Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, I

The Rijksmuseum is the largest art museum in Amsterdam and one of the richest in the world, with a collection exceeding a million pieces covering the years 1200 – 2000; it is not something to see in a single day!  Or for that matter, in a single post!  I hope you’re ready to look at a lot of paintings.  Your reward for this slog?  They’re amazing paintings.  You’ll see.

The Rijksmuseum was founded in 1800 at the Hague, and moved by the King (Napoleon’s brother) to Amsterdam in 1808.  The current Neogothic building opened in 1885, and as shown below, it’s impressive.  In that last picture, I can just see the horses and buggies of

yesteryear delivering their well-dressed owners!

The museum is surrounded by fountains and gardens and statues, as shown below, but what intrigued me most was the artwork incorporated into the building itself, primarily

tiles of historical events, shown below.

Very classy!  As is the interior.  Below is a quick look at the formal entrance hall, with paintings that mostly depict scenes from Dutch history.  Those stained glass windows

of the entrance hall are also pretty cool.

Now, the main reason for visiting this museum! The Rijksmuseum has the best collection of Dutch Masters paintings in the world!  The Dutch Masters – such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, & Frans Hals – painted during the Dutch Golden Age, from about 1600 to the end of that century.  I am in awe of these paintings for two major reasons; they interestingly depict life – often ordinary life – from a very different time; and they display incredible, perhaps unmatched technique with their 50 shades of black, their depiction of starched lace that makes your eyes feel scratchy, their painting of transparent glass, their capture of light’s reflections, and the ethereal quality of the light in which they bathe their subjects.  The combination is simply breathtaking.  HOWEVER, the museum of course covers a lot more than just those years, so let’s start with a quick look at some earlier art from the 1400’s.

Medieval art was chiefly related to Christianity, made (and paid for) to serve needs for worship and veneration – and needed to fill the many spacious Gothic cathedrals being built.  Art from the 1400’s were done in a style called “International Gothic” reflecting its widespread distribution and marking the end of the medieval period, to be followed by the Renaissance.  The wood carvings and statues from this time are impressive, as shown

here, as are the paintings, shown below.  That first painting was done by a favorite of ours, Fra Angelico, a monk who – somewhat scandalously – often painted Madonna with

the face of his lover.  The other marvelous painting shown above is by Carlo Crivelli, done near the end of the International Gothic style.

OK, off to the good stuff!  Let’s start with one of the highlights of the museum – one of the most famous Dutch Golden Age paintings from the greatest portrait artist of the time, Rembrandt van Rijn’s Night Watch, 1642.  It’s sufficiently important to have its own room, and it’s placed just so; the painting is at the visual center at the end of the hall in this picture.  The Night Watch is a group portrait of the city’s civic guard getting ready to move out.  Until this painting, group portraits showed people sitting or standing stiffly.  Not here!  The picture is an action shot; motion is everywhere.  Furthermore, details of the

guards’ attire are stunning.  Look at the uniform of the dude in the light outfit!  He’s depicted in such exquisite detail, with a strong 3-D component, that you would hardly be surprised if he walked out of the painting.  And, of course, there’s a selfie that Rembrandt incorporated at the left edge.  Cute!

Below is another civic guard painting, Militia Company of District VIII under the Command of Captain Roelof Bicker, 1643, this one by Bartholomeus van der Helst, one of

the leading portrait painters of the Dutch Golden Age.  Like Rembrandt’s painting, it’s huge, filling an entire wall (and including a selfie at the far left, as well).  And like Rembrandt’s painting, it’s gorgeous.

There are soooooooooooo many Rembrandts here!  The good news is that it’s not possible to be bored by them.  Here’s a sampling, starting with the young Rembrandt.  This first

one is Tobit and Anna with the Kid, 1626.  The story is that Tobit is blind, condemning him (and wife Anna) to grinding poverty.  When Anna comes home with a goat, a reward for hard work, Tobit thinks she stole it and prays for his quick death.

