Amsterdam Museums

Amsterdam has literally hundreds of museums. We had time to visit only five. You can find another perspective of Amsterdam museums on some previous blogs written by a guest contributor who spent a month in Amsterdam.

Rijks Museum

The Rijks Museum is Amsterdam and The Netherlands’s most important museum. It has a huge collection that is difficult to follow chronologically or even within genres of art. We had no choice but to viewed each gallery or groups of galleries more for our personal appreciation of the individual works, rather than to gain an understanding of an overarching theme of progression.

Amsterdam Rijks Museum

When we visited, the museum had a special exhibit: Rembrandt-Velasquez: Dutch and Spanish Masters. It provided a very interesting comparison of the very different ways in which master painters from each country addressed similar subjects and themes in very different ways.

Rembrandt vs Velazques self portraitsRembrandt vs Velazques self portraits 01

Although Rembrandt and Velasquez were the primary subject of comparison, the exhibit also incorporated works from a number of these artists, 17th-century, post-Renaissance Dutch painters including Vermeer and Halls (the later of whom was from current day Belgium which was then part of the Netherlands) and Spaniards such as Valdez Leal and Murillo. The exhibit provided one-to-one comparisons between each country’s artists around themes including faith, wealth, power, love, beauty and even eating and drinking.

Rembrandt and Velasquez have some similar approaches. For example, the range of the artists’ palettes, their technical skills and the subtlety in dealing with light and darkness.

Rembrandt vs Velazques light 01Rembrandt vs Velazques light

Some of the differences may be attributable to the selection of paintings in each comparison But many seem to reflect deep cultural and economic differences between the countries, such as:

  • Netherlands’ individualistic, humanistic cultural and belief system in contrast with Spain’s more centralized, religious perspective; and the fact that
  • Dutch artists’ fortunes were based on their ability to attract patrons and customers from a rapidly growing class of generally secular merchants. Spanish painters fortunes were much more dependent on the favor of the monarchy and the Catholic church.

These differences appear to underpin many of the subjects selected in their dealing with each theme and the way they were portrayed. Spanish pieces were much more likely to have a religious subject, or at least undertones and to focus more on nobles and the clergy than on normal citizens. One comparison of men eating was particularly striking: a rather austere Spanish meal in contrast with a Dutch table overflowing with different types of food. As for technique, the Dutch painters (especially Rembrandt) seems to make greater use of indirect light illuminating the subject from different angles. To our untrained eyes, the Dutch painters, and again, especially Rembrandt, also appeared to express human emotions and facial expressions more realistically.

Rembrandt vs Velazques mealsRembrandt vs Velazques meals 01

The museum’s permanent collection focused largely on Northern European, especially Dutch art. We were, as would be expected, particularly enticed by many of the Dutch masterworks in the museum’s Gallery of Honor. Among the highlights for us were:

  • Vermeer’s The Milkmaid;

Vermeer The Milkmaid

  • Van Ruysdael’s The Windmill;
  • Steen’s The Sick Woman and The Merry Family, the artist’s humorous, yet serious warnings as to how adult behavior influences children; and of course

Steen - The Sick Woman

  • Rembrandt’s self-portraits and especially, the gestures and expressions of the disorderly group of soldiers in The Nightwatch, which was, while on full display, also undergoing stereomicroscopic analysis and repair.

Rembrandt Night Watch

Panels explained how many of these painters either traveled to or were influenced by Late Renaissance Italian painters, especially the realism and expressiveness of Caravaggio. And also how many, other than the few of the more versatile of the artists, tended to specialize in portraits or landscapes.

Although we found a number of interesting works in many sections of the museum, we particularly liked the small, but nice collections of:

  • Late 19th and early 20th century works, especially some of those by Van Gogh and James Ensor and the muted colors of some of the Hague School landscapes;

Ensor - Intrigue

  • Contemporary art, from the very late 20th and early 21st centuries;
  • Delftware, with their evolving styles, growing Chinese influence and the admission that while the designs may be subtle and effective, Dutch porcelain-making technology was well behind that of China.


