A Neglected Artistic Gem on Amsterdam's Canals

It might seem odd to claim that Amsterdam's Ambassade Hotel is in any sense overlooked or undiscovered. Although it is unpretentiously and relatively inconspicuously housed in eleven seventeenth-century canal houses on the elegant Herengracht canal, its Tripadvisor ranking among the city's hotels is consistently in the single digits (No. 5 of 336, at last check), and its occupancy rate is close enough to 100% to be the envy of any hotel owner.

Exterior of the Ambassade Hotel, on the Herengracht canal. All images courtesy of the Ambassade Hotel, Amsterdam.

The Ambassade is also world famous in literary circles. Novels by Nobel laureates sit beside international best sellers in the hotel's library of 4,000 volumes, all signed by the authors, all of whom have stayed at the hotel; being asked to sign the hotel's guest book is an honor almost as exclusive as being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The Ambassade Hotel library.

Nonetheless, there is a real sense in which the Ambassade Hotel is an overlooked gem in central Amsterdam, for few if any of its eminent and satisfied guests appear to have taken notice of the fact that the Ambassade houses a museum-quality art collection. The art in question is almost entirely by the small group of radical Northern European artists who banded together in 1948 to create the Cobra movement, and who for three brief but eventful years terrorized the art establishment.

Karel Appel's portrait of Theo Wolvecamp (foreground), and other Cobra Movement works on display inside the Ambassade.

The Ambassade's connection to Cobra art began in 1988, when the hotel's co-owner, Wouter Schopman, attended an exhibition on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the movement's founding. For Schopman, it was love at first sight:

Cobra stole my heart...and as always with the big loves of your life, it came like a bolt out of the blue. Suddenly, my breath was taken away by the sight of all these amazing things: the colors, the freedom, the playfulness, the unconventional, the experiment, the intuitive...I hardly knew where to look next. It was overwhelming - all those hundreds of artworks in countless variations. Oil paint, work on paper, images of all types and size that oozed passion...in forty years they had lost none of their power, on the contrary. I stood there rooted to the spot and I got goose pimples all over.

Theo Wolvecamp, Untitled.
Schopman soon met Alice de Jong, a major Dutch collector of Cobra art, and it was at her home in Switzerland that he first met Theo Wolvecamp, one of the Dutch Cobra painters:

Theo and I talked for three days round the clock. He had tremendous knowledge, which he loved to impart, and I, well, I hung on every word. I also met Theo at various times in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam and Hengelo. He was a fascinating man, somewhat stubborn, authentic, averse to embellishment and honest; as a person as well as in his work. He was a man who would settle for nothing less than the highest quality in his work. Theo would not compromise but, as he said himself, kept on wrestling with the material until he had mastered it.

Schopman began buying Cobra art. He wanted to put it in the Ambassade, but the hotel's other co-owner, older and more conservative, felt it was inconsistent with the hotel's traditional setting and architecture. But in 2000, Schopman bought out his partner, and immediately began changing the Ambassade's décor. Down came the dark old prints of windmills at Zaandam and the city hall of Haarlem, and up went the bright and colorful paintings and prints of Cobra.

Room interior with artwork at the Ambassade.

Schopman has never stopped collecting Cobra art: he continues to buy it today. The walls of the Ambassade are covered with Cobra art - not only the reception area and lounge, but also the breakfast room, the library, the hallways, and even all the rooms. The Ambassade's collection includes major works by all the Dutch leading lights of Cobra - Karel Appel, Corneille, Constant, Eugène Brands - and by many of the Belgian and Danish members. But the greatest concentration is on the work of Theo Wolvecamp. The Ambassade owns and displays more than 500 works by Wolvecamp, many of them acquired from the artist's niece, his sole heir, in the years since his death in 1992.

Eugène Brands, Landscape with Church.

Schopman explains that Wolvecamp was sometimes called the European Pollock, and the comparison is a telling one. Among their many formative influences, during the 1940s both Wolvecamp and Jackson Pollock were deeply interested in the Surrealist art of Joan Miró, and particularly in two aspects of his work. One was that, in Wolvecamp's words, in Miró's art "form is never something abstract, but always a sign of something - a human being, a bird, or something else." The other was the spontaneity of Miró's art, and the fact that his images emerged in the process of working, without preconception. Another similarity between Wolvecamp and Pollock is their strong intuitive aesthetic sense for both line and color, and the resulting consistent beauty of their art. Walking around the Ambassade, the many canvases by Wolvecamp recall those Pollock made immediately before he began using his drip method: thickly encrusted abstract surfaces of deep colored spaces and calligraphic black lines suggest the presence of some living forms struggling to emerge from an indefinite three-dimensional space. Like Pollock's, Wolvecamp's heavily worked paintings are tactile, dynamic and beautiful.

Theo Wolvecamp, Untitled.

Any lover of modern art who travels to Amsterdam should add the Ambassade Hotel to their list of art sites to visit. The hotel's staff are proud of their art collection, and are happy to point visitors to key works. If you do stop by the Ambassade, you may or may not see a famous novelist you read in college, or the author of the mystery you read last week. But you certainly will see beautiful and fascinating art, made by iconoclastic young rebels of the late 1940s, displayed today in the elegant buildings of Holland's Golden Age.

Exterior of the Ambassade Hotel, Amsterdam.