Tag Archives: Rembrandt

Vincent van Gogh’s 400 Days in Amsterdam

If you want a glimpse of Vincent van Gogh while he was still a theology student, and of Amsterdam in the 1870s, this exhibit at the City Archives will enlighten you. The delight of exploring the Eastern Docks where van Gogh lived with his uncle in the Navy is portrayed in some of Vincent’s letters to his faithful brother Theo.  Vincent is a vivid writer who gives a real sense of the bustle on the docks, especially when the floods of workers left the yards for the day, and of the smells and sights of great vessels being built and repaired.

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Photograph of Docks from Amsterdam City Archive


Admiral de Ruyter from Amsterdam City Archive

Indoors, van Gogh was exposed mostly to naval heroes and religious art, some of which he loved and writes movingly about.  He bought many prints cheaply from his favorite Jewish bookseller, and spent a lot of time in the Jewish Quarter, as well as visiting the nearby Rijksmuseum, then located in the Trippenhuis.  These artistic interests were in addition to his making the tour of the major churches in Amsterdam, and contrasting the styles of various Protestant preachers.

To pursue his studies, Van Gogh was tutored in Latin and Greek by Dr. M.B. Mendes da Costa, a Portuguese Jewish scholar who lived next to the great synagogue. He wrote about seeing the future painter crossing the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, sometimes with a little bouquet of snowdrops he had picked at a graveyard where he often walked. “These are for you,” van Gogh said, “because you do so much for me.”  After van Gogh’s death, Dr. da Costa wrote a moving reminiscence here.  For me as a student of Jewish Amsterdam, it was especially fascinating to see stereoscopic views of the fishmonger, the Waterlooplein market, and the old market as they were, and to be shown again how integral the Jewish community was to the city.

Back to Amsterdam After Heartbreak   

After a misbegotten love affair with a woman who refused to marry him, van Gogh left Amsterdam for good — except for a return to view the newly built Rijksmuseum.  He went with a friend who left him in front of Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride for several hours, then returned to find the painter in exactly the same position, reporting that he’d give ten years of his life to stay right there for a fortnight with a crust of bread.


Beating the Crowds at the Rijksmuseum

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.

Rijksmuseum photo

First, be honest with yourself.


How badly do you want to see the Vermeers and 

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.

IMG_3574Apart 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 IMG_3694
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.  

IMG_3689While 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!


Young Rembrandt at Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum’s room on the Young Rembrandt and his time which is as uncrowded as the Late Rembrandt show is mobbed.  Crowds understandably paw their way through to see that special exhibit, as well as the Night Watch and the other Rembrandt masterpieces.  But if you have seen what you want of the “Greatest Hits” in the Gallery of Honor — Rembrandt in his prime, Vermeer, other masters of Dutch painting — you may be ready for a break.IMG_2809

The Young Rembrandt room epitomizes the best of what the museum did during ten years of renovation, giving context for the artist’s life and later work through objects and furnishings as well as paintings.  It’s fascinating to see how innovative he was even as a very young man, painting a self portrait lit from behind among other surprising works.  Looking at his contemporaries shows the class Rembrandt was a part of, so it’s easier to see just what was innovative and exciting about his lighting and choosing of the moment when a story was at its most dramatic.


While there is much to comment upon in that room, what charmed me most was a portrait of Johannes Lutma, an Amsterdam silversmith, by Jacob Backer, and the objects which accompany it.  His face has such an open quality, and the painting is smooth and serene, the opposite of Hals’ bold brushstrokes.  Lutma clearly preferred a more polished style, both for him and for his wife, whose portrait hangs nearby.

Since portraits were Rembrandt’s bread and butter for years, it’s interesting to notice that, while the accuracy in Backer’s work is admirable and also characteristic of Rembrandt, the depth of emotion that often radiates from Rembrandt’s work does not seem to be there.


In the adjacent display case, I noticed a silver trowel attributed to Lutma’s.  I was far moreinterested in it than I would have been had I only seen the object on its own, as if a friend of a friend had made it.  Beside it was an engraved gold medal Lutma created for the four children who had important roles in the 1648 laying of the first stone of the Amsterdam Town Hall (now the Royal Palace thanks to Napoleon, but that’s another story).

To give us a further sense of Rembrandt’s environment as a young man, we see a carved arch from a great canal house, furniture with magnificent inlay of ivory into ebony, a ceremonial silver platter, and a great painting by Van Dyke of the marriage of William and Mary, two children barely touching hands.  On the other side of the room we see her as a widow at age 19, left with only the orange in her hand.  The sense of interconnections in this room is profound.  the more time you spend there, the more you will be spun into the web of the young Rembrandt’s world.

US Video Art in Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk

The last place I would have expected to find the advanced video art of San Francisco’s Tony Oursler would be the oldest building in Amsterdam, the Oude Kerk, built in the 13th century.  But maybe that’s the point, and it’s a juxtaposition Amsterdam is famous for, the antique and the utterly contemporary.   I’d gone over to hear the magnificent weekly carillon concert (Tuesdays at 4:00) and noticed the sign.


Soon, I was in the midst of commissioned work in that spectacular setting, projected right onto the walls.  This piece involved two characters talking, a very straightforward man who was blunt and clear, and this ghostlike figure who clearly wanted to hide.  According to the supporting materials (in Dutch and English), the point of all this is questioning the way technology and especially internet connectivity pervades many people’s lives.  I’m not sure I would have looked at the works as intelligently without that hint, but no matter.  




Older pieces from elsewhere were shown in two side rooms, which were beautiful in themselves, and which I don’t remember being open to the public before.  The contrast with the ultra-modern imagery (not shown here because it didn’t photograph well) was delicious:  two dolls talking glumly to each other, with faces projected onto their stuffed faces.



My personal favorite of the whole show was a talking worm whose discourse was uproarious, while what I interpreted as wounds appeared and disappeared on its body.  It reminded me of the dreaded internet worm.


Nearby, two large faces were projected on the stained glass of another time.  For me this was the most enigmatic of the works, but the history of the glass made sense to me.  It was removed during the Nazi Occupation and hidden in Zandvoort in the dunes (how or where the label did not say).  Unfortunately, some pieces were broken anyway, and the shards were all placed in this window, which Oursler uses as a screen.  That part I understand:  the present and its complexities and discourse are always projected onto the shattered remnants of the past, even and especially whatever we have tried to protect.



By the way:  Saskia, Rembrandt’s wife, is buried here, her grave in the floor of the Oude Kerk marked only with her name.  Her husband died a pauper and is interred in an unknown grave in the Westerkerk.

Be prepared:  The women of the world’s oldest profession are on display in windows right by the church.  However you feel about it, don’t be surprised.  And don’t take a photograph.