Van Gogh Museum

Vincent Van Gogh struggles for many years to find a profession. He settled on painting on which he focused for only ten years of his very short life. During these short years, he left an amazing legacy as one of the most innovative painters of a generation and an inspiration to many who followed.

The exhibition began with a number of the artist’s self-portraits. It was less expensive to paint himself than to hire models. It also allowed him to continually experiment with different brushstrokes, colors, emotions and facial expressions.

While most other artists of his generation focused on nature and on high-profile urban scenes of middle- and upper-class citizens that actually bought art, Van Gogh, like Jules Breton and Jean-Francoise Millet, was much more interested in painting famers and laborers and the areas in which they worked.

Not surprising, many of Van Gogh’s early works adopted these artists’ styles, as well as their subjects. Many of these focused on expressing these workers lives and emotions, and the nobility of their labors and commitment, though their hands, as well as their faces.

The Potato Eaters is one of his masterworks. It expressed the struggles of his subjects’ daily lives by emphasizing their rough hands and haggard faces in the muted gray, black and brown tones of the dark, dingy homes and their surroundings. While the artist thought this was one of his best and most expressive works to date, it was panned by critics as a caricature.

Amsterdam - Van Gogh Museum - Potato Eaters

He and his artistic influences, however, evolved. While his subset matter remained consistent, his style was increasingly influenced by contemporaries such as Signac, Seurat, Pissarro and Gaugin. His In the Café, reflects this evolution to a more contemporary style.

Amsterdam - Van Gogh Museum - In the Cafe

Since many influencers of his style lived in Paris, he moved there from the rural village in which his father was a preacher (and with whom the artist was living) in 1886. His work with artists such as Lautrec and Gaugin is reflected in the long, strong brushstrokes and vibrant colors of his 1887 Red Cabbages and Onions.

Amsterdam - Van Gogh Museum - Red Cabbages and Onions

Signac’s influence is seen from Van Gogh’s increased experimentation with color. He painted with complementary colors, with pure, undiluted paints. This allowed the combination to occur in the viewer’s eyes, rather than on the canvas.

Eager to apply these new techniques to his preferred subject matter and to integrate them into his own personal style, Van Gogh moved to the rural farming community of Arles. His style evolved to what has become his trademark use of bold, energetic brushstrokes and even more vivid color combinations. This style is evident in his Orchards and Sunflower paintings. He continued to refine this style in paintings including his 1888 The Bedroom and The Harvest (the latter of which he viewed as one of his best works).

Amsterdam - Van Gogh Museum - orchardAmsterdam - Van Gogh Museum - The BedroomAmsterdam - Van Gogh Museum - Sunflowers

The influence of Japanese woodblock prints became evident in 1889, as in his Bandaged Ear self-portrait, the result of his famous act of self-mutilation (cutting off his ear) when his then roommate and painting partner Paul Gaugin left to escape the rages of the emotionally-troubled Vincent.

Amsterdam - Van Gogh Museum - self portrait with bandaged ear

By then, however, the artist’s mental state had taken a turn for the worse. He experienced anxiety, hallucinations and mental breakdowns (symptoms that are now thought to derive from a form of epilepsy). At the urging of his supportive brother Theo, a Paris art dealer, he periodically admitted himself to a hospital. While Van Gogh did little work during his worst periods, he busied himself with pictures of the hospital’s unkempt gardens when he was feeling well.

In 1890, he moved to Auvers to be closer to Paris and his brother. During his less and less frequent healthy periods, he moved into an increasingly frenetic stage. He painted up to a picture a day—with ever more expressive colors—during the last few months before he ended up taking his own life with a shot to his chest. His last work, the not yet completed Tree Roots, was still on his easel at his death.

