Just like the painters of the past, modern-day tourists come to see this world-famous piece of Holland: the endless lowland with typically Dutch wide-open skies dotted with clouds, wooden houses and of course the windmills of the Zaanse Schans.
For the Dutch, windmills were a life-changing invention, one that brought prosperity to the country. Until the 16th century the living conditions here were very difficult. The wetlands and swamps were often flooded, and people lived in small farmer’s houses. Often the floods destroyed whatever had been built during the winter. The mills not only kept out the water, they were also were the country’s first factories. The big wheels of the mills could process all kinds of raw materials: from cutting wood to grinding grain.
So once the sea was conquered and the mills produced, the Dutch became rich. The result was the Dutch Golden Age, to this day considered one of the most important art movements in human history. Rich merchants paid to have their portraits painted, or wanted Dutch landscapes in their houses. It is estimated that around the mid-1600s there were some 700 active painters working in the Netherlands.
While the artists of the Dutch Golden Age covered a wide range of motifs, the windmills remained at the center of the movement. Some of the most important pieces from the time feature one of these constructions. Perhaps the most famous windmill-featuring paintings from the time is Rembrandt’s ‘The Mill’, finished in 1648.
With time styles evolved and new artistic movements took over. The windmills, however, stayed. Together with the overcast skies and the threatening sea of the Lowlands, the windmill continued to be painted by almost every famous artist around – from Van Gogh to Mondrian. And just as many local and international visitors are intrigued to see the windmills of the Zaanse Schans today, foreign artists also frequently found their ways here in the past. French impressionist painter Claude Monet was likely one of the most famous ones.
Hundreds of Windmills
The picturesque landscape of the Zaanse Schans immediately enamored Claude Monet, one of the most influential landscape painters in the history of art. Monet was so awestruck by the beauty of the place that he produced 25 paintings here, one of the original ones is on display in the Zaans Museum.
Monet wrote to his friend and painter Pissarro after arriving in Zaandam, “We have finally arrived at the end of our journey. We traversed almost the whole length of Holland, and to be sure, what I saw of it seemed far more beautiful than it is said to be. Zaandam is particularly remarkable and there is enough to paint there for a lifetime. Houses in all colors, hundreds of windmills and delightful boats. I believe we have found a good place to stay.”
The artist stayed in Zaandam for four months before visiting Amsterdam and the tulip fields. So no wonder that the paintings had typical Dutch topics like rivers with windmills and small boats, cityscapes of Amsterdam and of course tulips.
The Zaandam paintings comprise the first large group of works from a single location and a continuous period. Back in France, Monet adopted this approach on several other occasions. His famous series such as the haystacks, the poplars on the River Epte, the Cathedral of Rouen and the water lilies in Giverny were all created in this way.
The paintings Monet made in Zaandam are also special because of their colors. This might be one of the reasons Monet loved this place: there were plenty of overcast skies and grey water to experiment with.
In the old days, when artists like Rembrandt needed different pigments to make their masterpieces, they would go to a mill. And since the Zaanse Schans is a real life museum, you can still see how paint was made here.
One of the mills by the water, called De Kat, is believed to be the only remaining paint producing windmill. When you go inside, you see huge grindstones crushing limestone into a fine powder and pack it with natural pigments. Paint, it turns out, can be made out of all kinds of things, varying from wood, rocks, chalk (for lines on soccer fields), cochineal lice that live on a cactus (beautiful red color used in lipstick and food), indigo (for jeans) and even old rooftiles (terracotta colors). When talking about paint, people often think of tubes with sticky paste coming out, but that is not what De Kat sells. In the windmill, miller Piet Kempenaar has a small room lined with shelves filled with small paper bags of powder. “Here, you buy a teint and we give you a recipe on how to use it to make paint,” Kempenaar told hiEurope.
The Miller sells his pigments to restauration workshops, musical instrument makers, the textile industry and weavers, and to artists who wanted to paint with the same materials as the old masters of the Golden Age. It turns out there is much interest in these paint techniques, and Kempenaar has demonstrated them at the Rembrandt House, where a reproduction of the artist’s workshop can be visited. De Kat also produces a Rembrandt Box, which contains all the pigments the master used.
Looking at the grinding stones of the mill or the paintings of olden days makes the Zaanse Schans the perfect place for an historical sensation. Sitting by the Zaan River and gazing at the windmills, you all of a sudden realize that the past really existed.