The crowds at the Rijksmuseum are thick enough to discourage all but the most intrepid lover of art. Fortunately, many rooms await you which most visitors never see. Just as you can escape the crowds when you go to the beach and walk a mile, you can slip into the hidden corridors of the Rijksmuseum and find wonders. In the ten year long renovation, the curators had plenty of time to re-think every aspect of presenting and integrating architecture, sculpture, painting, and household objects. The results are extraordinary.
First, be honest with yourself.
Rembrandt’s Night Watch? If the answer is really badly, then buy your tickets on the internet and go before the 9:00 opening. At 8:00 last week, I was the first person in line. Don’t carry any big bags, don’t check your coat, don’t pee. If you scroll down on this page, you can download a map so you can plan your route before you get there. Basically, come through the door, down the stairs and go left through the modern arches where the guards are. Turn right, go past the multimedia tour (unless you want one), right again, and up more stairs to the actual entrance. Then follow your map up to the second floor and sprint for the Gallery of Honor.
Apart from that, given that there are more than one hundred rooms packed with treasures, you’ll have to do some picking and choosing. You can opt out of making your own choices through the guided tours. Even so, I encourage you to stroll through every room on the second floor. This is the heart and soul of the collection, the Golden Age of the 1600s. Do it in order, which means beginning in the room with the big ship right by the Night Watch. The crowds will diminish as you keep moving. Be sure not to miss the view into the Library in the corner, where the smell of old books and sunshine (if any) will flood you with nostalgia if you are over 40 (near room 2.16). I’ve already rhapsodized about the Young Rembrandt room (2.8). Avercamp’s famous winter scenes are worth seeing close up, even if you’ve known them in reproductions for years (2.6). The dolls’ houses made famous by Jessie Burton’s best selling novel The Miniaturist are a fascinating glimpse into 17th century life (2.20). I could probably recommend something about every single room. This is where the collection is greatest and fullest.
In general, the farther you are from The Night Watch, the less crowded the museum will be. On the first floor, devoted to the 18th century, you’ll find two chunks of canal houses which anyone who loves architecture should see. I haven’t attempted to photograph them because it doesn’t do them justice, but do go to see 1.7, a neoclassical room from Haarlem, and 1.5, an earlier one from Amsterdam. Both will take your breath away in different ways. If you like Rococo, there’s tons of it. Lovers of flower paintings shouldn’t miss 1.8, the earliest works commissioned to sell bulbs which were being developed in the 1700s. A subject North Americans rarely see treated is the Ottoman Court in the 18th century, with all the different ethnic groups who lived there painted by Vanmour (1.4). Your education would be incomplete without learning more about the Netherlands Overseas, including seeing the gold-encrusted royal weaponry the Dutch seized and stole in Sri Lanka (1.5), and evidence of the trade in slaves to the Surinamese plantations.
Right where you come in, you’ll find the spectacular Special Collections in the basement. The
ship’s models are to die for, and give you a sense of how the Dutch accumulated all this amazing stuff. For the ingenious person, there are locks and keys of indescribable intricacy. There are rooms of china that even a non-china lover would be fascinated by. You can see the designer clothes left by a woman who had everything in Paris for much of the 20th century, including her lingerie. For a child with an observant eye, the charms of silver miniatures could provide hours of entertainment. Not to mention the armor and magic lantern slides!
On the other side of the basement is the medieval and Renaissance art, amazing oak carvings, brilliant reliquaries of various kinds, bejeweled church paraphernalia, ceramics, and paintings you will love if this is one of your favorite periods. Don’t miss the Fra Angelico even if you don’t like religious painting. Enjoy the double arches which make you feel that you’re back in that time yourself. The exquisite new Asiatic Pavilion will give you respite.
While its collection is not extensive, what is there is presented tranquilly and accessibly, with labels that actually tell you something even if you’re not a specialist. The first floor is devoted to India, with the “Far East” downstairs. Like the rest of the museum, seating is sparse, but you won’t be sorry you went. Once you get deeper into the museum proper, you’ll find the 19th century work which will probably look familiar to you: the Van Goghs and the depictions of the Amsterdam and countryside that you’ve had a glimpse of. If you love Mondrian, climb up to the attic to see some fine examples of his usual style, and a superb representational work of a windmill in the moonlight. If you don’t love Mondrian, skip the 20th century.
If you have a true interest in historic buildings, as a followup (or before you come) you may want to watch a lengthy but fascinating documentary about the ten-year-long renovation completed in 2013.
When you are so dazzled that you have to stop, go outside if it’s a nice day. The garden to the left as you emerge on the Museumplein side has a delightful fountain that tricks people into going inside, then gushes all around them. A kiosk provides champagne, juices and snacks, near lots of chairs near and under an enormous tree. The spectacle of deep dark red tulips is just ending, but plenty more flowers are on the way. Best of all, you can sit down. If it’s not a nice day, go to the other side of the garden and eat in the interior Rijks Cafe, or go a little farther on the left and try to glassed in Cobra Cafe. (There’s usually a line for the cafe inside the museum, and you’re probably ready to be outside.)
By the end of your hours at the Rijksmuseum, be they long or short, you’ll have images of paintings you’ll never forget. More than that, you will have had an education, thanks to the pithy labeling in a down-to-earth but erudite Dutch voice. And you will have had the experience the architect Cuypers meant you to have more than one hundred years ago, thanks to the brilliant renovation of the building, and the re-conceptualizing of the exhibits. Bravo!