Contributor: Asker Pelgrom
Location: Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art, Luxembourg
Description: In 1845 the Dutch King William II (1840-1849) commissioned a series of canvasses from the famous Dutch landscape painter Barend Cornelis Koekkoek (1803-1862). The artist had finished eight of the nine paintings originally planned when production was interrupted by the king’s unexpected death in March 1849. The series depicts Luxembourg landscapes, showing green hills, farmhouses and forests and, at the centre of each scene, a castle – in some cases in ruins. The existing canvasses depict Beaufort (3), Schoenfels, Berg, Hollenfels and Larochette (2); the last painting should have depicted a ‘View of the town of Mersch or of the Mersch valley’. Koekkoek’s choice of Luxembourgish themes was quite exceptional. Romantic landscape artists in the Low Countries rather sought the picturesque in the Belgian Ardennes or the valleys of the Rhine, Moselle or Ahr and Koekkoek typically followed this practice. His series of Luxembourg landscapes is also stylistically distinct from the rest of his oeuvre. His compositions usually show ‘pleasant lies’: ‘a selection of various pretty elements […] constituting a whole that does not correspond to any existing reality’, but in this case they are striking for their topographical accuracy. This painting, and the series as a whole, can therefore only be explained taking into consideration the political and private needs of Koekkoek’s patron, which turn out to be surprisingly international in contour.
When William II ascended the throne of the Kingdom of the United Netherlands, he automatically acquired the title of Grand Duke of Luxembourg as well. During his short reign, his public role as monarch was intertwined with his private interests in the Grand Duchy. From 1840-1849, he purchased a considerable number of estates in Luxembourg: the stud (farm) of Walferdange (1842), the ruins of Vianden (1844), the castles and estates of Berg (1845) and Fischbach (1845), the ruins and woods of Larochette (1845), the forest of Grünewald (1847) and a large number of smaller forests and terrains. The castles of Schoenfels and Hollenfels, although never his property, were repeatedly offered for sale to him. The king’s commission coincides with the acquisition of these estates, and the paintings show some of the properties he acquired (the castle of Vianden also figures on one of the preparatory watercolours the artist presented to the king). Therefore, these paintings can in the first place be considered as an expression of the owner’s pride. At the same time, however, they should also be understood as a political statement.
Luxembourg had formally been independent from 1815, but was de facto governed as the 18th province of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. This situation was threatened in 1830, when part of Luxembourg joined the Belgian movement for independence. In 1839 King William I had to accept an agreement which drastically reduced the size of the Grand Duchy. Furthermore, he had to allow a Prussian military presence in the Bundesfestung of Luxembourg-city. The twin dangers of Belgian sympathies and growing Prussian influence were constantly present to William II. Both his visits to Luxembourg and his purchase of private domains should therefore be seen as claiming the Grand Duchy for the House of Orange. The commission to Koekkoek can be read as the symbolic support to these claims, in which the presence of ruins represents the continuity and legitimacy of political power. The castles of Larochette, Beaufort and Vianden in Koekkoek’s paintings expressed the centuries-old bonds between the House of Orange and Luxembourg. William was keen to stress these bonds during his visits and strongly encouraged the initiatives of Luxembourg orangists united in the Société archéologique which was devoted to the conservation of castles and ruins in the Grand Duchy as a national heritage.
For a fuller understanding, however, we also need to look to the king’s ‘nostalgic nature’. In the English tradition, picturesque ruins within the landscape were generally thought to stir up melancholic sentiment, provoke an experience of the sublime or stimulate contemplation on human mortality. William had developed a particular sensitivity to these ideas as a young man on his travels in England during the Napoleonic period. This period would remain a source of nostalgia and had a lasting effect on his cultural taste. Some of the buildings and landscapes he would later design followed English examples, such as the ‘Gothic Hall’ created to house his art collection, and the estate laid out in Tervuren or the one planned at Zorgvliet which clearly embraced the English style. William especially admired the picturesque qualities of the landscape in Luxembourg and in one of his letters to his daughter Sophie, he even defined it as ‘un véritable Parc Anglais’. His travels to Luxembourg thus enabled him to revisit the lost world of his adolescence, and thanks to possession of these domains, he was able to arrange this natural setting as he saw fit. In accordance with ‘English’ aesthetics, William explicitly wished to leave the ruins of Larochette and Vianden to the mercy of the elements, issuing orders not to touch the ruins and to ‘do no more than just lay out small footpaths and conserve the forest.’ Koekkoek’s paintings can thus be seen as the reflection of both the imagined and the real landscapes William created. They can be read as the reflection of the pride of private ownership, an assertion of political power by the sovereign ruler of a state under threat, and the expression of more intimate aesthetics and sentiments – a simultaneously material and imaginary appropriation expressed in his collection of estates and paintings of them.
Creator: Barend Cornelis Koekkoek (1803-1862)
Subject: Larochette Castle (Burg Fels), Barend Cornelis Koekkoek, King William II of Orange
Object type: painting
Format: oil on canvas, 88 x 111,5 cm
Media: Main image: B.C. Koekkoek, View on the Castle of Larochette (1848)
Website of the Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art, Luxembourg: http://www.mnha.lu/en
Website of the restoration project: https://www.mnha.lu/fr/Evenements/Kuck-de-Koekkoek
Website of B.C. Koekkoek’s former house with workshop in Cleves, Germany:
Media rights: Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art, Luxembourg
Publisher: Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art, Luxembourg
Digital collection record: https://collections.mnha.lu/object/mnha6977/1/
Pelgrom, Asker (ed.). Gemalt für den König. B.C. Koekkoek und die luxemburgische Landschaft. B.C. Koekkoek-Huis Kleve / Musée national d’histoire et d’art Luxembourg, 2012, exhibition catalogue, B.C. Koekkoek Haus, Kleve, 23 September 2012-23 Januar 2013 / Musée national d’histoire et d’art Luxembourg, 22 February – 9 June 2013.
Zanten, Jeroen van. Koning Willem II, 1792-1849. Amsterdam: 2013.
For a specially commissioned soundscape inspired by this exhibit, see below.
Composed by Richard Miller. Performed by Izy Cheesman (oboist).
To play the video of the complete suite, ‘Romantic Sounds’, click here.