Getting aquainted with the Dutch Masters at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum

If you go to xxx and don’t do yyy than you haven’t visited xxx.

Many cities tend to have some variation on the sentence above, you need hawker centres in Singapore, meatballs in Sweden, Hygge culture in Denmark…

In the Amsterdam instance, the refrain is not just the red light district and the coffee shops, but also the Rijksmuseum. More than one friend told me to visit the musuem, both Dutch and non-Dutch, tripadvisor strongly advised it too, the many tourism videos also highly recommended it.

I had struggled with the relatively high cost of entry, 17.50 Euros, but was swayed by the approval and recommendations of my friends. What the heck, it’s not like I’ll be in Amsterdam again anytime soon, let’s go take a look.


Located at the creatively named Museum District (Museumplein), the Rijksmuseum counts among its sophisticated neighbours the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Musueum of Modern Art. The Van Gogh museum houses a collection of works from the late Dutch great Vincent van Gogh, the Stdelijk Museum houses work from the modern period while the Rijksmuseum has installations that goes back to the centuries, and underwent a massive musuem wide renovation in 2013.

Apart from being merely a repository of art, the Rijksmuseum is also a living archive of Dutch history. Showcasing art works as they were first inherited from the French and Italian peninsula traditions and later coming into their own with the war of Independence and the Dutch Golden Age.

The key selling point of the museum is perhaps less the history of art but the presentation of works by the Dutch Masters during the Dutch Golden Age. The Golden Age refers to the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, when the small nation’s art, science, trade, military and clout were at their most influential and the Dutch Republic was able to shape the events of the world. It was into this uplifting period that the major Dutch artists were born into.

It was not that these artists were more talented than others, it was rather that there was enough money to go around among the newly rich merchant class for them to commission art works and enjoy them. All these merchants wanted portraits of themselves – they wanted selfies before selfies were a thing. These merchants and professionals replaced the landed and religious class typical of the Catholic world as the main patrons of art in this protestant country. In fact a certain Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn began his career by making a portrait of the doctors at the doctors guild. The doctors gave an annual anatomy lesson to the public during the winter (think of it as a morbid way of entertaining the public on a cold dark winter night) at the Waag – the old city gates.

The piece that made his name was titled – The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, a painting that is ironically not located in the Rijksmuseum but in The Hague.

Rembrant’s painting broke away from tradition however in that his work reinvented the group portrait, it looks somewhat arrive and every individual seems to be suggest a subplot on every face. Now, prior to this work most pictures of dead bodies focused on the body of Christ just after the crucifixion, in a way this picture signified a huge change, the central figures are Dr Tulp and the cadaver – science and knowledge seemed like a replacement of God and redemption through Christ.

This portrait made Rembrandt a star in Amsterdam and led him to create be commissioned for even more works, including The Night Watch.

This is perhaps the most well known piece of art in the Netherlands. The scene does not display a major turning point in history but mere a group of people who joined a local militia to protect their town. According to experts, by the time the painting was made, militias were not always on active duty. What made this picture special was the techniques that were used and the way that the scene brought to life. What is the captain pointing too? What is going on? What is going to happen next?

There painting technique created a participatory image, and drew me in, getting me involved in the emotion, as it did with many others. I’m not going to pretend to have profound inputs on the picture, except that it was special.

Another picture caught my eye, this work by Jan Steen called The Merry Family. It shows a drunken set of parents and children that learn from their parents and engage in smoking and merriment. Perhaps to further drive home his message, Steen writes on the piece of paper hanging from the fireplace to parents that children are learning and watching their moves. I was drawn to it because it depicts the concept of Dutch practicality, that art pieces can be both moral and practical (sending a message).

I haven’t shown many pieces of art, because I think the museum deserved to be seen and felt. Prior to arriving, I thought that the museum seemed a great place to spend half a day.

I spent a whole day there instead.

I think thats all that needs to be added.



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