Amsterdam in Two Art Museums

All the must-see guides to Amsterdam suggest visits to The Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. As I have a limit to how much museum I can effectively absorb in a single day, I chose to visit one museum on Saturday and the other on Sunday.

As Arnaud could only see one of the two (he had to return to Lausanne before I did), he decided we’d see the Van Gogh Museum on Saturday, leaving me to do the Rijksmuseum solo on Sunday afternoon. (For more about our Amsterdam experience, read my impressions of Amsterdam.)

For both museums, all guidance recommend buying tickets in advance, which the museums have made extremely simple to do on their websites. Though it appeared that you could buy tickets upon arrival, buying in advance ensured no wait times and access when you wanted access.

Also, both museums then send you a nifty little video to acquaint you with their facilities and the experience ahead of time. Bonus points to the Rijksmuseum for including my name in the video guide—a nifty experiential-marketing trick.

The Van Gogh Museum

Van Gogh’s nephew founded The Van Gogh Museum in 1973 after inheriting the museum’s full collection upon the death of his mother, the widow of Vincent’s brother. It houses an extensive collection of the works of Vincent Van Gogh in a beautiful building situated over three floors.

The Van Gogh Museum allows photography only in a couple of strategic spots, which it helpfully calls out to guests. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. June 29, 2019.

The Van Gogh Museum allows photography only in a couple of strategic spots, which it helpfully calls out to guests. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. June 29, 2019.

One floor explores Vincent in his self-portraits; the man had a surprising level of self-absorption. (I had no idea he had painted enough pictures of himself to fill an entire floor of a large museum—and then some.) Another floor explains his ethos and the evolution of his art and its influences, including his romanticizing of peasants, rural life, and poverty and his interest in Japanese art. (The latter surprised me.) Yet another floor goes into his family history and personal story, including the dynamics of his relationship with his brother, Theo, who provided him the financial wherewithal to pursue his art (and who owned most of Vincent’s art in return) and his friendships with other artists of his time (including Cesanne); and, finally, his struggles with mental illness that led eventually to his death by suicide at age thirty-seven. A final floor covers his sunflower studies alone, featuring front-and-center one of his most famous paintings of sunflowers in a vase.

The museum’s in-depth review of one artist provides an immersive dive into a single person’s oeuvre—a real opportunity to get to know his work and its trajectory in subjects, skills, and life events. In two hours, I had enough time to spend viewing the collection and reading through the guiding materials, and I felt edified by what I’d absorbed. Given that I can only focus intensely in a museum for about a two-hour stretch, having the impression that I’d exhausted the museum’s offering in the same time I’d exhausted my attention reserves felt satisfying and just right.

The Rijksmuseum

On the other end of the museum spectrum from the focused collection: The Museum of The Netherlands. The Rijksmuseum covers four immense floors, each brimming with varied treasures from the 1000s through to the modern day, with pride of place in a great hall on the second floor given to paintings from the 19th century (particularly Rembrandt).

I paid an extra 5 Euro for a one-hour guided tour to start my visit, which I’d recommend highly to ground you a bit in the massive building, provide a bit of Dutch history for some of the artifacts, and give you an entry point to some of the paintings. The art historian who gave our tour had interesting insights into the paintings in the great hall, which got my mind in the game of approaching paintings with the right perspective and attention. (Personally, I need to get into the right mindset to appreciate art beyond the surface level of “pretty,” “I don’t get it,” and “yuck, museum space for that?”)

Given an entirely free Sunday afternoon, I took my time exploring the museum. I didn’t linger extensively on any floor, choosing instead to patter through each room and stop only for the things that captured my attention and imagination. I’ve enjoyed art museums more when I’ve had the opportunity to visit just one room or set of rooms in depth, leaving to return another day to see other rooms. However, most art museums give tickets for one day or even one set entrance time (as in this case), and when the museums have the heft and size of a Rijksmuseum, I don’t know how better to approach the collection with a limited amount of time and attention than to simply dwell a bit only with what immediately captures my interest as I pass through each room or floor.

Though I figured the museum would call out the piece if they had one, I made a quest out of combing the rooms for a Jan van Eyck, an especial favorite Dutch painter of mine from the Renaissance (and one of Jon Lundell’s as well, making for an early bonding point in our friendship). Alas, my treasure hunt didn’t turn up a Jan van Eyck in any of the museum’s nooks and crannies, but the search did reveal a 15th century painting by a hitherto unknown-to-me artist named Carlo Crivelli that stopped me in its tracks. The artist’s rendering of Mary Magdalene feels almost art deco to me in form and in the figure placement and delicacy; further, his skill with tempura on wood—her face, her eyes!—stun me even in my poor-substitute iPhone photograph.

If you go to the Rijksmuseum, visit the hall of featured paintings and spend time with the Dutch greats, including Vermeer and Rembrandt. And save a little time in your day to spend in some of the less heralded halls, where you can find whatever artifacts capture your fancy, from everyday household items through the ages, like hearthstones and keys and Delftware, through to ancient firearms and replicas of naval ships.

Amsterdam Art Museums, Big and Small

I gravitate to smaller, more focused art museums, like the Van Gogh Museum we visited on Saturday. These museums feature a small collection, reducing art fatigue, and they provide a focused attention to and analysis of the material that helps me internalize it better.

Massive art museums that need to house and curate a large collection of disparate objects overwhelm me; always, I leave them feeling that I missed out on most of what I could have gleaned if I’d just had more guidance about the contents and more time to spend with and think through it all. I walk away from large-hodgepodge collection museums feeling like I didn’t make the best use of the opportunity, yet I don’t know how to do better. (Should someone publish a guide on how to approach an art museum? Anyone? Clearly, I don’t know enough about the topic to write it myself.)

The Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam didn’t change these proclivities.

I felt surprised at how well I knew the Van Gogh story already, even though I didn’t think I’d paid much attention to him as an artist beyond the basics. Yet in his case, the broad strokes of his story have entered common knowledge almost whole and entire—a testament to savvy marketing by an art-broker brother and a business-smart sister-in-law and nephew. Good on them.

The Rijksmuseum completely overwhelmed me, though I wouldn’t have missed it—and recommend you visit as well. Just go in expecting to glean only a gloss of the overall collection; decide on your way in what you’d find most interesting to learn. Don’t miss seeing the masters in the great hall—and for that, I recommend the small extra fee for the live, guided tour—and then find one other room or section that you’d like to explore and spend the rest of your time there.