Amsterdam - Van Gogh Museum - Tree Roots

One section of the exhibit focused on Van Gogh’s drawings, the earliest of which were focused on experimentation in the use of lines. While many of these drawings are preparatory works, some appear as finished works in their own right.

While Theo died of natural causes shortly after Vincent’s death, Theo’s wife continued to believe in Vincent’s work. She tirelessly promoted them, arranging shows and encouraging more and more dealers to promote his work. A good portion of the artist’s current fame and his influence on the work of future artists including Voulard, Denis and Munch—and to an extent, even Matisse– is probably attributable to her tireless work.

During our visit, the museum had devoted a number of galleries to the work of Jean-Francois Millet, one of the first of the major French artists to focus on peasant life and one of the first major influences on Van Gogh.

This artist, who lived from 1914 to 1875, applied then-radical techniques to the depiction of French peasant life and the relation of humans to nature. Much of Millet’s earlier works focused on people, especially bodies with his experimentation with lines and colors in portraying the beauty and sensuousness of twisted nude bodies. And when he painted people in nature, it was typically the people in the foreground.

Amsterdam - Van Gogh Museum - Millet The GleanersAmsterdam - Van Gogh Museum - Millet Wineyard Laborer Resting

This changed in the later years of his career. During this period, nature took the front row and people were in the background, often with vague and indistinguishable features. Many of his works are shown in relation to works of future painters on whom he had an influence: not only Van Gogh, but also Pissarro, Singer-Sargent and even Dali.

Anne Frank House

The Anne Frank House was where Anne Frank wrote a diary while she and her Jewish family were in hiding during WWII.

Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was a Frankfurt Germany businessman. He saw the warning signs of being a Jew as far back as 1933. He moved his family to the more Jew-accommodating environment of Amsterdam and took a position as a manager in a trading company. But then the Nazis came and occupied Holland for four years between 1940 and 1945.

The family lived and Otto worked openly as a manager in an Amsterdam trading company warehouse for two years of increasingly restrictive German measures. Jews had to register and were excluded from public facilities such as theaters and swimming pools. They could only attend segregated, Jewish-only schools. Visiting non-Jewish friends? Verboten. They could only shop between 3:00 and 5:00 PM. They had strict curfews and had to wear yellow Stars of David on their clothes.

In 1942, Otto’s daughter (Anne’s older sister) was ordered to report for transfer to a work camp in Germany. Fearing for his daughter’s life and unable to leave Holland, a few of Otto’s colleagues agreed to hide and support the Franks and one other family in the warehouse annex. Their sanctuary was a few rooms above the warehouse whose entry was hidden by a bookcase.

Anne Frank house - bookcase that hid the entranceAnne Frank house - entrance behind bookcase

The audio-guided tour takes you into the hiding place. It tells you of the day-to-day lives and conditions in which the families lived for two years. Imagine 8 people living in a cramped space with blacked-out windows. They had to maintain strict silence (including no use of water or the flushing of toilets) during work hours. Since they couldn’t go out, Otto’s supportive former colleagues bought provisions for them on the black market.

Inevitably clashes broke out with eight people living in such an environment. The tour explained how the invasion of Normandy brought false hope for freedom. One saw examples of the magazine pictures they pasted to the walls to provide some semblance of a home. It also explained why Otto requested that the rooms be left bare, rather than be artificially furnished with similar, period furniture.

Anne Frank house kitchenAnne Frank house - room with magazine pictures on the wall

The family was discovered on August 4, 1944. They were sent to a local work camp before being transferred to concentration camps on the last train to leave Amsterdam for Auschwitz before the city was liberated. Otto was the only one of the eight Jews hiding in the space to survive. After eventually learning of the death of his wife and two daughters, and the discovery of Anne’s diary, he dedicated the rest of his life to get the diary published and to exposing the tragedy of the occupation and the Holocaust.

