s memory for dynastic advancement.
The first painting visible to a visitor entering the Oranjezaal from the foyer would have been an allegory of the marriage of Frederik Hendrik and Amalia. It was painted by Amalia’s favorite portrait painter, Gerard van Honthorst. The Prince and Princess stand with their hands clasped, in front of emblems of marriage drawn from Cesare Ripa’s iconographic handbook, Iconologia.
They are flanked by representatives of the sea on one side and the fruitful land on the other, the two sources of local pride and prosperity: the Dutch depended economically on overseas trade and a large maritime empire, while the land had particular significance for the newly independent region. The group of frolicking putti likely represent the different provinces of the Dutch Republic, dancing in unison because of this fortunate marriage.
Amalia herself is also represented in the Oranjezaal in two additional paintings by Honthorst: a portrait with her daughters (which concealed a secret door connecting to her rooms) and an octagonal bust-length portrait in the apex of the dome, through which she literally becomes the keystone of the house.
The cycle is dominated by the massive canvas on the east wall by the Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens, The Triumph of Frederik Hendrik. At 19 meters tall, it is possibly the largest single canvas produced during the seventeenth century in the Netherlands and shows a bombastic scene glorifying the recently-deceased prince. Draped in a red robe, he is seated in a chariot drawn by four white horses that trample his adversaries, while the flying allegory of Fame uses one of his trumpets to keep the specter of Death at bay. A statue crowns the Prince with golden laurels. His son and successor, Willem II, rides behind him in the triumphal procession. All of this is framed within tumbling garlands and groups of putti. It is a masterpiece of Baroque drama, glorifying—in the most grandiose visual terms—the role played by Frederik Hendrik in securing independence for the Dutch Republic from Spain in 1648.
The “New Artemisia”
The building is simultaneously a house for the Dowager Princess and a mausoleum for the deceased Prince. One of Amalia’s private rooms was decorated entirely in ash grey satin. A painting by Honthorst of the ancient Greek figure of Artemisia of Caria was displayed in another room. According to Herodotus, Artemisia had cremated her husband Mausolus, mixed his ashes with wine, and drank them, becoming a living memorial to her deceased husband.
This theme of the vigilant, hopeful widow resonated with Amalia van Solms: for her cabinet, a room that would have been relatively private, she commissioned a painting by Govert Flinck that represents her in front of a fantastical tomb of her husband and son while a phoenix rises from the ashes in the background. Huis ten Bosch became the perfect site for Amalia to present herself as the grieving widow enshrining the memory of her husband, like a “New Artemisia”: a similarity consciously emphasized not only through imagery but also in texts by the architect and Princess Amalia’s private secretary.
While the memory of the Prince is ever present at Huis ten Bosch, so are representations of his descendants. Flinck’s painting emphasizes hope for the future as much as mourning for the past. Further, family portraits are prominently displayed in almost every room, balancing the past and the future and creating the perfect monument to the enduring role played not only by Frederik Hendrik and Amalia but by the entire House of Orange in shaping national history.
Maarten Loonstra, The Royal Palace Huis ten Bosch in a Historical View (Zutphen, 1985).
Margriet van Eikema Hommes. “‘As Though It Had Been Done by Just One Master’:Unity and Diversity in the Oranjezaal, Huis Ten Bosch.” In Aemulatio. Imitation, Emulation and Invention in Netherlandish Art from 1500 to 1800. Essays in Honor of Eric Jan Sluijter, edited by Anton W.A. Boschloo, Jacquelyn N. Coutré, Stephanie Dickey and Nicolette Sluijter-Seiffert (Zwolle: Waanders, 2011).
Koen Ottenheym, “Possessed by Such a Passion for Building. Frederik Hendrik and Architecture” in Princely display : the court of Frederik Hendrik of Orange and Amalia van Solms, compiled and edited by Marika Keblusek and Jori Zijlmans (Zwolle : Waanders Publishers, 1997).