During the nineteenth century, Amsterdam burst out of its restraining canals, gobbling up the surrounding countryside with a slew of new residential suburbs. Neither did the developers forget to impress for it was here in the 1880s, on the southern edge of the city centre, that Petrus Josephus Hubertus Cuypers, the creator of Centraal Station, built the city’s Rijksmuseum, an imposing edifice designed in an inventive and especially attractive historic style. No mistake, the museum possesses one of the most comprehensive collections of Dutch paintings in the world and although it is in the throes of an extraordinarily long-winded revamp, the kernel of the collection – Dutch paintings from Amsterdam’s seventeenth-century Golden Age – is still on display in the Philips Wing, the only part of the museum to remain open during the refurbishment, which is supposed to be completed in 2013. Equally enticing is the neighbouring Van Gogh Museum, which boasts the most satisfying collection of van Gogh paintings in the world, with important works representative of all his artistic periods. Taken together, the two museums form one of Amsterdam’s biggest draws – and they are supplemented by the modern and contemporary art of the newly reopened Stedelijk Museum. From the Stedelijk Museum, it’s a brief walk northwest along van Baerlestraat to the sprawling greenery of the Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s loveliest park. As an alcoholic counterblast to all this culture, the area is also home to the Heineken Experience – a hoppy hop round the old brewery with tasting included.
If you are looking for a place to stay in Amsterdam, you may find our expert’s guide to the best area’s to stay in Amsterdam helpful on deciding where to visit next.
The Rijksmuseum is without question the country’s foremost art museum, with an extravagant collection of Dutch paintings, as well as a vast hoard of applied art and sculpture. Although much of the museum is closed for refurbishment until 2013, you can still see some of its world-renowned collection of Rembrandts – with The Night Watch and the exquisite Jewish Bride leading the way – but there’s much, much else. One undoubted highlight is the paintings of Johannes Vermeer (1632–75), most memorably The Love Letter, which reveals a tension between servant and mistress – the lute on the woman’s lap was a well-known sexual symbol – and The Kitchen Maid, an exquisitely observed domestic scene, right down to the nail, and its shadow, on the background wall. There are also paintings by Rembrandt’s pupils – Ferdinand Bol, Gerard Dou, Carel Fabritius and Gabriel Metsu; the carousing peasants of Jan Steen; the cool interiors of Gerard ter Borch and Pieter Saenredam; tonal river scenes by the Haarlem artist Salomon van Ruysdael; and several wonderful canvases by Frans Hals (1582–1666), most notably his expansive Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix Laen.
Pride of place in the Rijksmuseum goes to Rembrandt’s De Nachtwacht (The Night Watch). Dated to 1642, it’s a group portrait of a militia company, the Kloveniersdoelen, one of the armed bands formed in the sixteenth century to defend the United Provinces (later the Netherlands) against Spain. As the Habsburg threat receded, so the militias became social clubs for the wealthy, who were eager to commission their own group portraits as signs of their prestige. Rembrandt charged the princely sum of one hundred guilders to each member of the company who wanted to be in the picture; sixteen – out of a possible two hundred – stumped up the cash, including the company’s moneyed captain, Frans Banningh Cocq, whose disapproval of Rembrandt’s live-in relationship with Hendrickje Stoffels was ultimately to tarnish their friendship. Curiously, The Night Watch is, in fact, a misnomer – the painting got the tag in the eighteenth century when the background darkness was misinterpreted. There were other misconceptions about the painting too, most notably that it was this work that led to the downward shift in Rembrandt’s standing with the Amsterdam elite; in fact, there’s no evidence that the militiamen weren’t pleased with the picture, or that Rembrandt’s commissions dwindled after it was completed. Though not as subtle as much of the artist’s later work, The Night Watch is an adept piece, full of movement and carefully arranged. Paintings of this kind were collections of individual portraits as much as group pictures, and for the artist their difficulty lay in doing justice to every single face while simultaneously producing a coherent group scene. Abandoning convention in vigorous style, Rembrandt opted to show the company preparing to march off – a snapshot of military activity in which banners are unfurled, muskets primed and drums rolled. There are a couple of allegorical figures as well, most prominently a young, spotlit woman with a bird hanging from her belt, a reference to the Kloveniersdoelen’s traditional emblem of a claw. Militia portraits commonly included cameo portraits of the artist involved, but in this case it seems that Rembrandt didn’t insert his likeness, though some art historians insist that the pudgy-faced figure peering out from the back between the gesticulating militiamen is indeed the artist himself.