The first painting below is Rembrandt’s Musical Company, 1626, followed by his Self-

portrait, 1628.  For Self-portrait, even at just 22 years of age he’s experimenting, with the light interestingly just glancing along his cheek, the rest of his face veiled in shadow.  The curls of his hair were made by scratching the wet canvas with the butt end of his brush.

This next Rembrandt is An Old Woman reading, Probably the Prophetess Hannah, 1631

(according to the Gospel of Luke, Hannah was an elderly lady who worshiped God day and night).  It’s amazing.  Look at that wrinkled hand!

Rembrandt painted only a few landscapes – here’s one of them, Landscape with a Stone

Bridge, 1638.  It’s pretty cool, with the dramatic sunlight contrasting with the approaching storm.

We’ll finish this Rembrandt section with some of his later paintings.  We’ll call these next two paintings ‘family portraits’; the first is Rembrandt’s Son Titus in a Monk’s Habit, from 1660, and Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul from ’61 (it was common during this time to

portray people as historical personages).  Another later painting is historical, The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, 1661, depicting the one-eyed Batavian

chieftain entering a treaty to overthrow the Romans (69 AD).  The picture below is The Wardens of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, Known as ‘The Syndics’, 1662.  The syndics inspected the quality of dyed cloth, and here Rembrandt enlivened the scene by

portraying them looking up from their work as though disturbed by our arrival, a clever artistic device attesting to Rembrandt’s creativity even in his later works.

Our last Rembrandt is Isaac and Rebecca, Known as ‘The Jewish Bride’, 1665 .  Note how this painting glitters, helped by the use of a palette knife and by painting reflections off the jewelry.


Leaving Rembrandt (alas!), below is a quick look at more Dutch landscapes.  The first painting is River Landscape with Ferry by Salomon van Ruysdael, 1649.  van Ruysdael

was famous for his pictures of the flat, watery Dutch landscape; here the small ferry contains 4 horses, 5 dogs, 2 cows and 11 people – yikes!  Must be rush hour, as the other boats are fully loaded as well.  The two paintings to the right are The Entrance to the Woods by Philips Koninck, 1665 and A Watermill by Meindert Hobbema, 1664.  Hobbema studied under Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael, the pre-eminent landscape painter of the Dutch Golden Age, represented by the underlying two pictures, Landscape with Waterfall, 1668.

We’ll move on to Jan Havicksz Steen, known for his paintings of daily life – often involving a tavern (his parents owned a tavern, and at times he himself owned a brewery and a tavern); he’s also known for his sense of humor and psychological insights.  The paintings are a delight!!  His scenes often depict lusty life that approaches chaos, so much so that a Dutch proverb, “a Jan Steen household”, meant a chaotic surrounding.  So let’s see some of these paintings!  The first is The Merry Family, 1668, depicting a family making LOTS of noise – and also drinking and smoking.  There’s a moral – the note hanging from

the mantel reads “As the old sing, so shall the young twitter”, suggesting less than ideal parenting (and presaging today’s internet?).  The next is The Drunken Couple, 1655.  After a night of revelry, the two individuals are so drunk they don’t realize they’re being robbed.  The owl print above them contains the moral; considered a stupid bird in the 1600’s, the owl can’t see by day (even with the help of a candle).  The following picture is The Feast of St Nicholas, 1665, which captures the elements of this holiday; the little girl has a bucket of treats, while the naughty boy gets a bundle of twigs in his shoe.

Continuing with Steen, the first picture below is Interior with a Woman Feeding a Parrot, Known as ‘The Parrot Cage’, 1660.  The next painting is The Sick Woman, 1663.  Is the

weak young woman pregnant?  To test this, the old-fashion-attired doctor has put a strip of the woman’s clothing in a brazier to smoulder, the smell revealing her status; and the discredited technique identifying him as a quack.  The last painting is Adolf and Catharina Croeser, Known as ‘The Burgomaster of Delft and his Daughter’, 1655.  This is a portrait of a wealthy grain merchant sitting I think unattractively outside his house, where a poor woman and child beg him for alms.  A rather strange portrait!  Interestingly, 2 years later Mr. Croeser helped Steen deal with serious debt.

