IT was only when I visited the washroom that the name of Art Hotel Spaander began to make sense. The walls, including those of the cubicles, are covered in murals and paintings depicting the scenes of old Holland: Fishermen in their black hats, jackets and baggy trousers; and women and girls in their long dresses with white aprons and pointed bonnets.
I am in Volendam, a fishing village 20km outside Amsterdam. In the 1870s, the French Impressionist painters like Monet, Renoir and Pissarro had popularised en plein air (outdoor) painting, and artists from America, Europe and England started travelling in search of beautiful landscapes and scenes of everyday life to capture on canvas.
They were lured to Volendam by its landscape of pretty little wooden houses, colourful sailing boats and the fisherfolk and their children in traditional costumes.
Local entrepreneur, Leendert Spaander, who could speak French, German and English, had befriended the artists and even welcomed them into his house to use as a studio and a meeting place.
In 1881, he and his wife Aatje Kout bought a pub on the sea front, which they converted into a hotel. For these artists, affordable accommodation with a friendly atmosphere was key to their work, and they found this at Spaander Hotel. Spaander even built studios for them to work in and entertained them in the evenings over drinks. Aatje was the perfect hostess while his seven lovely daughters modelled for them.
It is Spaander’s hospitality that encouraged more artists to flock to Volendam, turning it into an artists’ colony. The English landscape artist Ernest Marriott wrote, in his essay On The Zuider Zee, about his stay in 1907, that the welcome a visitor would receive at Spaander Hotel was so hearty that he would wonder if he had been mistaken for a long-lost relative.
“Moreover he will realise before a week is out that this friendliness is sincere and genuine,” wrote Marriott.
“There were about 25 visitors of various nationalities staying there when I visited it. Most of them were strangers to each other, but we all became united in the brotherhood of art.”
Among the artists Spaander and his wife played host to were famous names like Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Signac, who, together with the Neo-Impressionist painter, Georges Seurat, developed pointillism (painting with tiny dots).
Some of the painters who could not settle their accounts ended up leaving a painting behind; going by the number of paintings, etchings and drawings on the walls of the hotel, there were a good number of impecunious artists. The total art collection, including those purchased by the Spaander family, now comprises 1,200 items.
Today’s guests at Spaander are privileged to be able to sip their drinks in the old bar, which is covered with paintings left in their original positions during Spaander’s time, each with a story of its own.
German painter Otto Piltz, who had given up the painting of a little boy to Spaander, wrote to his family that he parted with the painting “with a bleeding heart”. A couple of trompe de l’oeil (optical illusions) on a business card by Georg Hering (Dutch painter) is on one of the bar walls, close to a portrait of Spaander, and represent Hering’s hint that he had his eye on one of Spaander’s daughters. He and two other painters married the Spaander sisters.
British illustrator Tom Browne also captured the gaiety of the artist’s life after a hard day’s work, with a drawing dedicated to Spaander, of three inebriated painters singing, “We are not going home till morning”.
Word of Spaander’s artists’ colony got around and soon its guestbook became a Who’s Who, with the glitterati including royalty, statesmen and film stars.
The list includes Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks, Walt Disney, King Wilhelm of Germany, the then British Premier Anthony Eden, French crooner Maurice Chevalier, Andrew Carnegie, Muhammad Ali and, more recently, British painter Damien Hirst. But the signature that strikes me most is that of Big Chief White Horse Eagle who dropped in during his tour of Europe in 1930. Below his entry was the drawing of a white feather, which was his signature, with the words: “born 1888 age 108”.
In 2006, Art Hotel Spaander started the Artist In Residence programme, sponsoring up to six artists a year and requiring them to leave a painting behind to continue the tradition.
For the price of a luxury room, those who want to walk in the footsteps of Spaander’s artists in the 19th century can request Room 1, which has all the original décor from the time of Spaander. The only difference, apart from the modern bathroom, is the artist’s view of the Zuiderzee (Southern Sea), which is now the view of Lake Ijsselmeer.
The incredible story of how the Zuiderzee came to be closed off and turned into the 2,000 sq km freshwater lake, is another reason to visit Volendam. For centuries, the inland sea, which was silted up, caused severe floods costing thousands of lives at a time. Finally, the technology and resources were available in 1920 to build the 30km-long Afsluitdijk closure dam, which was completed in 1932. The seawater was drained out and replaced with freshwater. Volendam’s eel fishing industry quickly recovered as the eels adapted to the freshwater and flourished.
Needless to say, seafood is a prominent feature of the Spaander Hotel restaurant menu; I thoroughly enjoyed the selection of stewed, baked and poached fish and seafood with the butter and spicy Volendam sauce. We had Dover sole, salmon, cod, mussels and prawns with potato and sautéed vegetables and fresh salad.
For a traveller, a buffet breakfast is meant to set you up for the day’s touring till your lunch stop and, at Spaander, you get a substantial hot buffet to suit all tastes and dietary needs.
Souvenir-hunters will find it a lot cheaper to shop in Volendam. Don’t forget to get your photograph taken in the traditional costume of Volendam. I am glad I let myself be persuaded to do it because it was thoroughly enjoyable, especially if you’re in a group, as we were each given a role to play (I was the milkmaid).
Art Hotel Spaander, as Hotel Spaander is now called, is a national treasure that is steeped in art history. Spaander’s role in the development of art in Volendam in the 19th and 20th centuries cannot be forgotten. He managed to turn an inn into a sanctuary for artists, a place they can call home where they mingled with like-minded people.
Volendam is a 30-minute bus ride from Amsterdam and from there it is a mere 30-minute ferry ride to the village of Marken. Another village you must add to your itinerary is Edam, next to Volendam, where you can try your hand at making the famous cheese.
ART HOTEL SPAANDER
Haven 15 – 19, 1131 EP Volendam, Netherlands