1808 – Signed: Louis

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences owes its start to a Frenchman. On 8 May 1808, King Louis Napoleon – placed on the throne of the Kingdom of the Netherlands by his brother Napoleon Bonaparte – signed a decree establishing the “Royal Institute of Science, Letters and Fine Arts”. Other countries in Europe had founded similar organisations long before. Louis Napoleon felt it was high time for the rather lethargic Dutch to have their own “learned society”.

In the words of the Royal Decree, the new institute was to “endeavour to perfect the Sciences and the Arts, to make such improvements in the Kingdom known to Foreigners, and to introduce inventions or improvements from elsewhere here in the country.” In other words, the Netherlands was to focus on progress.

Funding and a French bias

The institute followed the French model in having as members “the most excellent scientists and scholars from throughout the Kingdom”. There were four “categories”:

  • mathematics and physics;
  • Dutch literature and history;
  • ancient and Eastern literature;
  • history and fine arts.

From the outset, Louis Napoleon made sure he had the support of these “most excellent scientists and scholars”; Johan Meerman, Marinus van Marum, Jan Hendrik van Swinden and Willem Bilderdijk were closely involved in the Institute’s founding. Other early members were physician Gerard Vrolik, poet Hendrik Tollens, jurist/poet Rhijnvis Feith and linguist Matthijs Siegenbeek.