There’s a lot more of the Rijksmuseum to see, so I’ll have to do another post – or two?  I’ll close this one with two popular painters from the later Dutch Golden Age, Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch.  Who is Pieter de Hooch, you ask?  Both painters specialized in interior scenes of domestic middle-class life, both had a sophisticated treatment of light, and both were keen observers of life’s everyday details.  Vermeer was only modestly successful, dying in debt and historically ignored.  Rediscovered in the  1800’s, he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest Dutch Golden Age painters.  de Hooch, on the other hand, was more successful at the time, painting more and painting for wealthier patrons.  Both had slightly different strengths, but Vermeer had the better technique.  Let’s see them, starting with de Hooch.  The first painting is Woman with a Child in a Pantry, 1656.  de Hooch effectively creates interior space via doorways

and windows.  The other painting is A Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair, Known as ‘A Mother’s Duty’, 1658, and uses the same technique to create depth.

The first Vermeer painting below, View of Houses in Delft, Known as ‘The Little Street’, 1658, is not your typical Vermeer subject; although the two figures doing chores in this painting are perfectly framed by doors, as if by actual picture frames, the subject is

clearly the carefully rendered detail of the old buildings.  However, the next painting, The Love Letter, 1669, certainly is typical Vermeer with its domestic scene (in spite of its unusual vantage point).  In this picture, the seascape on the wall behind the two ladies alludes to the letter’s content – in the 1600’s, the sea was often compared to love, and the lover to a ship.  The last picture below, Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, 1660, is almost photographic, with glistening light on the crusty bread (and the milkmaid’s forehead).

The light gradations and the primary colors are treated with a virtuoso hand.  Bravo.

The next post continues our Rijksmuseum tour with Old Master paintings.  You’ll love them!








Amsterdam, the city

Amsterdam is not a city founded by Rome; Rome wanted nothing to do with those unhealthy, marshy lands. It wasn’t until 1200 AD that a small fishing village was built around a castle on a dam at the mouth of the Amstel river, called “Amstellredamme” – translation, dyke (dam) on the Amstel. With time it was a city built entirely by intelligent town planners working with rich traders. In the 1600’s, during the Dutch Golden Age, local merchants established the Dutch East India Company, which became the strongest trading organization in the world.  At its height it had 150 ships sailing the oceans escorted by 40 warships and an army of 10,000 men. Amsterdam became the leading port in the world (it’s still Europe’s fifth largest), and its riches led to greatness  It supported artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer. Van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope here, and Boerhaave founded clinical teaching and the modern academic hospital. Its diamond cutters became world famous.  Amsterdam’s decline started in the 1700’s following wars with the other major sea power, England, and continued with Napoleon’s conquest, the World Wars, and Nazi occupation.

Today Amsterdam is known for its multi-cultural tolerance – including it’s early embrace of marijuana in coffee houses and it’s red-light district.  It has more than 60 miles of delightful canals that divide the city into about 90 islands linked by more than 1000 bridges, giving it some resemblance to Venice.  We’re here mostly for the museums, but first a peek at the city.

One of the first things to notice in this city is that bicycles and bicyclists are everywhere; everyone seems to commute by bike.  If bikes aren’t zinging past you, they’re parked in

row after row or head to toe on every available street or bridge.   Cars are outnumbered and do not rule the road; bikes do.  When biking in the US, I warily watch what a car is going to do, ready to react.  Here it’s the other way around; cars warily watch the bikers, who do just about anything they want.  And I must say, pedestrians also have to be wary about bicyclists; there’s definitely a pecking order, with bicyclists at the top.  Consider crossing the street – OK, jaywalking really, but it’s a common event.  Between the sidewalk and the road is a bike lane.  So you look down the road to see if a car is coming – but wait!  You’d better look down the bike path first, because there’s a lot more bike traffic and you’ll be flattened in an instant!   So you wait for the bike lane to clear, recheck the road, and start across the road.  HOWEVER, before getting off the road to the other side, there’s a bike lane to cross, with a lot of bike traffic.  So you stand in the road waiting for the bike traffic to clear so you can dash to the sidewalk.  Definitely trickier.

