The Netherlands' greatest museum, the famed Rijksmuseum is home to Rembrandt's Night Watch, Vermeer's The Milk Maid, and a near infinite selection of world-famous masterpieces by the likes of Steen, Ruisdael, Brouwers, Hals, Hobbema, Cuyp, Van der Helst, and their Golden Age ilk. Long the nation's pride, the museum was rent by major changes when it closed for a massive 12-year renovation beginning in 2005, in the interim, keeping a Gallery of Honor open for
the creme de la creme of the collection. As of Spring 2013, however, the revamped museum will finally open its doors, and viewers will see a lot more than just burnished gold-leafed ceilings and polished terrazzo-stone floors. For the renewed Rijks has abandoned the old art/design/history divisions and has now sewn these three previously disparate collections into one panoply of art and style that is presented chronologically, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. Don't be surprised, in other words, if you see a vase in a 17th-century painting by Gerard Dou and the same, real Delft blue-and-white vase next to it. That just the largest of changes wrought in the new revovation.
The first, however, will be the museum's spectacular exterior.
When architect P.J.H. Cuypers came up with a somewhat over-the-top design in the late 1880s, it shocked Calvinist Holland down to its—one imagines—overly starched shorts. Cuypers was persuaded to tone down some of what was thought as excessive (read: Catholic) elements of his Neo-Renaissance decoration and soaring Neo-Gothic lines. During the building's construction, however, he did manage to sneak some of his ideas back in, and the result is a magnificent, turreted building that glitters with gold leaf and is textured with sculpture—all the more spectacular now, thanks to the first-class renovation (thanks to Cuypers's habit of meticulously documenting all the designs, much of the building has been restored the way he intended it to be, including the terrazzo flooring in the Great Hall). This is, truly, a fitting palace for the national art collection.
The Rijksmuseum has more than 150 rooms displaying paintings, sculpture, and objects from both the West and Asia, dating from the 9th through the 19th centuries. The bulk of the collection is of 15th- to 17th-century paintings, mostly Dutch (the Rijksmuseum has the largest concentration of these masters in the world); there are also extensive holdings of drawings and prints from the 15th to the 20th century.
If your time is limited, head directly for the Gallery of Honor on the upper floor, to admire Rembrandt's Night Watch, with its central figure, the "stupidest man in Amsterdam," Frans Banningh Cocq. His militia buddies that surround him each paid 100 guilders to be included—quite the sum in those days, so a few of them complained about being lost in all those shadows. It should also be noted that some of these shadows are formed by the daylight coming in through a small window. Daylight? Indeed, the Night Watch is actually the Day Watch, but it received its name when it was obscured with soot—imagine the restorers' surprise. The rest of this "Best of the Golden Age" hall features other well-known Rembrandt paintings and works by Vermeer, Frans Hals, and other household names.
A clockwise progression through the rooms of the adjoining East Wing takes you past works by some of the greatest Dutch painters of the 15th to the 19th century, which will have you walking by: Mannerist renderings of biblical and mythic scenes where gods and goddesses show an almost yogic ability in twisting their limbs; eerily life-like portraits with the lighting maximized to flatter the paying subject; landscapes that may either be extravagant and fantastical in both subject and style or conversely dull, flat, and essentially lacking everything but sky; Caravaggio-inspired exercises by the painters of Utrecht School who employed contrast in light and shadow to heighten a sense of drama; straight moralistic paintings of jolly taverns and depraved brothels warning of the dangers of excess; meticulous and shimmering still-lifes of flowers, food, and furnishings; cold mathematical renderings of interiors that could be used as architectural blueprints. All of these works prove that the nouveau riche of the Golden Age had a hunger for art that knew no bounds.
Unmissable masterpieces include Vermeer's The Little Street—a magical sliver of 17th-century Delft life—and his incomparable The Love Letter, in which a well-appointed interior reveals a mistress and her maid caught in the emotional eddies of a recently opened and read billet-doux. Note the calm seascape on the back wall—a quiet sea was seen as a good omen by the Dutch; inner anxieties, however, are present in the mistress' face, so much so that the room's clothes hamper, lacemaking pillow, and broom all lie forgotten. Ostensibly, a more sedate missive is being read in Vermeer's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, on view nearby. But is this just a matronly dress or is the woman pregnant and thinking about a missing husband (note the seafaring map)?
The walls of this museum here are virtually wallpapered with other masterpieces by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, the Master of Alkmaar, Cornelis Engebrechtsz, Lucas van Leyden, Jan van Scorel, Joos de Momper, Pieter Aertsen, and Karen van Mander. Especially notable are the group company portraits of Frans Hals, the Caravaggist works by Gerrit van Honthorst, the often funny genre interiors of Jan Steen, the beloved landscapes of Jan van Goyen, Meindert Hobbema, Aelbert Cuyp, Hendrick Averkamp, and Jacob and Salomon van Ruisdael—these artists created the landscape genre and gave us its greatest achievements. Crowning all are the famous Rembrandt works, topped off by the Night Watch and the Jewish Bride (which Vincent van Gogh would study for hours) plus many other of the master's paintings; also note the many daubs by his pupils, including Gerrit Dou, Nicolaes Maes, and Ferdinand Bol.
The South Wing contains 18th- and 19th-century paintings, costumes, and textiles and the museum's impressive collection of Asian art, which includes some 500 statues of Buddha from all over the Orient. The Rijksmuseum's collection of drawings and prints is far too vast to be displayed completely, and only a small selection is shown in the Print Room at any one time. Elsewhere in the museum you can wander through room after room of antique furniture, silverware, and exquisite porcelain, including Delftware. The 17th-century doll's houses—made not as toys but as showpieces for wealthy merchant families—are especially worth seeing, as is the collection of expressive Art Nouveau furniture.
A particular neglected—and freely accessible—part of this museum is its sculpture- and port-filled gardens formed in the triangle by Hobbemastraat and Jan Luijkenstraat. You can also use the alternative entrance found here when the lines seem too long to its main entrance.
For an institution dedicated to antiquity, the Rijksmuseum has shown a remarkable technical savvy in making its vast collection more accessible via its incredible website. From the comfort of your home, you can make a virtual tour, chart out a plan of attack, and absorb vast chunks of background information. The museum has also introduced an "ARIA" (Amsterdam Rijksmuseum Inter-Active) system, which allows a visitor to ask for information—which may include visuals, text, film, and/or sound—on 1,250 objects and then be given directions to find other related objects. These "create-your-own tours" are available in a room directly behind the Night Watch.
Don't leave the country without visiting the mini-museum at Schiphol Airport (Holland Boulevard between piers E and F behind passport control 020/653–5036 free daily 6 am–8 pm).
Jan 30, 2014
This is a huge museum for sure! I thought bringing a guide book might be useful, or do rent the audioguide. Alternatively, I did try the Periplus guide app (www.peripl.us), which was pretty handy while looking at the paintings.