At the end of the tour, we saw a copy of Anne’s second diary. This is a more formal rewrite of the contemporaneous record that the aspiring journalist wrote in anticipation of getting it published once the war ended and she and her family could resume their lives. We learned how Otto learned about the diary, how much it told him about his daughter’s actual thoughts (rather than those she expressed to him when she was alive) and his work to get it published.

The exhibition also includes a series of touchingly sketches and watercolors created by an artist who researched the Frank’s lives. In order to imagine and recreate scenes and express the feelings of the families during their years of hiding, the artist spent days in the hiding spot.


Dutch Resistance Museum

The Resistance Museum is a tribute to those who defied the Nazi occupiers. Such resistors harbored Jews, subtly disrupted German efforts, organized resistance, or actively fought the Germans. The museum poses the question: What would you do? Would you adjust to the occupation, collaborate with the Germans or resist? We knew what we would hope we would do, but doing and thinking about doing are 2 different things.

The museum provided two sets of exhibits that were integrated throughout the museum. The first provided the brief four-day “war” in which Germany bombed Rotterdam into submission and then accepted the surrender of Amsterdam. This line of exhibits takes you through the five-year occupation from when the Nazi’s initially tried to win Dutch loyalties before their campaign against Jews and increasingly harsh forms of discipline. This narrative approach took us through the war to the false hope of liberation in 1943, to the brutal winter of 1943/44 when many died of hunger, through the active insurgency and eventual German surrender and the subsequent need to distribute food to the survivors. Exhibits included a printing press from an underground newspaper and examples of radios that were verboten.

radiosprinting machine used for underground resistance flyers

A series of vignettes looked at the choices different individuals made with each of these circumstances.  It looked at students and teachers, clergy and union leaders and everybody from everyday housewives through city leaders. It talked about the actions of some of the 45,000 full-time resistance fighters and the roughly 350,000 others who specifically supported the full-time core and helped Jews and other others at considerable risk to themselves. And it kept asking, “what would you do?”.

The exhibit concludes with a brief overview of the rebuilding process. It briefly explored the 1960’s process of reexamining the implication and lessons of WWII and the subsequent re-emergence of right-wing groups. A separate section examines the war from the perspective of the then-Dutch colony of Indonesia. The exhibit began describing the support that the Dutch-based colonial government provided the exiled Dutch government. Then came a description of life under brutal Japanese rule and how a growing number of native Indonesians were more inclined to support and help the Japanese than their traditional Dutch rulers. In concluded with how Holland and other colonial powers were forced to grant their colonies independence.

Maritime Museum

A retrospective on Amsterdam’s seafaring history that begins in the museum’s Main Gallery. Here you find descriptions as well as numerous artifacts surrounding Spanish control of Amsterdam, the conflict between Spain’s King Philip (who wanted to increase central control over the city’s trade) and Dutch merchants (who demanded increased flexibility). This resulted in the Eighty-Year War that ended with independence and subsequent series of conflicts with England for control of the 17th-century seas and led to the city’s Golden Age. It took us through the mid-18th century, after which the Golden Age ended, but when Dutch ports still dominated the North European trade of most bulk cargo, and especially of grain.

Another gallery focused specifically on the Golden Age, where it examined the city throughout the roughly one and half century (1600-1750) era during which the Netherlands in general, and Amsterdam in particular, were among the richest and most powerful countries and cities in the Western world. While much of the focus on this period focuses on trade and sea power, the exhibit begins by focusing on internal developments—particularly the roles of cities and private companies in buying the rights to swampland, building dikes, using windmills to pump and keep water out and building huge numbers of homes, warehouses and factories; and on the impact this had on traditional farm and subsistence fishing families.

The primary focus, of course, was on the sea at a time when Amsterdam had the largest port in the world and Holland had more ships than any other country. These ships, which were built for specific roles were used not only for international trade and conquest, but also for domestic and intra-European transit and trade, for fishing and for obtaining and guarding the best fishing grounds and protecting its fishing fleets.