A distinctive feature of Amsterdam is its many buildings from the 1600’s.  During the height of the Dutch Golden Age, numerous canals were dug around Amsterdam for defense and transport purposes, and many wealthy merchants had new houses built along these canals.  These houses were generally very narrow with ornamental façades that

extolled the owner’s status.  In Amsterdam, stepped gables were a popular flourish.  These houses were both home and workplace, with attic and basement spaces to store goods like cotton or cocoa.  Hooks were affixed to the top of the narrow houses to hoist furniture and

goods up and through the windows, a tradition still employed today.  The buildings of Amsterdam are also often decorated with art, both old and contemporary.

OK, the comparison with Venice was a stretch, but still the many canals and bridges bestow on this city a delightfully pleasant and scenic tranquility, illustrated below.  That

last picture shows the Magere Brug drawbridge spanning the Amstel.  It’s the last of what were once hundreds of wooden bridges crossing the canals; its mechanisms are still worked by hand.

Let me show you some of Amsterdam’s more famous buildings, like the Nieuwe Kerk, or New Church.  Of course there is an Oude (old) Kerk that was a small chapel in 1306, undergoing many alterations until its final form in the 1500’s, shown here (now used for non-religious purposes).  The Oude Kerk became too small to serve the expanding Amsterdam, so a new basilica was started about 1400, dividing Amsterdam into 2 parishes – and subsequently centuries of competition.  The Nieuwe Kerk was damaged by fires in 1452 and restored to its final late Gothic structure, shown in the pictures below.

The interior of the Nieuwe Kerk is lit by 75 windows, a few shown here.

Nearby is the Royal Palace, originally built in the mid 1600’s as a town hall in keeping

with the power and prestige of Europe’s commercial capital (it required 13,659 piles in the marshy ground to support it).  When completed it was the largest and most expensive town hall in Europe.  In the 1800’s, Napoleon’s brother crowned himself King of the Netherlands and transformed the building into a royal residence.

Amsterdam’s Central Station is not really old – it was built in the late 1800’s – but it is gorgeous.  Built on 3 artificial islands facing the port, and 8,687 piles, this huge building

had to be a challenge to build.  Pictures of the exterior are shown above; the interior is no less  impressive, examples shown below.

Even the boarding area is attractive, particularly the metal art.

Well, there’s certainly a lot more to see, such as this basilica (Church of St Nicholas) – and let’s not forget the red-light district (where photos are not encouraged) – but let’s close this post with a quick look at Amsterdam’s ambiance, which is quite delightful. The ubiquitous canals and bridges of this large city divide it into domains that give it a small-town feel that’s palpable.  And yes, there are touristy shops around – flowers, bulbs, china, wooden shoes – but they feel like part of the town rather than a tourist mecca.  I hope the pictures below give you that feel.

Ah, humor me for one last topic before closing this post.  The (very liberal) Amsterdam does not shy from using the (poorly clothed) human form in its advertising, which to this American is always a bit shocking, followed by my introspective amusement at my being shocked, followed by my appreciation of the often clever tongue-in-cheek thought behind

the advertisement.  For example, the window advertisement in the first picture above, advertising stylish men’s clothes, is a clear reference to classical art showing men that are – ah – sweeping women off their feet (I’ve added an example of classical art in the next  picture).  I can’t imagine the outcry in the US with such advertising, but I do think there’s a sly cleverness to be enjoyed.

We enjoyed Amsterdam the city, but the real reason to visit is its museums.  Next post – the Rijksmuseum.