Contemplate the Fragility of Life for Free at Amsterdam’s Art Museums

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Holland

This is part 3 in Museum Hopping in Holland. Read Part 1 to find out how to save on museum entrance fees with the Museum Card.

I have to admit, that I’m actually not a fan of Van Gogh’s work, but when in Amsterdam and you have the opportunity to see the original works of the greats such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh, DO IT. If you appreciate art museums, you’ll want to leave yourself a whole day to see both the Rijks Museum and the Van Gogh Museum. There’s a third museum that makes up the trio, but leave that for another day. While the museum card will allow you free access to these museums, it is important to note that the Van Gogh Museum still requires timed tickets purchased ahead of time. However, if you haven’t had any available wifi to make tickets, I highly suggest starting your day at the Rijks Museum cafe with a cup of coffee (and free wifi!). You can reserve tickets for the Van Gogh museum for later in the day using your iPhone and then spend the first half of the day exploring the Rijks. (You’re welcome. I just saved you an hour standing outside in the rain before realizing this is the better plan. Don’t ask how I know.) While you’re sipping coffee, reserving museum entrance tickets, and surfing the web, I also suggest downloading the Rijks Museum audio tour app (as long as you brought earbuds along too.) Using your own iPhone rather than a museum audio guide is much more convenient.

Rijks Museum

If you read my earlier post about the Vermeer Centrum of Delft, you might have noticed that at no time did I mention seeing an original Vermeer painting in Delft. Not even at the Royal Delft Blue Factory where they displayed his images on pottery. That’s right, I went to Delft because of Vermeer, but all I saw were reprints. I had to return to Amsterdam to see any original Vermeer paintings! As Vermeer’s body of work is small and scattered world-wide, just 4 of his paintings reside at the Rijks Museum. So, using the Museum Cards purchased in Delft, my mother and I were able to walk right past the long ticket line at the Rijks (make a detour to the cafe to use the wifi), and proceed straight…into a crowd of Rembrandt fans. There was Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, this time not made of blue tiles, but full of…well, I’d say color…but honestly, it’s a pretty dark painting. It’s famous because at the time, painters traditionally painted their subjects in static poses. Rembrandt, however, painted the figures in this painting in action. It was a first of its kind. He also tried a new technique. While his usual method was to light only his subject, this time he let the light filter in from somewhere beyond the canvas. While the size of the painting was certainly impressive, as was the size of the crowd in the room, I pushed my way through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd to the next room to oggle the less crowded Vermeer paintings instead.

Rijks Museum The Night Watch
Crowd in front of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch

Pulling out the earbuds which happened to be in my purse (because when you’re addicted to audio books, earbuds live in your purse!) I plugged into the Rijks Museum audio tour app. Splitting the ear pieces, my mother and I were able to listen to audio commentaries available for three out of the four Vermeer paintings.  I took the opportunity to closely examine the canvas of the girl in a blue mantle. The Delft Vermeer Centrum had a video about the restoration of this painting. It used to have cracks and holes in the paint and the blue had turned greenish. Today it looked vibrantly blue and hardly showed its age. The museum also had Vermeer’s only painting of an exterior view of houses in Delft. This one is particularly intriguing because not only is it his only painting of Delft, but nobody knows which buildings he painted! There is only speculation because the image does not match any Delft roof or sight lines today.Rijks Museum VermeersEventually my mother dragged me away from the Vermeers, which I might have sat in front of all day. She was anxious to see the rest of the museum before we had to hightail it to the Van Gogh museum. We moved more quickly through the rest of the painting galleries. As my eyes slid from one canvas to another I realized that each painting depicted themes of seduction, fleeting beauty, children, and death. Each one in its own way made you uncomfortably aware of the fleetingness of life. The painters by putting color to canvas, in one image, had me contemplating the life I’ve got left. And my age compared to the girls in the paintings. Girls grew up at younger ages in the 1600’s.

Speaking of girls/women…another room contained doll houses. These were not made for children. These were made by wealthy women (with way too much time on their hands, if you ask me…). These obscenely large not-for-play dollhouses were furnished with scale size replicas of real objects made of the same material as their life size counterparts. For example, the Delft Blue dishes on the dining table were specifically commissioned from the Delft Blue company. One doll house had a fully stocked linen cupboard and the woman had had her monogram put in each linen. This house also supposedly had a working sink! While I can’t tell you what the point of these houses were at the time, today they provide fascinating insight into what the home-life of wealthy women looked like at the time they were commissioning doll houses.

