Voyage of discovery

Last Updated : 13 October 2012, 13:12 IST
Last Updated : 13 October 2012, 13:12 IST

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Nivedita Choudhuri visits Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and finds herself awe-struck by its large collection of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age and a substantial collection of Asian art.

Visitors from all over the world flock to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to marvel at its treasures. For most connoisseurs of art, the main draw is the Dutch painting from the 17th century, known as the Golden Age. The substantial collection of great works by Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals makes for a great viewing experience for globetrotters and culture buffs.

The Rijksmuseum is currently being renovated and once the work will be completed, the entire museum will be accessible to the public in the first half of 2013. For the first time since refurbishment began in 2009, the museum will display around 7,500 works of art and historical objects. The walking distance through the 80 galleries at the museum, taking into account the exhibition areas, will be around 1.5 km. The museum will have the capacity to welcome around two million visitors each year.

The Rijksmuseum was founded in 1798 and it opened its doors to the public in 1800. At the time, it was located in Huis ten Bosch in The Hague, the present palace of H.M. Queen Beatrix. Eight years later, King Louis Bonaparte, Napolean’s brother, moved the museum to Amsterdam. He added works to the collection, among them Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’, owned by the city of Amsterdam.

In 1885, the Rijksmuseum moved to the richly ornamented building designed by architect Pierre Cuypers, an Amsterdam landmark since. Located at Museumplein, the Rijksmuseum jostles for attention with other illustrious sights in the vicinity — the Van Gogh Museum and the Concertgebouw.

The museum collection includes Dutch paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculptures, historical objects and decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

A description of the highlights from the museum collection has to begin with Rembrandt. The artist was born in Leiden on July 15, 1606, to miller Harmen Gerritsz van Rijn. At first, he was apprenticed to painters in Leiden, but later he was taught by Pieter Lastman of Amsterdam. In June 1634, Rembrandt married Saskia van Uylenburgh. Their son Titus was born in 1641; Saskia died a year later. Rembrandt died in 1669 and was buried  in the Westerkerk in Amsterdam.

Masterpieces galore

Rembrandt’s ‘The Jewish Bride’ is a well-known masterpiece. Although this painting came to be known as ‘The Jewish Bride’ in the 19th century, it is by no means certain that the woman in question actually was a Jewish bride. The couple may be contemporaries of Rembrandt’s who had themselves portrayed as the biblical characters Isaac and Rebecca.
Other maestros such as Vermeer, Jan Havicksz Steen and Hals are well represented in the collection. Delft artist Vermeer (1632-1675) used few resources to create his masterpiece, ‘Woman Reading a Letter’. The painting focuses on a single character: a woman who is intently reading a letter. She is standing by a table with chairs around it, and there is a large map of Holland on the wall.

‘The Merry Family’ by Steen (1626-1679) shows a family in their sitting-room, having a jolly time laughing, drinking, singing, smoking and making music. But the painter did not merely want to depict a family in high spirits. This is made clear by the sheet of paper on the mantelpiece, on which appear the words of a Dutch proverb: ‘The young ones chirrup as the old ones used to sing’, meaning that the young tend to imitate their elders.
Hals (1582-1666) gained recognition for his informal portrait of a wealthy merchant and a burgomaster’s daughter. ‘Portrait of a Couple on a Landscape’ probably shows Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen. Various references to love and fidelity make it clear that this is a wedding portrait. The ivy and the vine around the tree are both symbols of steadfast love, while the thistle at the husband’s side represents male fidelity.
In 17th-century Holland, there was immense interest in portraiture. Those who could do so had themselves immortalised in whatever way they could afford: life-size or miniature, quarter-length or full-length, or anything in-between. ‘Portrait of a Girl in Blue’ by Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck (1597-1662) is one of the most popular child portraits from Holland’s Golden Age. This girl is portrayed as a grown woman. Only her childlike features reveal that she was not much older than about 10 years old. Girls of that age were dressed exactly like their mothers. The fact that this girl came from a wealthy family is apparent from the gold braid and lace trimmings on her dress, the abundance of jewellery and the feather in her hand, which served as a fan.
An outstanding exhibit is the dolls’ house that belonged to Petronella Oortman, a wealthy widow. It was made of oak with tortoiseshell and tin veneer, while the interior was made of various precious materials in 1690.
This was not a dolls’ house for children to play with, but an art gallery which was ‘open to the public’. It was already famous by the early 18th century and has remained so, for it is the most lavishly executed and most realistic surviving dolls’ house. It is laid out just like a real 17th-century house, with miniature items of furniture, a collection of china in the show kitchen, a library of tiny books and a fully-equipped lying-in room. The best room is painted all over, with landscapes on the walls and birds in the sky on the ceiling. The outside of the cabinet is equally beautiful, being entirely covered with an ingeniously patterned tortoiseshell and tin veneer.
Evidence of how prosperous a country Holland was in the 17th century can be found in the wide variety of cupboards and cabinets. Like most other Dutch furniture, these were usually made of oak.
The Rijksmuseum is a world waiting to be discovered. And, after the entire museum is open to the public early next year, the voyage of discovery will be all the more thrilling.

Published 13 October 2012, 13:12 IST

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