This is the 5th, and final, installment of Museum Hopping in Holland. Read Part 1 to find out how to save on museum entrance fees with the Museum Card.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “You went to more museums?? Hadn’t you exhausted all the museums in Amsterdam by now?” Well, no. There’s always more. But bear with me. With November weather being cold and rainy, and tulip season nowhere in sight, I was quite happy to spend all 5 days in Amsterdam exploring one museum after another. It just means I’ll have to return to Amsterdam for a different season to see it in bloom. Darn.
The contrast between the last two museums we visited in Amsterdam, the Rembrandt House Museum and The Hermitage, really exemplify my first impression of Amsterdam. Upon arrival, I thought Amsterdam looked like a large, modern city trying to emerge from the 17th century. The houses and canals looked appropriately historic, but the bicycles and cars racing over skinny cobblestone streets looked dreadfully out of place.
Throughout the rest of our stay I continued to get the feeling that Amsterdam’s culture was kind of like a new jacket being put over a retro band tshirt. Only in this case, the tshirt image was of Amsterdam’s Golden Age painters of the 1700’s. Everywhere you looked, Amsterdam screamed “Remember our famous painters?? They made us popular!! You’re here because we gave the world artists like the world hasn’t seen since! Rememberrrrrrr?????” At the same time, like a jacket, Amsterdam seemed to be embracing a newer identity as one of the most culturally diverse and peacefully coexisting cities in the world. (Possibly they’re all so relaxed thanks to all the weed?) So as cultures meet and bond in the “coffee” shops, naturally a new identity begins to form, but at its heart, Amsterdam is still inherently Dutch.
Rembrandt House Museum
Rembrandt is about as Dutch as they come. He never left Holland. He lived out his life in a similar arc to his contemporary Dutch painters. He became well known and respected for his craft during his career, lived comfortably, until finally his fortunes turned and he died a poor man. As did Vermeer, as did Van Gogh. And eventually Holland opens a museum to honor their contribution to Dutch culture. Weird, right? I don’t know if the moral is don’t be a painter, or don’t live in 17th century Holland. (Read about the Vermeer Centrum here, read about the Van Gogh Museum here) Anyway, at the height of his career, Rembrandt was able to purchase a comfortable house in Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter (Read more about that here). Here he had a large studio and an extra studio for tutoring many of the next Dutch generation of painters. This house is now the Rembrandt House Museum.
Five posts later, you might be thinking, “Hey, I thought this was a literature-inspired travel blog? Did you lose the thread somewhere…?” Na, I got you, but I can hardly be expected to read a book for every museum we visited, now can I? After scanning a Goodreads list of books that take place in Amsterdam, and deciding against all the Romance and Murder Mysteries, one book caught my eye: Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes. I’m a huge fan of Schama’s TV series on art and British history, and I’ve been meaning to attempt one of his books. (Attempt, because I’m slightly afraid I’ll find it too scholarly.) This would be the perfect opportunity! Unfortunately I couldn’t find an e-copy of the book and there was no way I was traveling with what would probably be a coffee table size art book. Instead, I thought I’d find it at the museum gift shop, read it on the airplane back, and tell you all about it!
So, after using our handy Museum Card for free entrance to the Museum, we took our audio tour fobs and sat down to watch the intro video. (Almost every museum had an intro video!) As images of Rembrandt’s paintings glided across the screen a familiar voice narrated the film clip. The museum was using part of the Rembrandt episode from Simon Schama’s The Power of Art!
Watch it here:
Clearly this was the universe telling me I really have to read his book.
The audio guide took us through minimally furnished rooms with less of Rembrandt’s art on the walls than other artists. Rembrandt had been an art dealer, so the sitting room in which Rembrandt had conducted his sales contained walls filled with masterpieces of other artists’ works. The furniture in the house was sparse because Rembrandt, as famous as he is now, had gone bankrupt at the end of his life. The original furniture pieces left in the house had belonged to his mistress, and therefore had not been confiscated. Interestingly, because he had gone bankrupt, an inventory of Rembrandt’s assets had been drawn up. From this inventory, it is now known exactly what pieces of furniture had been in the house and exactly where they had been placed.
The tour started with the kitchen, which looked to me to be too new. The black stone floor looked hardly worn or scuffed, and the ceiling beams looked shiny like they were newly painted. I could in no way picture Rembrandt having been in this kitchen. In the corner of the kitchen was a cabinet bed, very similar to the one I had seen at Zaanse Schans. Just long enough for a person to sit up all night. (Read THIS post to find out why the beds were so small.)
Next the audio guide instructed us to proceed upstairs. It seems that all the Amsterdam canal houses have skinny spiral staircases. This one was no different from the one at our BnB. Amsterdam is not for the wide or out of shape person! There are no elevators in these old houses! This stairwell, however, had a rope in case you needed a little extra help.
