Other than tulips, Delft china and gin, Holland’s best-known contribution to world culture is artists. During the Golden Age of the 16th and 17th centuries, the distinctive portraits and brooding landscapes of the Dutch painters swept the art world. And a second wave in the 19th and 20th centuries brought the country to prominence again. If you visit Amsterdam, you can partake in this artistic glory by visiting the famous Rijksmuseum. But there are two other world-class museums, devoted to two of its most legendary artists: the Rembrandt House and the Van Gogh Museum.
These museums are both must-see attractions if you’re an art lover, but they’re as different as they could be. I visited both during my recent stop in Amsterdam, starting with the Rembrandt House. Here’s a look.
The Rembrandt House
The house where Rembrandt van Rijn lived from 1639 to 1658 is located on a busy street in old Amsterdam, near a spot that’s now called Rembrandt Corner. The artist bought it at the peak of his fame, for an immense sum of money, and lived there with his family until he fell on hard times and went bankrupt. But while he stayed there, he lived in style.
The building has multiple storeys, filled with spacious rooms heated by ornate fireplaces. And the museum has restored them to something approximating their original state, using an inventory from the 17th century. Of course, many of the rooms are filled with paintings by Rembrandt and other painters he admired, as they were in his day.
Of course, a painter needs models, not only for portraits and historic paintings but for the objects that fill the scenes — things like swords and spears, birds and animals. One room in the house is filled with plaster busts, statues and other specimens used to lend realism to his works.
And if you can’t find a model when you want to paint a portrait, you can use yourself. Rembrandt himself appears in a number of paintings throughout the house, as a young man in a cloth hat and an accomplished middle-aged master in different costumes.
Ascending the stairs, you finally arrive at the artist’s studio, a large, airy room illuminated by window light. And there, to provide a deeper understanding of the artist and his art, a historian demonstrates what painting was like in the 17th century. There were no tubes of paint: instead, you procured a cache of different minerals and ground them into artists’ colours on a stone.
Famous artists in Rembrandt’s time had students, who paid him for their tutoring and helped with the details on the odd painting. The top floor contains a few of their work spaces, set next to the window. In winter, the luckiest pupil got the cubicle next to the stove.
The Van Gogh Museum
While the Rembrandt House is set on a downtown street, the Van Gogh Museum is an integral part of the city’s brilliant Museumplein, a large complex that’s also home to the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum of modern art. And it’s a thoroughly modern building, with a foyer illuminated by a huge glass roof and a decidedly 21-st century entrance hall.
Inside, you’re taken on a journey through the painter’s tortured and finally tragic life. But since the Van Gogh Museum is filled with original paintings worth millions of dollars, photography isn’t allowed in most areas. However, I did manage a shot here and there.
The display of Van Gogh’s works is divided into several periods, beginning with his early years. The wayward son of a minister, he tried his hand at being a clergyman but soon gave it up to become an artist. He resolved to become what he called a “country painter”, portraying the lives of Dutch weavers, miners and farm workers.
The early works are dark, with tones that echo the colour of the earth that his rural subjects laboured on. But some have became famous, including The Potato Eaters, depicting a peasant family at the table eating a simple meal. This painting was stolen from the museum in 1991 but later recovered.
A second style emerges during the period when Van Gogh went to Paris to live with his brother Theo, who marketed his works (though few, if any, were ever sold until after his death). He mingled with painters like Paul Gauguin and Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec, and his works became brighter and more experimental.
Then, the fateful trip to Arles, France, where he lived for a time with Gauguin. The period had a tragic end, as Van Gogh famously cut off his own ear in a fit of madness. But it also produced some of the works that later made him world-famous. Many of those paintings are in the museum’s collection.
The Van Gogh Museum has the world’s largest collection of the artist’s works, and crowds gather in the galleries displaying his sunflower paintings and the luminous paintings from Arles. But there’s an amazing variety in his work. You find conventional portraits, paintings done in a Japanese style, pieces done during his time in a French mental hospital — and of course, self-portraits. In fact, the museum has a whole gallery of self-portraits, showing the artist in every possible mood and persona.
There’s also an extensive collection of van Gogh’s papers, sketches and his correspondence with this brother and other artists, contributed by the van Gogh family. He was not shy about expressing his inner feelings in his letters, and a few minutes spent reading them gives you a much deeper insight into the man, rather than the legend. There are also some sobering pieces, such as the newspaper reports of his self-mutilation and his final act of suicide.
The Rembrandt House and the Van Gogh Museum present intimate looks at two opposite sides of the art world: the successful man-about-town and the troubled outcast. The fact that both men became world icons, whose paintings have sold for hundred of millions of dollars, says something about the nature of art. It chooses its heroes from here and there, by a mysterious process that’s often understood only later. But visiting places like these gives us at least a glimpse into the lives of those who are chosen.
I was a guest of Viking Cruises on this trip; however, the opinions I express are my own.