Amsterdam is filled with art museums and this guide is to help you decide quickly that there are four you can’t afford to miss – and hopefully to make you excited about them!
The Van Gogh museum
Vincent Van Gogh was born in 1853 in Holland. Prior to becoming an artist, he was a junior clerk at an art firm, as well as a teacher, bookseller, and a preacher. At the age of 27, he decided that he would change his life course once again and began to paint. His early works are rather dark and a little gloomy – if he hadn’t subsequently moved to France where his brother was and been exposed to the French impressionists he might never have learned the extraordinary use of colours that we now revere him for. But it was far from a sudden journey to fame. Van Gogh was impecunious, and could only afford to paint through the financial support he received from his brother Thèo. He was institutionalized with mental health issues and his labours went largely unvalued and unnoticed despite leaving the hospital in May of 1890 and moving to Auvers-sur-Oise to continue (great – with the benefit of hindsight) painting. Financial troubles and further mental problems took their toll on him, and in July of 1890, he shot himself in the chest in the middle of a wheat field and went back to his little room that Theo was paying for – to die.
The Van Gogh Museum was opened in 1973 as a way to display all of his works in one place and many people believe that it is the best of the Amsterdam art museums. As soon as you step into the Van Gogh Museum, you will be transported back in time to the days when Van Gogh was creating his paintings. Van Gogh experienced life in a way that few people do and he was able to portray his feelings in his paintings. As you move from painting to painting, you will walk with him through his periods filled with love and hope as well as times filled with anxiety, suffering, and despair.
The curators offer clues through the excellent audio guide about what made his art so great. Much of it comes down to the bold use of colours, which the guide explains using a colour wheel and colour theory. I was surprised by how shocking some of the colour use was when it was explained on the colour wheel. It may be shocking but it extraordinarily emotionally powerful. A little like meditating on a Rothko can take you into another world, so this is an emotional journey on steroids. One feels sucked in to his world of colour and through it one experiences dramatic tension and disquiet or happiness depending on which painting and where one is looking. The temptation will be to rush through the exhibition following the crowds from one name plate to another but I recommend at the end you return to 3 paintings you loved and spend 3-5 minutes with each letting its colours communicate with you.
The Van Gogh Museum is open daily from nine in the morning until six at night, except for Fridays when it stays open till late (until ten). Visitors will find the museum at Museumplein 6 in Amsterdam. The gift shop is filled with souvenirs that include posters, books, jewelry, and other gifts. One day I will get round to buying myself the complete collection of letters with Thèo. On a lighter note, the café Le Tambourin inside the museum has delicious food: try to dine there between twelve and three for the specials they offer.
If you are interested, see my additional feature at the bottom of the post on some of the enigmas surrounding Van Gogh that I found myself thinking about as I walked around the exhibition and you might like to think about too.
The Rembrandt House Museum is number two on my list of best art museums in Amsterdam. Rembrandt lived and worked in this impressive building at Jodenbreestraat 4 in Amsterdam for twenty years from 1639 until 1658. Rembrandt had some financial difficulties over the years and while he should have had the money to pay off his home from the sales of his art, he ended up declaring bankruptcy and the house was auctioned off. Multiple families then used the house until it was opened as a museum in 1911. Since then, the house and museum has been restored to look as it did when Rembrandt resided and worked there.
During his time as an artist, Rembrandt completed at least 300 paintings, 290 etchings, and 2,000 drawings. He also taught others how to paint, and collaborated on some, so there are hundreds of other paintings that have his expert touch in some way or another.
The Rembrandt House Museum is filled with etchings, drawings, and copper plates that Rembrandt completed, but there are also pieces of art from Rembrandt’s teacher as well as his students and contemporaries. In addition to the art inside, the entire house is considered to also be a part of the artist’s famous collection. As you wander round the rooms he lived in and view the printing plates he used, and watch a demonstration of a print being made from one of his etchings, you will feel you get a sense of who Rembrandt really was.
The Rembrandt House Museum is open every day of the year, except for a couple of holidays. They open at ten in the morning and close at six in the evening. Guided tours are available at the museum, but arrangements need to be made in advance.
The Hermitage museum in Amsterdam
The Hermitage of Amsterdam is located inside the Amstelhof building, which is on the Amstel River and near the Magere Brug. The Amstelhof building is at Amstel 51 in Amsterdam and served as a home for the elderly from 1683 until 2007 before it was turned into the museum in 2009. This art museum is one of the largest satellite museums of the Hermitage Museums.
The reason why the St. Petersburg State Hermitage Museum decided to open a satellite museum in Amsterdam was that the two areas had been working together since Tsar Peter the Great was in charge in 1703. The St. Petersburg Hermitage is located on the Neva River and it is filled with amazing art collections from many famous artists. While the St. Petersburg Hermitage is inside the New Hermitage, the Old Hermitage, Hermitage Theatre, and Winter Palace are all in the same complex. The Small Hermitage was Catherine the Great’s addition to the entire site and that was added in 1764.
The Hermitage of Amsterdam might not be as large as the St. Petersburg Hermitage, but they are still able to share many art collections since they collaborate with the larger museum. Quite a few of the collections are transported to the Hermitage of Amsterdam from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Each temporary exhibit is usually on display for six months and then a new one is brought in for people to enjoy.
