Riches of the Rijksmuseum

Amsterdam is synonymous with world-class museums. As home to more than 50 repositories of historic art showcasing everything from iconic sunflowers and tormented starry nights to contemporary art (the Stedelijk), pop art (Moco), cats (KattenKabinet), and sex through the ages (Sex Museum), the Dutch capital offers a museum for every mood.

Chess in the Rijksmuseum gardens.
Engage in a game of chess in the Rijksmuseum’s gardens, accessible with no entry fee.

The city’s cultural piece de resistance is the Rijksmuseum, the national museum that reopened in 2013 after a decade of renovation. Originally designed by Dutch architect P.J.H. Cuypers, the palatial building was constructed over nearly a decade—from 1876–1885, after which the Rijks debuted as the Netherlands’ largest museum.

8 Dutch Masterpieces from the Golden Age to Contemporary Times

The riches of the Rijksmuseum include historic art by Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Rembrandt, whose 17th-century masterpiece, The Night Watch, is now displayed in a hall designed to illuminate every detail. Alongside works by Golden Age Masters, the Rijks displays Delftware, sculptures, artifacts, clothing, Asian art, and maritime items that collectively re-tell eight centuries of Dutch history. A rotating display of some 8000 works facilitates new experiences for locals, as well as tourists.

A guided tour with an expert will provide contextual background sure to boost your appreciation of works on display at the Rijksmuseum. Among the most iconic are these eight masterpieces, representing the best of Dutch painting from the 17th-century Golden Age to modern times.

Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, Hendrick Avercamp, c. 1608

One of Avercamp’s earliest works is rich with detail and bursting with Golden Age life.
Photo credit: Context Travel

This early 17th-century painting depicts a bustling crowd on the ice, inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1565 work, Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap and Skaters. Avercamp takes a bird’s-eye view that encompasses grim details of a harsh winter. Hundreds of skaters, some out for pleasure, others out to engage in necessary work, jostle for position on a frozen landscape punctuated with pets and stray animals. In the left foreground, crows share a horse carcass feast with a dog. The bird trap referencing Bruegel the Elder’s painting is also in the lower left corner, alongside a jumble of farm equipment.

The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1642  

Rembrandt’s most celebrated work is also one of the world’s most famous paintings.
Photo credit: Context Travel

Commissioned in 1639 to depict the militia company led by Captain Frans Banning Cocq (in black, with a red sash) and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch (in yellow, with a white sash), The Night Watch originally hung in Amsterdam’s 17th-century Musketeers’ Meeting Hall. It’s now prominently displayed in the Rijksmuseum as the best-known painting in the collection.

Renowned for its colossal size (363cm × 437cm or 11.91ft × 14.34ft), dramatic use of light and shade, and depiction of perceived motion in what would have traditionally been a static military group portrait, the masterpiece was completed at the peak of the Dutch Golden Age. With effective use of sun and shadow, Rembrandt leads the eye to the male duo at the center of the action. Behind them, a woman carrying a chicken is both prominent and symbolic. The claws of the dead bird represent the armed infantry, the chicken a defeated adversary. The color yellow connotes victory.

In reality, The Night Watch is a misnomer. The dark varnish that covered the painting for centuries led many to believe it depicted a night scene. Once the varnish was removed in the 1940s, the truth about the 17th-century portrait of the Militia Company of District II literally came to light.

The Threatened Swan, Jan Asselijn, c. 1650

A swan defends itself from a dog in this dramatic painting.
Photo credit: Context Travel

At 144cm × 171cm, Jan Asselijn’s swan is essentially life-size, making the fierce movement and adrenaline-filled fear of this usually serene and stately creature all the more dramatic. Said to represent Dutch statesman Johan de Witt protecting the Netherlands from its enemies, The Threatened Swan is rich in political allegory, as befits its status as the first acquisition of the Nationale Kunstgalerij, precursor of the Rijksmusem.

The Milkmaid, Johannes Vemeer, c. 1658

Vermeer’s pensive milkmaid is among the Rijksmuseum’s most iconic works.
Photo credit: Context Travel

The rich ultramarine of the milkmaid’s apron—created with Vermeer’s signature lapis lazuli, which was both expensive and highly sought after at the time—adds a vibrant dimension to an otherwise everyday scene. The subject bears some resemblance to the Mona Lisa, with her barely perceptible smile that leaves viewers questioning whether she’s wholly immersed in her task or transported to another, less banal reality. Whatever the case, she remains mysterious, ensuring we’ll always wonder what she’s thinking.

Self-Portrait, Vincent Van Gogh, c. 1887

To save on model fees, Van Gogh painted 24 self-portraits during his two years at Fernand Cormon’s Montmartre studio. Photo credit: Context Travel

This 1887 self-portrait depicts Van Gogh as a suavely dressed Parisian, during the period when he stayed with his brother in France. Influenced by a colorful new style of French painting, the artist makes early use of the long brush strokes and other elements of Pointillism found in his later works.

Girl in a White Kimono, George Hendrik Breitner, c. 1894

In a series of 13 paintings, Breitner pays homage to Japanese prints that inspired Europe’s Japonism movement. Photo credit: Context Travel

The vibrant reds and yellows of the kimono draw the eye to 16-year-old seamstress Geesje Kwak, who was one of Breitner’s regular models. In this work, she adopts a dreamy pose that speaks to the perceived exoticism of the Japanese influence in Europe.

Oostzijdse Mill along the River Gein by Moonlight, Piet Mondrian, c. 1903

One of Mondrian’s most beloved early works references Gabriëls’ In the Month of July.
Photo credit: Context Travel

Before Piet Mondrian founded de Stijl—the movement behind his most renowned abstract works—he was a keen Impressionist whose pastoral images celebrated the natural beauty of the Dutch landscape. His use of non-realistic lines and colors are early signs of his departure from the naturalistic.

Square Man, Karel Appel, c. 1951

Karel Appel’s Square Man is among the few mid-20th-century Dutch paintings displayed in the Rijksmuseum. Photo credit: Context Travel

As one of the founders of CoBrA, Karel Appel was part of an avant-garde group formed in 1948 by artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, with an expressionist style inspired by the art of children. His first show shocked the Dutch art scene with bold colors and two-dimensional planes akin to those in works by Picasso and Matisse. In this painting, the subject screams for attention with his placid face and exposed genitals.

This guest post was contributed by Context Travel, offering private and semi-private tours of 50+ cities around the world. Designed to provide insight through dialogue, Context tours are led by architects, art historians, ecologists, chefs, scholars, and natural teachers and storytellers.

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