Upstairs, aside from his client office with a bed for visitors, and a room filled with greek busts, shells, and anything else that might be used as painting models, was Rembrandt’s large studio. It has been reconstructed from a sketch he made of one corner of the the room. Here we also found a painter demonstrating the use of materials and linseed oil to make pigments. It was strange to think that the large paintings I had seen at the Rijks Museum were painted in this room, and had begun as nothing more than a few mixed substances.
My favorite space overall was upstairs at the very top of the house. Rembrandt had set up cubicles for his students to paint undisturbed. These cubicles have been reconstructed recently and the room smells nicely of fresh cut wood. We had the place to ourselves briefly before a noisy school group came through, but for that brief moment it seemed a wonderful place to spend the day quietly painting.
Finally we hit the museum gift shop. Schama’s book was definitely going in my suitcase. One turn around the room and… it wasn’t there! I did a second sweep to be sure. Peeked behind other books, looked high and low… Not one book by Simon Schama to be seen! My brilliant plan was foiled! So I haven’t read it. Yet. But I’ll get there! After I finish my current read, and the pile I’m using to prep for this summer’s travels, and then there’s the stack I got for Hannukkah… Ugh. You know what, let’s move on.
The Hermitage Museum
After leaving the Rembrandt House Museum we happened upon the Hermitage Museum. You can hardly walk a few steps in Amsterdam without tripping over the doorstep of a museum. And, as it was pelting rain, this seemed as good a place as any to wait until the downpour lessened. I had no particular knowledge of, or affinity for, Russian history, but it was here, and it was dry inside. (In retrospect, I can now tell you that downpours in Amsterdam don’t lessen, but this is no reason to skip the museums and continue in the rain!)
Because there are so many artifacts and not enough room to display them at the original Hermitage in Russia, there are two satellite Hermitage museums. Amsterdam is home to one of them. The Hermitage exemplifies Amsterdam’s welcoming attitude toward diverse cultures. The entire museum devoted to Russian history is no more out of place than any other culture the Dutch have welcomed into their modern society. Despite anti-Russian sentiment running high globally, here it hardly seemed to be a pariah.
Moreover, this museum changed my entire perspective on Russian history as an academic discipline and made me realize the importance of sharing items of cultural importance with other countries! All thanks to one exhibit about Catherine the Great. Now if you know me well, you know I have a fascination with the historical figure of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, thanks to the literary genius of Sharon Kay Penman. But even Eleanor, who was able to drive historical events by manipulation of the men around her, was still constricted to the whims of men. She was even under house (or castle) arrest for 16 years thanks to her second husband, Henry II of England. Catherine the Great, however, takes the amazing-female-historical-figure to a whole new level. Catherina II, not Russian by birth, married into Russian royalty, dealt with an unhappy marriage by deposing her husband, taking a string of lovers, having an illegitimate son, and becoming ruler of Russia in her own right. You couldn’t help but admire her tenacity at turning a terrible situation into something amazing while playing roles historically reserved for men!
The exhibit presented Catherine the Great’s life chronologically by use of audio guide, curated groups of artifacts representing various points of her life, and museum walls painted in various shades of bright pink with gilded letterings. The combined effect of the presentation and the unfolding story had me captivated! By the time I left I was ready to launch into the study of Russian history. Or at the very least, marathon all the films ever made about Catherine the Great. (Mostly because the exhibit used clips from various films, and now I feel the need to watch the complete movies!)
All this is to say, that if we spent more time getting high (no! Just kidding!), I mean, educating one another, country-to-country, about the numerous fascinating global cultures and histories, perhaps we’d all spend less time trying to destroy cultures we don’t understand! I think everyone should have to take a mandatory trip to Amsterdam for a lesson in cultural sensitivity and coexistence with diversity. And I have to say, there is no place I would rather have been during this year’s American election. Amsterdam surprised me as yet another place in the world where I was able to reaffirm my faith in humanity.
Have you ever been to a museum that’s changed your outlook? Where do you go to reaffirm your faith in humanity? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
Plan your visit:
The Rembrandt House Museum
Save $$: Museum card
The Hermitage Museum
Save $$: Museum card + €2.50
This is the last post in the Holland Museum Hopping Series.
With the Museum Card I saved €66.
Museumkaart (Museum Card) = €59
(Full adult fare/Fare with Museumkaart)
Princenhof Museum, Delft (€12/€0)
Van Loon Museum (€9/€0)
Van Gogh Museum (€17/€0)
Anne Frank House Museum (€9/€0)
Jewish History Museum & Portuguese Synagogue (€15/€0)
Rembrandt House Museum (€13/€0)
Hermitage Museum (€25/€2.50)
Total without Museumkaart = €127.5