So, having just returned from a weekend break in Amsterdam that was, pretty much, solely for the purpose of seeing as much of the city’s impressive art treasures as I could, I thought I would do a quick write up of what I saw, and where, to help guide any other art lovers out there who are planning to do the same and head for a whistle-stop art tour of the capital city of the Netherlands.
Let’s start at the top with the big gun – the Rijksmuseum. Now, given that I was going to be visiting a lot of museums, I chose to purchase a Museum card for €60, which not only made it financially worthwhile (entrance is about €20 at each Museum) but also came with a promise that you could skip a lot of the queues. Which is a good thing.
Now, the Rijksmuseum is the only museum that opens at 9am – the others all open at 10am. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS FACT. The crowds will start turning up from 10.30am onwards. If you can get there for 9am or just after, as we did, you will get the pleasure of having Rembrandt’s The Night Watch pretty much to yourself.
For this is the main draw. What Mona Lisa is to the Louvre, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch is to the Rijksmuseum. It is, unquestionably, a stunning painting, though neither my favourite of his nor my favourite on display as I was more taken by some of the beautiful works around it.
Vermeer’s The Milkmaid is a tender, sympathetic painting that transforms an everyday woman and an everyday ritual into something worthy of observation and appreciation. And next to that is a quite stunning still life – Willem Claesz Heda’s Still Life with a Gilt Cup. It’s not often that you’re blown away by a still life but this painting is extraordinary – the film on the water, the folds in the linen… It’s absolutely amazing.
So, all these greats to ourselves with barely another soul in sight. But soon the crowds came and the galleries became very busy. It’s not often I have to keep looking at a floorplan but the layout of the Rijksmuseum is just one of the worst. The corridors are labyrinthine and, frustratingly, sometimes you have to go up or down a floor just to be able to see the other half of the galleries on particular floors. Nevertheless, if you persist, there are gems to be found.
Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist may well have made Petronella Oortman’s doll house the most famous dolls house in the world. Its details are exquisite. One of Rembrandt’s early self-portraits is also on display in another room, and there’s a wonderful Goya – the portrait of the judge Don Ramon Satue. But as well as this, look around you as the Rijksmuseum has been recently renovated and the ceilings and stained glass windows are sights in themselves.
The Rijksmuseum is situated in Vondelpark, in a cluster with the Van Gogh Museum and the modern art gallery, Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art.
So it’s a quick stroll next door to the Van Gogh Museum. Now, I adore Van Gogh so I was rather startled when my hotel receptionist declared, rather derisorily, that this particular Museum was not all that and would only take ‘twenty minutes to go round.’ Surely not? This Museum was supposedly packed with over 200 of Van Gogh’s paintings. Now, I know not everyone can love all art but surely this was an exaggeration?
Well, if it was, it wasn’t by much.
If I were being brutal, I’d say the Van Gogh Museum was a disappointment. However perhaps my hopes were too high as it really didn’t take much longer than an hour for me to see all that I wanted to see.
There are some works on the walls that will take your breath away. The famous Bedroom is here, as are many of his self-portraits (Van Gogh painted himself a lot as he couldn’t afford to pay for models). But Van Gogh only really developed his much-loved radical style in the last couple of years so it’s gems such as his tonal work in Quinces, Lemons, Pears and Grapes that excited me, and his last few works including Tree Roots, and Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds.
The earlier works, well, Van Gogh was still finding his feet there. And perhaps many works were on loan when I visited as there seemed a lot of space set aside for works from some of his friends, such as Gauguin (and not really great ones either).
So that was a shame. I’m glad I went, though – time looking at Van Gogh’s best work is never wasted – but perhaps I got more out of the Van Gogh rooms at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris than I did here.
Oh, and worth mentioning, even though we had Museum Cards and therefore got free entry, we still had to queue for those tickets. The queue, in fairness, moved relatively quickly (it lasted 10-15 minutes and was shorter than the no tickets queue) but still, you won’t be able to walk up and go straight in.
(It’s when you visit art galleries abroad that you realise how fortunate we are in the UK to be able to walk straight into our major museums and galleries without paying an entrance fee.)
And then the third in the cluster – the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, known locally as ‘the bathtub’ as well, it looks like one.
The line-up of artists in the collection sounded delicious – Picasso, Warhol, Marlene Dumas, Sigmar Polke, Marc Chagall… A bit of Cezanne and Matisse, plus a collection of works from Malevich. But these artists have huge portfolios and it would be fair to say that their best works are not part of the Stedelijk’s collection.
Funding for arts in the Netherland has been cut severely since 2008 and there’s no way the museum can compete with the budgets of the likes of Tate Modern, the Pompidou Centre and the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Nevertheless, I would recommend a stroll round these galleries if you’re nearby anyway as there are highlights, such as Anslem Kiefer’s dark Innerraum, and Francis Bacon’s The Human Image in Motion.
Three art galleries are enough for one day (even for me!) but I had a morning free before my afternoon flight the next day so I headed over in the other direction from Vondelpark to the Hermitage Amsterdam. This outpost of the St Petersburg institution doesn’t hold a permanent collection as such, but instead hosts exhibitions of works largely taken from the collections back in Russia.
When I visited in April 2016, the exhibitions were on Spanish Masters such as El Greco, Goya and Picasso, Dutch portraits from artists including Moeyaert and Arent Arentsz Cabel, and a third show on Outsider Art. And all for an extra €2 with my Museum Card.
The galleries were absolutely deserted (perhaps I didn’t need that Museum Card to avoid the queues, after all) and so it was quite special to have works such as Goya’s stunning Portrait of Actress Antonia Zarate to ourselves. The exhibitions usually run for six months so check the website before you visit to see what will be on when you’re in town.
So there we have it – a whistle-stop round up of the principal art galleries in Amsterdam. There are other tourist stops, such as the reconstructed representation of Rembrandt’s house, but time is finite and so I instead spent time wandering the streets of Amsterdam, popping in and out of the smaller galleries and coffee shops, and soaking up the atmosphere and the views.
It was certainly worth a trip to Amsterdam for the art but, if I’m honest, I came back to London thanking my lucky stars that I live in a city which has such a vast, high-quality and diverse range of works of art. And, largely, all for free. We are very lucky in the UK, and London in particular. Very lucky indeed.
Notes: I travelled to Amsterdam in the first week of April 2016.
- The Rijksmuseum © The Rijksmuseum
- Rembrandt, the Night Watch
- The Dolls House, belonging to Petronella Oortman at the Rijksmuseum, photo by Victoria Sadler
- Van Gogh, Quinces, Lemons, Pears and Grapes © Van Gogh Museum
- Van Gogh, Tree Roots © Van Gogh Museum
- Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art
- Goya y Lucientes, Francisco José de. 1746-1828 Portrait of the Actress Antonia Zarate © Hermitage