Even if you are not into art, you may have heard that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam reopened last April after a long renovation… 10 years long! I was anxious to see it and rushed to Amsterdam for the May bank holiday. After a mildly long queue, despite having a pre-booked ticket, there I was… in the luminous atrium of the “Rijsk”, a Dutch national museum originally designed by Pierre Cuypers and transformed by Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz (whose other key project is the new Madrid stadium).
> Main art periods: Dutch Golden Age, Dutch Renaissance, The Hague School, Asian art
> My highlights: Willem Claesz Heda’s still life; Vermeer’s The Little Street, The Milkmaid, Woman reading a letter; Rembrandt’s the Jewish bride, The Night Watch; Petronella Oortman’s Dolls’ house
> Tip: choose one or several themed tours on the excellent audio guide
Dutch art: from still-lifes to cheerful portraits
While I find most Dutch portraits boring, I love Dutch still lifes. Willem Claesz Heda’s Still life was the first piece I encountered on my visit. The details of execution, like the reflection of the window on the glass and the texture of the oysters, are remarkable. I then started the Masterpieces tour on the smart audio guide that offers several 45 to 90 minutes circuits (eg. Masterpieces, Dutch golden age). Frans Hals’ Portrait of a couple showed the cheerful side of Dutch art as the couple is represented in a relaxed position and smiling, unusual in official couple portraits. In Dutch art, there is a lot more in the gaze, smile and face expressions than in other European art, in my view. Steen is as much a storyteller as a painter – look at his drunken couple being robbed. Another example is Rembrandt’s The Syndic, who looks at the viewer as if he has just entered the room.
The Rijksmuseum has > 10% of the Vermeers worldwide
Continuing on my Masterpieces tour, I gave the Vermeers just a sideways glance, not wanting to spoil my pleasure before I got close to them. Surprisingly, they are not featured prominently, like the Joconde is in the Louvre, but hang just like every other painting – except for the twenty “paparazzi” around them. Only 35 or so paintings by Vermeer have been identified to date and the Rijksmuseum has four, including The Little Street, reminiscent of Pieter de Hooch’s paintings. De Hooch himself specialised in simple life scenes with two through-views. Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (familiar to many as La Laitière from the French yogurts) is THE painting of the Rijksmuseum. I wonder how many of the visitors busily taking pictures of it missed its finer details. The light reflects on the bread, the back of the room, and the milkmaid’s forehead but not in the room corner. The colours were subtly chosen for their combination: the maid wears a red skirt that echoed the milk recipient and a yellow top with green sleeves. An infrared analysis showed that Vermeer removed a map on the wall to give more emphasis to the maid. Vermeer’s Woman reading a letter is also about light and shares with the viewer another private moment.
Other gems of the museum
Rembrandt is also well represented in the museum. Although not a Rembrandt fan myself, I fell in love with the Jewish bride, with the clothing of both characters painted with a palette knife. The gold sleeve of Isaac particularly struck me. The famous Night Watch by Rembrandt, however, didn’t bring the same emotions that the Jewish Bride did to me. Aside from paintings, the Rijskmuseum has other marvels to offer. First, its library designed by Cuypers, who charmingly said we have two eyes but only one mouth, suggesting we should read more than we speak! Another object of curiosity is Petronella Oortman’s Dolls’ house, a meticulous doll house made of authentic materials – you need to see it to believe it. Finally, the strangest object in the museum: a pyramidal vase for tulips in Delftware faience with multiple floors.
A bit of modern art, including The Hague school
The museum has an interesting early work from Mondrian, which reminded me of some landscape paintings by Klimt. Difficult to see any clues in this early piece of the direction that Mondrian would take afterwards. The Rijks has a few Van Goghs, but leaves his best pieces to the Van Gogh museum minutes away. Van Gogh’s Almond tree in bloom recalls a Japanese cherry tree. Van Gogh painted 29 self-portraits in two years, including one shown here. At last, I am grateful to the Rijks for teaching me about the Hague school. The Hague school was active around 1870 and was influenced by the Barbizon school of painting while including Dutch themes (eg: mill, polder). The Barbizon school is the French landscape school, which included Corot, Millet, and Daubigny, and preceded Impressionism. For instance, Willem Maris’ Cow brought to my mind Narcisse Diaz de la Pena and Paul Gabriel, Corot. After the Hague school, Breitner was a key Amsterdam impressionist.