What To See In The Rijksmuseum

The Dutch Golden Age is a refreshing change 

Amsterdam is probably on your travel bucket list for many reasons, and art may not be so prominent on your itinerary. If you can pull yourself away from some of the city’s other attractions, the Rijksmuseum is a must-see (and is a tad more family friendly). Here’s what to seek out in the national museum and art gallery.

Rembrandt's The Night Watch, 1642

Dutch Golden Age
Like many people, you may be bored of endless British museums dedicated to the Renaissance, nativity scenes or uninspiring portraits of monarchs. The Dutch Golden Age was a period in the 17th century that provides a refreshing change from this. Rembrandt is the big name here and his 1642 painting, The Night Watch, is one of the most famous pieces in the museum. But, some of the other paintings from this era are just as fascinating and entertaining, with many focussing on daily home life. Dutch artists loved a good raucous scene, such as Jan Steen’s Two Kinds of Games, where a gross old man basically gropes the landlady whilst the other men play blackjack. Look out for Steen’s other paintings, including The Merry Family, where he manages to convey a really noisy scene just using oil on canvas.

Jan Steen, Two Kinds Of Game, 1660s

Deeper Meaning
Most artists would claim their paintings have deeper meanings, but Dutch art became particularly famous for its symbolism. A good way to suss them out is to go in with the mind of a teenage boy, basically look out for sexual connotations everywhere. The guy holding a baguette? The soldier’s fingers clasping a limp glove? The man holding a recorder between his legs? The operative word here is ‘phallic’. Even a feathered hat has been linked with excessive lust. It’s not just sexual innuendo, though, as symbolism associated with death was another important theme. This was a category called ‘vanitas’ and is where still life symbolises death. Look out for limp flowers and skulls, like in Mignon’s 1660 piece Stilleven met bloemen en een horloge, where the addition of a watch adds more layers of metaphor about fleeting time and end of life.

Abraham Mignon, Stilleven met Bloemen en een Horlage, 1660

This links to the interest in everyday scenes, as well as to important symbolism. This is another category though, as you’ll notice loads and loads of scenes of homelife, but with very few men around. Vermeer is the big name in this theme, with pieces including The Milkmaid, Woman Reading a Letter, and The Little Street. They’re famous predominantly because of their skill, the milk being poured is done in intricate and intimate detail, but there are deeper meanings here too, with often moral implications where women were left alone and then courted by men. Questions of fidelity are implied with portraits of the man of the house looking over the scene.
Johannes Vermeer, The Little Street, 1657

Well, obviously. You’ll probably see these in tourist shops all over the country, but you may not know why they became so important. Tulip bulbs became really popular in the 1630s, and thus reached extraordinarily high prices. In February 1637, the Dutch stock market crashed when many people went bankrupt over tulip bulbs. Bollongier’s Tulips in A Vase, painted in 1639, relates to how fleeting earthly beauty is.

Hans Bollongier, Tulips in A Vase, 1639

Modern Art
Yes, I’ve spent most of this going on about the Dutch Golden Age, because it is so different from what you may find in an Italian gallery for instance. However, there is loads more to see in the museum. Of course, being in the Netherlands, you can’t miss Van Gogh and his fellow impressionists, although actually, the best place to see his work is probably the Van Gogh Museum down the road, which of course, has a larger collection.

Conceptual Art
There is also a whole floor dedicated to later works which are a lot more complex and conceptual. They’re not to everyone’s taste but Ferdi’s 1968 Womb Tomb is worth a visit, if only so you can say you stood next to a giant hairy womb sofa.

Ferdi, Womb Tomb, 1968

Dodgy Imperialism?
This is a room that is quite challenging, as everything in it is now officially ‘Dutch property’, but is all the result of imperialistic wars and colonisation. The Banjarmasin Diamond, for instance, was taken from round the neck of Sultan Panembahan Adam Van Banjarmasin of South Borneo in 1875. It has been declared state property and now sits on display. It’s important to go to displays like this and think about the morals of these issues, and whether we can learn more about Java and Bornean communities this way, or whether these objects should be on display at all.
One of the dolls houses on display 

Dolls Houses
On a lighter subject is this room filled with two huge dolls houses. They weren’t built for kids but for wealthy women who dedicated a lot of time and money to making them as realistic as possible. Petronella Oortman’s dolls’ houses, which you can see here, are unusual as the pieces were made entirely in the same way and using the same materials as their regular counterparts. Her dolls’ house cost as much as an actual house on the canal in Amsterdam, which is pretty mind blowing. They will definitely make you either want to crawl inside and live there, or go out and start collecting Playmobil.

So, there you have it, a rough guide of some major attractions in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Of course, there’s always more to see, but this should give you a good start…

Let me know in the comments what your favourite piece is in the museum.

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