High Society (and King’s Day) in Amsterdam
May 12, 2018
“High Society” is presented as an exclusive party of just thirty-nine guests, at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam – but we are invited in to meet them. The noise level in the gallery rose noticeably during my first visit, like a party as the guests start arriving.
And what guests they are; dressed to kill, they’ve come a long way to meet us. This is a unique gathering of life-size, standing full-length portraits, a form that was initially the preserve of royalty and nobility. These are “swagger portraits”, assertions of power and wealth.
You know the kind of person you might encounter at a party who looks like trouble?
Meet Luisa Casati, she catches your eye as you’re about to leave. It’s difficult to miss her, she’s six feet tall, with a pale complexion, and thin as a rake. She has a habit of wearing live snakes as a necklace, and throws extravagant parties in her Venetian Palazzo, where the champagne flows freely, and there’s no shortage of cocaine and opium…..
Across the room from Luisa stands Samuel-Jean Pozzi, a notoriously vain womaniser, striking a pose in his red dressing-gown. One of his lovers was Sarah Bernhardt, who called him “Docteur Dieu”.
Known as the “father of modern French gynaecology”, he was shot dead in his drawing room in Paris by a disappointed patient.
It’s an international gathering.
Jane Fleming is an English girl, known for her beauty. Her sister, Seymour Dorothy Fleming, is better known for behaving badly (she didn’t make it past security). Yes, Seymour is her first name, and a note on the guest list describes her as “a notorious trollop”.
There’s Livia and Iseppo, the Italian couple who asked if they could bring their children….
…. and Pauline, who dropped her glove. Is she just attention-seeking?
High Society runs until 3 June 2018. I recommend you gatecrash.
The Rijksmuseum advises you to visit before 11am, or after 2 – 3pm, to avoid the crowds, as tour groups and school parties tend to arrive in the middle of the day.
It can be a risky business to find your way in, there’s a two way cycle track that runs straight through the museum entrance. Look out for the cyclists who are on their mobiles (but it’s the motorbike behind the pedal cycles that’ll get you!)
When I booked my trip, I was unaware of King’s Day, which takes place on 27th April each year; it’s the biggest celebration in the Netherlands, especially in Amsterdam. The party started the night before, the bars were packed into the early hours, and there was live music on the streets in the De Pijp district, where I was staying for just two nights.
Formerly Queen’s Day under Queen Beatrice, King’s Day marks the king’s birthday. Everyone wears something orange for the weekend, in honour of Orange-Nassau, the Royal House of the Netherlands.
In the morning, the historic centre was closed to traffic, transformed into a citywide carnival and flea market. Amsterdammers sell their secondhand stuff on the streets, and children set up stalls in the parks to sell the toys they’ve outgrown.
There are buskers, and a good-humoured atmosphere of misrule. On Museumplein four teenage girls were offering “one euro, one hug”. (They didn’t have many takers, shortly after it was “OK, come on guys! One euro, four hugs”….)
It was going to be a lively weekend.
Orange is the New Black
27th April was also the day I was leaving Amsterdam. By tradition, most of the city museums stay open on King’s Day, so it was easy to reacquaint myself with my new friends at the High Society exhibition, and people-watch some “orangistas” in and around the gallery, before catching the bus from Museumplein to Schipol.