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Exhibition on city innovator Van Eeghen

Exhibition

Appeared on:

ma 20 november 2023, 14:00 hour

Pieter Oosterhuis Vondelpark Collectie Stadsarchief Amsterdam 1

Businessman and philanthropist

The exhibition Van Eeghen: Patron of the city and art collector (working title) will be on view at the Amsterdam Museum on the Amstel from March 30 to June 30, 2024. The nineteenth-century businessman and philanthropist Piet van Eeghen left his personal collection to the city, which is now kept at the Amsterdam Museum. As the author of initiatives behind the Vondelpark, the Prinsengracht Hospital, and housing projects in the city, he left his mark the city. 

The exhibition regards Van Eeghen as an Amsterdam benefactor, art collector, and banker. One of the ways he earned his wealth was through trade with the colonies. What does this mean for our contemporary view of his philanthropic work? And what roles did women have in his activities?

Louis Wegner Portretfoto van Christiaan Pieter van Eeghen Stadsarchief

Silent innovator

The major changes that occurred in the nineteenth century were implemented in part by public administrators, but private citizens in particular were responsible for many of these. Behind the scenes, silent innovators worked to change the city and its appearance. Among them was Piet van Eeghen, a member of a prominent aristocratic family. He will therefore be the subject of an exhibition at the Amsterdam Museum in the spring of 2024.

Influence behind the scenes

The Mennonite merchant Piet van Eeghen (1816–1889) was a key figure in Amsterdam society. Van Eeghen used his extensive network and family ties to advance his initiatives. Although these activities significantly altered the face of the city, he was not part of the city’s governance. His uncle Jan (1789–1838) and his eldest son Pieter (1844–1907), however, were members of Amsterdam’s City Council. In addition, his wife Cato Huidekoper (1822–1879) was the daughter of the first Mennonite mayor of Amsterdam. The influence Van Eeghen exerted on various citizens’ initiatives with the aid of his vast network has shaped Amsterdam to this day.

Reason for the exhibition

The exhibition on Van Eeghen is occasioned by a dissertation by Laura van Hasselt, entitled Piet van Eeghen and the metamorphosis of Amsterdam, 1816–1889. In the exhibition, the dissertation is situated in a critical and transhistorical context. Moreover, the museum is also taking this opportunity to display Van Eeghen’s art collection, which was donated to the city by his children after his death. The collection is exemplary of what wealthy Amsterdam residents were collecting in the nineteenth century, and furthermore reflects the belief system of a rich Amsterdammer like Piet van Eeghen during that time.

Prinsengrachtziekenhuis Collectie Stadsarchief Amsterdam Frits Knuf 1

Initiatives throughout Amsterdam

In his work, Van Eeghen operated from a deeply felt love for his city and the Mennonite belief that being charitable is paramount. By cooperating with other citizens, often from within his own circle, he implemented many important social and cultural reforms, such as affordable housing and accessible healthcare. The construction of entire streets lined with homes for the working class, the Prinsengracht Hospital, and the Vondelpark, in particular, had a lasting influence on the city. He was also involved in the establishment of several museums, including the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum. His private collection was donated to the city by his children and is now part of the Amsterdam Museum’s collection.

Moral tension

Van Eeghen’s initiatives improved the city, yet also maintained existing power structures. Women, the working class, and dissidents benefitted from these advancements, but were generally excluded from active participation in the process itself. Moreover, his efforts to increase the social freedoms of citizens was focused solely on Amsterdam. He was impartial to initiatives that had a transnational nature, such as the abolition of slavery. Although Van Eeghen & Co, a company which is still in operation today, is not known to have been directly involved in the slave trade, the trading house did profit financially from slavery through its dealings in products that were cultivated using slave labor. The moral tension between Van Eeghen as benefactor of Amsterdam and colonial merchant make him a complex and interesting figure.

Connecting past and present

In the exhibition, visitors are introduced to Van Eeghen’s various facets. The presentation considers his family history, his most significant projects, and his motivations. Each of the citizens’ initiatives to which Van Eeghen committed himself is linked to a comparable social project in present-day Amsterdam.

Jozef Israëls Kinderen der zee 1863 Collectie Amsterdam Museum 1

The Van Eeghen collection

The Amsterdam Museum has 93 paintings that belonged to Van Eeghen in its collection. Together they comprise a high-quality assemblage of artworks, typical of other collections from that time. Van Eeghen primarily collected Romantic paintings from the Netherlands but also from abroad, especially France. Highlights include works by Jacob Israëls, Ary Scheffer, Nicolaas Pieneman, and Alexandre Calame. Of particular note is the sizable collection of drawings and prints by the illustrator Jan Luyken, which was also given to the city of Amsterdam by Van Eeghen’s children. Because of this, the Amsterdam Museum owns the largest Luyken collection in the world.

Publication

The exhibition will be accompanied by a digital publication comprising essays on the subject from different critical perspectives and an overview of Van Eeghen’s painting collection, now part of the collection of the Amsterdam Museum.

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