The galleries are tall, white and spacious and usually not over-crowded and I have seen some fabulous exhibitions here over the last six or seven years. Two of my favourite works (in the unfortunately temporary exhibitions) were this Redon (Below Left) and the Meisje sculpture (Below Right).
The Hermitage of Amsterdam is open every day except for Kingsday and Christmas Day. They open at ten in the morning and close at five in the evening. The items inside the gift shop all relate to the exhibit that is currently on display, and is often a great source of inspiration for Christmas presents. Neva is the mueum café which is very striking in design and the chef has a good reputation for delicious two-course lunches although I’ve usually only had a coffee there. During the warmer months, guests will want to try to find a table out on the terrace behind the museum to enjoy their meal.
The Rijksmuseum used to be known as Nationale Kunstgalerij when it opened in 1800. At that time, it was in Huis ten Bosch in The Hague and the collections were mainly paintings and historical pieces. In 1808, the museum moved to Museumstraat 1 in Amsterdam and the collections began to grow. The museum has undergone many renovations so that it has space for the newest pieces of art.
The Reijksumeum might be better called “the museum of the Old Masters”. It is here you will see Rembrandt and Vemeer and the giants of Dutch art history. You cannot come to Amsterdam and fail to see this! It is more crowded, with longer gaps between the great paintings than in some of the other museums, but you simply must go and find at least a few of the great works. The most famous work is Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”. Listen to the audio guide to find out more about it.
The Rijksmuseum currently has 590,742 pieces of art and while that should be enough, they also have a cool feature whereby visitors are encouraged to create their very own Rijksstudio. A Rijksstudio is when a person chooses a work of art and then uses it in a creative way. People can choose to have these Rijksstudio pieces of art printed or they can create wallpaper, fabric, phone cases, and much more. It is a great way to turn everyone in the world into an artist. As of right now, the museum has 327,442 Rijksstudio pieces on their website.
Don’t miss the Vemeer. You may be interested before you go in watching a documentary (available on Amazon download) about whether Vemeer really was the genius with light and shadow and materials or whether he had simply built some brilliant optical instruments that allowed him to literally copy what he saw. The guy delivering the film set out to build such optical equipment and a staged set similar to a Vemeer and demonstrate that while a very slow exercise, it was possible to create a very high quality painting with no artistic talent whatsoever. This is extremely controversial and I don’t know whether to believe it. Watch the movie yourselves and enjoy the Vemeer and ask yourselves whether you believe it or not and whether this devalues the Vemeers or not.
While at the Rijksmuseum, you can also explore the Atrium, the Passage, the Cuypers Library, and the Gardens outside. The entire building is impressive and inviting.
The museum is open daily from nine in the morning until five in the evening. The shop inside is vast and on two levels. After spending a good portion of the day inside the museum, treat yourself to a meal at the Café. All of their meals include seasonal foods and many of them are traditional foods that have been served in Amsterdam for years. In addition to the Café, there are numerous espresso bars scattered around the museum or outside in the gardens.
I hope you enjoy my pick of the four art museums in Amsterdam you simply have to visit. Do come back and tell me what you saw and what you enjoyed.
Extra feature: Reflecting on the enigmas of Van Gogh
As I wandered around the exhibition I found myself reflecting on a number of enigmas surrounding Van Gogh. The big one is: how did he go from his miserable existence during his lifetime where he couldn’t survive were it not for Theo’s stipend, to posthumously becoming the Titan of art history, forward winding to today, when a single painting can sell at auction for 100s of millions of dollars? His mental state must have played a part – he fell out with his father before leaving Holland. He famously fell out with Gaugin when they shared a house in Aix en Provence despite being so, so excited that he was going to have Gaugin’s company. That was shortly before the famous ear cutting episode. But despite the apparent pattern, his correspondence with Thèo, which formed the backbone of a marvellous exhibition at the Royal Academy of London some years ago, displayed a man who was intelligent, astonishingly articulate and caring for society around him and informed about and concerned about political issues. The correspondence also reveals a man excited to tell his brother what he was working on and able to describe the latest painting in wonderful detail or to convey what was special about the new brush that he hoped his brother would send him. One quickly realises it is insulting to write off this genius as the gifted artist that was mad -and that there are times we should just avoid reaching for hackneyed soundbites.
Focusing on the different styles and different periods of his life, the Van Gogh museum is not just an opportunity to see some of the best art you’ll ever see anywhere in the world but also a chance to meditate on the life of this genius and all the unanswered questions it raises.
One question it raises is what makes great art – because you are unquestionably in the presence of it. Remember these paintings the next time someone tries to tell you that art is art if the artist says it is and that many forms of art can be brilliant. Ask yourself if perhaps there are some near-absolutes in great art, and what it is that makes them so.
Another question it raises is what it means to have mental health issues. How can it be that so many of the great artists, musicians and poets were so disturbed – what are we missing that these problems can co-exist with the pinnacle of creative output? It is surely insufficient to superficially say ” they had to have a source of pain to create”. What you will see and feel is deep complexity.
Perhaps the third enigma to reflect on is why his brother and sister in law didn’t help him show in galleries during his lifetime when Thèo was in the art world himself. Surely Thèo must have realised the colours were simply amazing. I sometimes wonder, was Thèo jealous – not that I have ever heard any justification for this from the art world, so take that with a pinch of salt.