Rijks Museum Doll House
Rijks Museum Dollhouse

Van Gogh Museum

And then it was time to dash through the rain to the next museum. If you’ve made it this far, you know I have a soft spot for Vermeer. I like his carefully planned perspective lines and soft colors painted to look like a photograph. Van Gogh, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. His paintings and colors are wild, the paint globbed on, the colors aren’t blended together. I just can’t say I’m a fan of his work, but I went with an open mind.

Lucky for me there was a special exhibit showcasing impressionist painters Monet and Daubigny, both contemporaries of Van Gogh. I love the warm colors and calm, soothing feelings Monet’s canvases portray. The exhibit compared and contrasted the works of Monet and Daubigny, each who had used a boat as an art studio to paint the scenery while gently drifting down the Seine. If I had any art skill, this is how I would spend my time too! It sounded so idyllic compared to the messy weather and traffic of the Amsterdam canals. Occasionally a Van Gogh painting would appear next to the others if he had painted the same or a similar landscape. Van Gogh’s works were always much more wild and darker than the others, but then so was his mind.

Sadly, the rest of the museum was less a of gentle ride down a river, and more like entering the domain of a mad man. Before I go further, I want to recognize that Van Gogh was bipolar and his highs and lows, periods of manic energy followed by periods of depression were due to his mental instability. I found the museum a truly fascinating visual display of the highs and lows of bipolar instability. His paintings reflected his grand manic ideas, and then the crashes that inevitably came when his plans failed. He tried to force life during his high periods, and would become desperately angry during his low periods.

The galleries take you through Van Gogh’s life chronologically. He first fashioned himself as a painter of peasants. He thought scenes of hard working peasants idyllic. I can only imagine how the peasants felt about this man sitting and painting while they toiled in their fields. Van Gogh was lucky he had the means to not have to toil in the fields himself, thanks to his family. While monetarily supportive, his family was not so enthusiastic about his paintings. They told him there was a difference between the works of painters who were able to make a profession from their art…and his works.

There was, of course, the famous self-portrait of Van Gogh’s bandaged head after he had cut off his ear. Van Gogh had bought a house, thinking many painters would come live with him and they’d all live in an artist haven. Only Gauguin took him up on the offer and it ended very badly. He and Gauguin had a huge fight, which somehow ended with Van Gogh cutting his ear off and delivering it to a prostitute, or so the story goes. Nobody, besides Gauguin, really knows the true account of that night.

Somewhere in the middle of the museum I found myself face to face with the image I have seen so many times before in poster form. My mother has a framed poster of Van Gogh’s sunflowers on the wall at home. It was the first painting I knew. And here it was, the real thing! With a crowd in front of it. And a guide barking “No pictures! No pictures!” (Do not even take your phone out, a security officer will rush you because you MIGHT be taking a photo.) Imagine coming all the way here to stand in front of the sun flowers, and only take away a memory! And how fleeting those are these days! (Between my mom and I, it’s amazing we didn’t misplace and forget everything during this trip!) According to the information, Vincent’s brother Theo even told Van Gogh he had painted a masterpiece. He had taken three shades of yellow and made a work of art. Silently I wondered if Theo had just said it to appease Vincent in his wild state of mind.

Unfortunately, the one painting I was hoping to see, Starry Night, is not on display at this museum.

“I use color to express myself forcefully.”

~Vincent Van Gogh

Despite my sympathy for this greatly disturbed artist, I just can’t like his work. Where other artists took time and carefully perfected works of art, Van Gogh churned out sometimes more than one a day, globbing paint onto a canvas, and wildly using colors, but not really combining hues or making fine lines in any manner. Van Gogh seems to have opened the door for newer artists to call anything art. I’ll never forgive him for this.

The Museum Shops

Being an archivist, I understand asking museums patrons not to take photos, because more often than not they just won’t comply with the no flash rule. However, as a museum patron, I dislike not being able to take my own photo, but instead being forced to purchase a photograph at the museum gift shop. Therefore, I got pretty excited when I found the art museum gift shops of Holland have taken the sale of Vermeer images to a whole new level.

Rijks Museum Gift ShopPlaymobil!

Rijks Museum Gift Shop…and since Micah wasn’t with me on this trip, I might have met a new guy… just kidding.

Let’s Talk!

Are you familiar with the Dutch painters? Who’s your favorite painter? Do you like Van Gogh? And doesn’t Playmobil make art more fun?


Plan your visit:

Rijks Museum
Entrance Fee: €17.50
Save $$: Free entrance with Museum Card
Website: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en

Van Gogh Museum
Entrance Fee: €17
Save $$: Free entrance with Museum Card. Use Museum Card to purchase free timed entrance vouchers.
Website: https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en

Series Navigation<< Museum Hopping in Holland, Part 2: What are Amsterdam Canal Houses Hiding?Two Synagogues, Both Alike in Dignity in Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter >>

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