While I was in Leiden recently, I took the train down to the Hague so that I could visit Mauritshuis, the Royal Picture Gallery. With paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and many others, this museum houses one of the great art collections in the world.

The building was originally a seventeenth-century palace, the home of Count Johan Maurits, who was governor of the Dutch colony in Brazil from 1636 to 1644. While he was governing the colony, he had this house built. When he returned to the Netherlands in 1644, he took up residence here (at least on a part-time basis).

After his death, the house passed on to his descendants. Eventually it became the property of the state. In 1822, the royal collection of paintings took up residence here, where they have hung ever since.

During my visit, one of the museum’s floors was closed to visitors, but the main masterpieces were all still on display. The price of admission also paid for an audio-tour, which was very informative. Usually, I get bored with such tours fairly quickly, but this one was interesting. I thought that all of the information it provided helped me appreciate the art more; I also liked that it gave you the option to learn more or move on after the initial discussion of each painting.

Without doubt, the two paintings I liked the most in this collection were both by Vermeer. I’ve loved Vermeer’s work for as long as I can remember, but I don’t actually remember seeing many of his paintings before. A large part of the reason I wanted to visit this museum was to see “Girl with a Pearl Earring. ”

“Girl with a Pearl Earring” is undoubtedly one of the most famous paintings in all of Europe. Like other similarly well-known works, I was surprised by what it actually looks like.

First off, it’s smaller than I’d always imaged it to be, only 44.5 x 39 cm. In this way, it reminds me of the Mona Lisa. And like that painting, the girl pictured here seems somewhat inscrutable. Is she happy? Is she sad? What’s she thinking?

I was struck by the painting’s pathos. I saw this girl as being melancholy and disillusioned. She seems weary to me.

Another aspect of the painting that struck me was Vermeer’s brush strokes. As the audio guide noted, the pearl, for example, is created with white paint and just two strokes of the brush. Seeing a few works by Vermeer all together illustrates this technique. He frequently uses minimal brush strokes to create such details.

And finally, the audio guide notes that this girl is dressed in a costume. I think it’s easy to forget this. The turban is not something she would have worn everyday. Many of the works in the museum are biblical or classic themes. The painters used their models to represent myths or biblical stories. This combination of old and new makes these works more interesting, I think. They become studies in tensions between modernity and classicism.

The other Vermeer painting that I loved in this collection was his “View of Delft:”

You can’t tell from this reproduction, but the brush work on this painting is magnificent. Vermeer paints some aspects of the work with great precision and detail; other parts of it — the boat on the right, for example — are barely sketched onto the canvas. This painting also illustrates his mastery of depicting light in his paintings. The reflections on the water and the light reflecting off of the water onto the boat is amazing to see. This is one of those paintings that you could spend hours looking at and marveling at the artist’s technique.

The Royal Picture Gallery also houses some interesting works by Rembrandt, not the least of which is “The Anatomy Lesson:”

This group portrait is rather large, and it’s interesting to see where each of the men is looking. Some are looking at the corpse; others are looking at the large book; and a couple are looking at us, which makes us part of the painting.

There are lots of other paintings at the Mauritshuis worth seeing. Paulus Potter’s “The Bull” is interesting, as is Jan Steen’s morality painting, “The Way You Hear It, the Way You Sing It,” which depicts children learning from their parents’ bad behavior.

I definitely recommend spending a couple of hours at the Royal Picture Gallery if you’re ever in the Netherlands. It’s a great museum that can be seen without taking up your whole day.