Its international fleet, driven by the groundbreaking work of and powers granted to the Dutch East India Company (and later, and to a lesser extent, the Dutch West India Trading Company) created a fleet of more than 200 ships and 8,000 cannons, making it an international trading and colonial power. This, combined with its role as the world leader in the development of navigational instruments and of maps, and its unlimited supply of capital, technology and labor created something of a virtuous power cycle and turned the country into “Warehouse to the World” and the global superpower of its era.

The exhibit also helped clarify the role of Europe relative to its Asian trading partners. The Dutch ships didn’t play the typical trading role of trading European for Asian goods. At that time, the was little that Europe had (other than guns) that Asia wanted, other, perhaps than the gold and silver that the Spanish and Portuguese got from their colonies. The Dutch ships instead, profited largely from becoming a transshipping vehicle among Asian countries and then using these proceeds to buy a broad range of Asian goods (silk, spices, porcelain and so forth) that were sold in Europe.

Other permanent galleries include displays on the following:

  • Navigation instruments for measuring latitude, longitude, depth, speed, and direction from the 16the century through the present;

Navigation instruments

  • Ship decoration from bow figureheads to aft rudder heads and how they evolved from figures from religion and mythology to temporal and secular symbols;


  • Maps and Cartography, from maps based on myths through increasingly accurate representations that resulted from detailed ship logs and collaboration between ship navigators and cartographers to new ways of visualizing the world through different map projections. It looked at maps not only as a technical issue, but how accurate maps translated into leadership on the seas and political and economic power.
  • Curiosities, with displays of unusual natural objects (such as seashells and coral) to exotic art and goods brought to Europe from foreign destinations;
  • Life on Board information, from the jobs on Golden Age ships, food and drink, health, punishments, entertainment and so forth;

pots and other items on board a ship

  • Yacht Models, from ancient to contemporary and from pleasure craft to state-of-the-art racing boats, such as America’s Cup ships;

yacht model 02 (2)

  • Whales, which discusses the nature of both tooth and baleen whales, their diets, sizes and lives, and their evolution from being seen as monsters, to an almost endless source of oil and raw materials, to being a species that is commonly thought of as a species in need of protection and as a sentient being;  and
  • Port of Amsterdam, with images, models and videos of the fourth-largest port in Europe (which handles 830,000 passengers and 85 million tons of cargo per year and directly and indirectly employs 45,000 people) and some of the ships it accommodates and equipment it uses;

Temporary exhibits were dedicated to issues of:

  • Global Warming. Photos and videos attempt to visually portray the growing speed, likely impact, and drama of climate change, especially in Greenland. It is followed by a series of panels that describe the impact and mitigation efforts in areas ranging from islands like Fiji and Kribati, to developing countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia, to developed areas such as Florida and the Netherlands; and the
  • Scramble for Arctic Advantage. Here, a growing number of countries are seeking to capitalize on warming’s effect on the Arctic by positioning themselves to expand trade routes, military bases and the extraction of resources. It traces Western countries in the region from the late 16th century when understanding the Arctic was limited to speculation and myth, through a series of exploratory expeditions, demonstrating progress with instruments, journals, and clothing from some of these expeditions. The display ends with a slideshow providing an overview of current life, military training and whale hunting in the region.

The museum also has a display of several, renovated historic ships including the:

  • 1860 Royal Barge that was used by the royals for special state functions;
  • 1900 coal-fired steamship that was used as an icebreaker; and;
  • A reconstructed 1748 trading ship that was sunk while on a trading mission for the Dutch East India Company. The company was the only Dutch company permitted to trade with Asia, to capture Spanish and Portuguese ships and forts, and manage foreign colonies. The three-deck ship is complete with reconstructed cannons, simulated cargo containers and a hoist with which children can safely lift the containers. It portrays crew bunks and hammocks, captain’s quarters and explained the type and volume of provisions required to sustain 200 men for eight months (before it could be fully provisioned).
  • Amsterdam - Maritime Museum ship

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