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Top 10 masterpieces Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

16 December - 2022
by Alice Broeksma


The Netherlands is a country of culture and proudly houses a varied and vast collection of art. International trade made this small nation rich and in the 17th century -the Dutch Golden Age- painting flourished. The Dutch Masters became world famous and nowadays the best place to see their work is the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This is the country’s national museum, with a huge collection of art and historical pieces. Up to 8000 works can be displayed at any one time in the beautifully renovated 19th century building. The Rijksmuseum is based on Museumplein, right in the cultural heart of Amsterdam and next door to the Van Gogh Museum.

The Rijksmuseum officially opened in 1885 and is designed by Pierre Cuypers, the architect who combined Gothic and Renaissance elements with national symbolism. Here you will find the largest collection of Rembrandts in the world, with his Night Watch (1642) as the biggest showpiece. The Gallery of Honour, an extended corridor leading to The Night Watch Gallery, has grouped together other world-famous Dutch masters: the best of the best. Feast your eyes on the Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer, and paintings by Frans Hals and Jan Steen.

The museum has more. Van Gogh’s self-portrait, Blue Delft, still life paintings, the Asian Pavilion, the Cuypers Library with the oldest and biggest collection of art history books in the Netherlands. There are exciting temporary exhibitions too. For example, in 2023 the largest show ever of paintings by Vermeer (10 February- 4 June 2023). Do not miss it. 

Rembrandt – The Night Watch (1642)

The Night Watch is Rembrandt’s best-known and the museum’s biggest showpiece. The painting is enormous: 3.63 by 4.37 metres (nearly 12 by 14 feet) and can be seen in its own Night Watch Gallery. Restorers work on the priceless canvas in a specially designed glass chamber, allowing the public to see the painting and witness the process.

The official title of this group portrait of civilian soldiers, enlisted to defend Amsterdam, is Company of Captain Frans Banning Coq. The nickname Night Watch came later when it was thought the painting represented a night scene.

Rembrandt was the first to paint all figures in a civic guard piece in action. Each man paid according to the prominence given to his portrait.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) is generally seen as one of the greatest artists of all time because of his unrivalled talent, techniques, use of shadow and light, views of humanity and liberated approach.

The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642

Rembrandt – Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul (1661)

Unlike most Dutch masters of the 17th century Rembrandt painted everything, from nudes to landscapes, biblical scenes and self-portraits. The long series of self-portraits records every stage of his career, with deepening self-analysis.

In Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul he is 55 years old. By using his own face, the Rijksmuseum explains, Rembrandt encouraged the viewer to engage personally with the saint.

Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1661 

Rembrandt – Isaac and Rebecca, known as The Jewish Bride (1665-1669)

One of Rembrandt’s famous images of men and women in love, life and before God is The Jewish Bride. Isaac concealed his love for Rebecca by pretending they were brother and sister, to prevent being killed himself and having his wife captured by King Abimelech. But their intimacy betrayed them when they thought they were not being seen. Rembrandt shows them in a tender moment, painting with exceptional freedom.

Isaac and Rebecca, Known as ‘The Jewish Bride’, Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1665 - c. 1669

Jan Asselijn - The Threatened Swan (c. 1650)

In 1798 the Dutch government decided to establish a national museum as a prestige project to inspire patriotism, and to store important objects. Before moving to Amsterdam, this national art gallery was initially housed in a royal palace in The Hague, bringing together 200 paintings and other pieces. The first purchase was The Threatened Swan, painted c. 1650 by Jan Asselijn. This work is now one of the top attractions in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The painting shows a swan defending its nest against a dog, the swan representing purity and the dog evil. The scene was later thought to be symbolic for the protection of the country against enemies by Johan de Witt, the Dutch statesman assassinated in 1672.

The Threatened Swan, Jan Asselijn, c. 1650

Frans Hals – Merry Drinker/A Militiaman Holding a Berkemeyer (1628-1630)

Frans Hals (1582-1666) was born in Antwerp, but spent most of his life in Haarlem in The Netherlands. He painted rich citizens and group portraits and is famous for his radically free character portraits, such as the Laughing Cavalier. The Rijksmuseum owns the Merry Drinker, of a militiaman raising his glass to toast us. The bravura painting style ensured the continued success of Frans Hals. He was one of the pioneers not using underpaint, but working ‘alla prima’, applying paint directly without underpainting.

A Militiaman Holding a Berkemeyer, Known as the ‘Merry Drinker’, Frans Hals, c. 1628 - c. 1630

Judith Leyster - The Serenade (1629)

Judith Leyster (1609-1660) was one of the very few professional female painters of her time. She and her husband Jan Molenaer, Haarlem painters, were probably pupils of Frans Hals. For many years her singing lute player was thought to be a painting by Frans Hals.

The Serenade, Judith Leyster, 1629

Jan Steen – The Merry Family (1668)

Jan Steen is famous for depicting everyday Dutch scenes and moral tales, in an anecdotal way with a lot of humour. He painted some biblical subjects, but mostly tavern scenes, chaotic households and interpretation of Dutch proverbs. The Merry Family shows a boisterous family group, singing, smoking and drinking. On the wall a note, saying ‘As the old sing, so shall the young’. A lesson in what will happen by setting the wrong example.

The Merry Family, Jan Havicksz. Steen, 1668

Johannes Vermeer - The Milkmaid (1658-1661)

Any artwork by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) is a prized possession for any museum, as this 17th century Dutch master did not leave a big oeuvre: 35 paintings, compared to Rembrandt’s many hundreds. The Rijksmuseum itself owns four Vermeer paintings: the very famous Milkmaid (1658-1661), Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1663), Little Street (1658) and The Love Letter (1669-1670).

 The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1660

Johannes Vermeer - View of Houses in Delft/Little Street (1658)

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) lived and worked in Delft. ‘Little Street’ is an unusual painting in his oeuvre and remarkable for its time, as an image of ordinary houses. This is Vlaming Street; Vermeer’s aunt lived in the house on the right.

His work is better known for his introvert, indoor scenes and the unprecedented use of bright, colourful light. In the new year the Rijksmuseum will bring most of Vermeer’s paintings together from all over the world. This will be a rare opportunity to see so much of his work, as they are rarely lent out. 

View of Houses in Delft, Known as ‘The Little Street’, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1658

Vincent Van Gogh - self-portrait 1887

Vincent van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886 to explore the new style of French painting. He immediately started experimenting and tried out the new style in self-portraits -it is said this saved him the costs of a model. In the self-portrait in the Rijksmuseum he depicted himself as a fashionably dressed Parisian.

Self-portrait, Vincent van Gogh, 1887

Want to see more? The Van Gogh Museum, next door to the Rijksmuseum, houses the world’s largest collection of artworks by the famous painter.

Related article: Top 10 masterpieces Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Credits header image: Rijksmuseum - 2014 - John Lewis Marshall