I worked just next door to the Rijskmuseum for 2 years, and until a week ago I hadn’t even been inside. I know, I know. It’s shameful. I tried to use the size of the museum and my short attention span as excuses, but enough is enough. I finally made use of my Museumkaart and spent my Saturday afternoon educating myself in art history. I have to admit that I’m guilty of skipping some of the rooms that didn’t manage to grab my attention, and still the Rijksmuseum visit took me almost 4 hours. If you don’t have the luxury of spending that amount of time there (and you could easily spend much longer!), I prepared a short guide so that you don’t miss out on the most important parts.
The Second Floor: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Steen and Hals
Do yourself a favor and head straight to the 2nd floor to see the most famous paintings by the Dutch Masters. I thought I could whet my appetite by wandering through the 1st floor beforehand, but by the time I got to the masterpieces I was already exhausted, my senses overwhelmed with colors and impressions.
Most importantly, you need to see Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”, his most famous and largest painting. Spend some time reading interesting stories about the painting’s details and anecdotes about its history (next to the painting you can find a handy guide on what to pay attention to).
If you go south from the room where “The Night Watch” is exhibited, you will enter the Gallery of Honour and find a collection of paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Steen and Hals. “The Milkmaid” by Johannes Vermeer might be a relatively small paining, but it’s nevertheless very beautiful. The milkmaid looks so peaceful and absorbed in her work that you can almost hear the silence in Vermeer’s studio. Take your time and stop in front of each and every painting in the Gallery of Honour – it’s worth it!
Now pass by the toilets and enter the next room to the right. Here you will see early paintings of Rembrandt that only prove how brilliant he was from a very young age. Take a look at his self-portraits and note how he applied experimental techniques, such as scratching the surface of the paint to better portray the structure of his curly hair.
Following the path to the consecutive rooms to your right, you will see typically Dutch landscapes by Hendrick Avercamp as well as paintings by Hugo de Groot; you’ll learn about Flemish influences in art; and you’ll get the chance to admire enormous yet beautifully detailed 20th century European tapestries.
I passed through the room with “The Night Watch” again, and I have to admit that I marched through the next rooms rather hastily, impatient to go downstairs. Only the “Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster” by Bartholomeus van der Helst caught my attention for a bit longer, mostly because I just love paintings in which you keep discovering more and more details as you examine them closely.
Now you can slowly head downstairs, but before you do, stop at the Great Hall for a moment. Let your eyes rest while you contemplate the walls, stained glass windows and empty space of the hall. It’s a great place for a break from all the overwhelming stimuli that the museum offers.
The First Floor: the Cuypers Library, Romantic and Impressionist Eras
When you go downstairs, start with “The Battle of Waterloo” by Jan Willem Pieneman. It is truly an impressive masterpiece, which had me gazing at it in amazement for quite a while, mostly wondering how the painter managed to work on such a colossal canvas! I walked from one side of the painting to the other with my nose almost glued to its surface, admiring all the colorful details and facial expressions of the soldiers. Take your time, sit down opposite to the painting and savor it for a while.
When you continue to the next room and turn right, you will find yourself in the Cuypers Library. It’s not only part of the museum exhibition – the visitors and researchers can actually come here and study from some of the oldest art history books in the Netherlands. Pay attention to the details like the thin columns, tiny spiral staircase, and old handles that help you keep your balance when reaching for an old, dusty book.
Exit the library and go to the room housing the works of Francisco Goya. The next room is definitely one of my favorites. It contains paintings from the Romantic era, depicting vivid sea storms, theatrical landscapes, and a dramatic contrast between sunrays peeking through dark, stormy clouds.
Continue through the next 4 rooms, and you will find one containing Breitner’s “The Singel Bridge at the Paleisstraat in Amsterdam”. This is a fascinating piece, because Breitner often took photos in preparation for his paintings. Just by looking at the paintings’ perspective, you can see how this new technology changed the way 19th century artists worked.
In this room, you can also see some of Van Gogh’s paintings, although the Rijksmuseum only has a few of them (if you’re a fan, you should visit the Van Gogh Museum). The Rijks does, however, display the famous “Self-Portrait”, giving you a taste of Van Gogh’s famous impressionist style.
If you have some time left, you can go to the other wing of the 1st floor and calmly admire the Enlightenment section, walk through the Haarlem and Amsterdam period rooms, and see art inspired by the Dutch colonial history.
You’ve just seen Rijksmuseum in 2 hours and taken in impressions from centuries of fine art. To reward yourself for your diligence, why not drink a beer at the café in the museum’s garden?
Rijksmuseum contact details:
+31 (0)900 0745
Open: daily 9 am – 5 pm