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Top 10 masterpieces Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

15 December - 2022
by Alice Broeksma


The Netherlands is internationally known for its culture, prominent art and design. Three museums of great importance are based in the cultural heart of Amsterdam, at Museum Square: the Rijksmuseum (home of the Dutch Masters), the Van Gogh Museum and ‘the Stedelijk’, as the municipal museum for modern and contemporary art and design is locally known.

The 19th century, neo-Renaissance Stedelijk Museum was created by the Dutch architect A.W. Weissman. Ten years ago, Benthem Crouwel Architects added a new wing, for obvious reasons affectionately nicknamed ‘the Bathtub’. The original museum opened in 1895 and would be filled throughout the 20th century with a renowned collection including work of Vincent van Gogh, Kandinsky, Chagall, Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Karel Appel, Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, Marlene Dumas, Lucio Fontana, Gilbert & George and many others. Important examples of The Dutch Style movement, Cobra, Pop Art and Minimal Art are also represented.

The Stedelijk was the first museum in western Europe to collect photography and owns work by big names: Cas Oorthuys, Ed van der Elsken, Erwin Blumenfeld, László Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray. In the 1970’s the first video art was acquired and today the collection includes works by Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman and Bill Viola. The museum also houses textiles, ceramics, glassware, sculpture and furniture (Gerrit Rietveld, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Wanders).

The permanent art collection consists of approximately 100.000 pieces. At any one time about 500 pieces are displayed, with the selection regularly changing. A third of the collection is now accessible online; the museum is working hard to place all its art online. 

Karel Appel - Mural Former Restaurant Stedelijk Museum (1956)

Karel Appel, the Dutch artist who exhibited from 1949 with the Cobra group, painted walls in the Stedelijk. The artwork in the former restaurant depicts three colourful figures dancing: a bird, a flower and a person. The mural is part of the Installations collection. Some elements of the wall were changed during renovations, but the mural has lost none of its impact. The blue door remains part of the total. Appel (1921-2006) not only looked for new forms of expression, but also used and combined new techniques.

© Karel Appel Foundation, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam/Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Paul Cézanne – Bouteilles et Pêches/Bottles and Peaches (1890)

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) abandoned impressionism in 1877 and would influence important art movements in the 20th century, such as fauvism, cubism and abstraction. In contrast to the ephemeral world of impressionists the French painter aimed for ‘something solid’. Still life to Cézanne had a special attraction, giving him better control of the structure in painting. 

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, purchased with financial support of the VVHK

Robert Delaunay - Formes Circulaires. Soleil, Lune (1912)

Delaunay (1885-1941) made colour the main object of painting and the key to perception (non-objective painting). With Formes Circulaires he also concentrated on the power of colour, giving his work its revolutionary character. The French artist fused Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism, a forerunner to abstract art.

Robert Delaunay - Formes Circulaires. Soleil, Lune (1912)

Willem de Kooning – Clamdigger (1972-1979)

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), key Abstract Expressionist, changed his style abruptly mid 20th century and started painting more figuratively. His work has been compared to the style of the painter Karel Appel, also from The Netherlands. The Stedelijk owns many De Kooning’s artworks, with Montauk IV on view (1969), and the sculpture Clamdigger. Sculpture emerged in De Kooning’s practice at the end of the 1960s following decades of painting. 

© The Willem de Kooning Foundation, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam/Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Henri Matisse – La Perruche et la Sirène/The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952-1953)

The career of the French artist Matisse (1869-1954) included early experiments with Impressionism, Fauvist pioneering and later cut-out compositions. Today Matisse’s work is celebrated for the vibrancy, harmony and chromatic liberty that unite his landscapes, portraits, interiors and oriental nudes. The Stedelijk has highlighted comparisons between Matisse and the artists who influenced him, such as Cézanne and Van Gogh, and those he would inspire including Mondrian and Newman. The monumental paper cut-out The Parakeet and the Mermaid (337 x 768,5 cm) is one of the greatest examples of Matisse’s cut-out work. He began this method in 1940, but in his later years this medium dominated all his work.

© Succession Henri Matisse, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam/Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Kazimir Malevich – Yellow Plane in Dissolution (1917-1918)

In his series ‘Planes in Dissolution’, the yellow version can be thought of as a coloured plane moving through space, with the short edge gradually disappearing into the background. The suggested upward movement refers to aviation and technology, themes that fascinated Malevich (1878-1935). The Russian artist understood space in the broadest terms; he also regarded it as the space of the universe. He said: ‘A coloured plane painted against a white background gives our consciousness an enormous awareness of space. It transports me to an infinite vacuum in which you experience the creative universe all around you’. For Malevich, geometry and mathematics were so important that he applied an ancient Russian measuring system of ‘arshin’ and ‘vershok’ (16 vershok make 1 arshin) when creating most of his artworks. 

Kazimir Malevich, Yellow plane in dissolution, 1917-1918. Collection Stedelijk Museum, object no. A 7670. Ownership recognized by agreement with the estate of Kazimir Malevich in 2008.

Piet Mondrian - Composition No. III With Red, Yellow and Blue (1927)

Mondrian (1872-1944) worked at creating equilibrium and harmony by using primary colours and straight lines. The painting embodies the ethos of the artist’s De Stijl (The Style) movement which hoped to generate a new utopian order of purity, balance and simplicity after the Great War. Responding to the fragility of humankind exposed by the war, Mondrian and his contemporaries began to deconstruct art so that all that was left was the universal and eternal stability of colours and lines.

Composition: No. III, with Red, Yellow, and Blue

Bruce Nauman – Playing a note on the violin while I walk around in the studio (1967-1968)

Since the end of the 1960’s, Bruce Nauman, American visionary, has tested and reinvented art by reshaping traditional forms, using a wide range of media, including sculpture, sound, film, video and neon. Nauman (1941) is widely recognised as one of the most innovative and influential artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The Stedelijk has his ‘Playing a note on the violin while I walk around in the studio’ on view. In this 10 minute-film the artist himself walks around his studio, repeatedly playing a piercing note on a violin. The sound of his footsteps and the note form a penetrating soundtrack. Nauman plays a game with the surrounding space, investigating the action of the artist, and the studio as a place where art is created. The performance refers to developments in minimal dance and music in the mid-1960s. These influenced the younger generation of visual artists, who resisted art strongly focused on form.

c/o Pictoright, Amsterdam 2004

Barnett Newman – Cathedra (1951)

The American painter Newman (1905-1970) saw sublimity and perfection in simple, primary colours. Newman’s art is marked by an intellectualism typical of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were also part of this movement, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Newman was of the opinion art could no longer be beautiful after the horrors of WWII. 

Cathedra is an example of a colour-field painting: one single, flat area of colour leaving the observer to introspectively interact with the work, undistracted by details and the artist’s presence. Newman wanted viewers to grasp at the idea of infinity and to acknowledge their own existential anxieties, indicated by the line cutting through the colour, which Newman defined as terrifying realisations of consciousness.

c/o Pictoright Amsterdam/Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Andy Warhol – Bellevue II (1963)

This work shows the body on a pavement of a patient at the Bellevue Asylum, after committing suicide. Death was an important theme to Andy Warhol in the early ‘60s. Warhol (1930-1987) based Bellevue on a newspaper photo and printed the image fourteen times in a four-column grid. The American artist used the silkscreen process, finding it the ideal technique to create art in a relatively neutral, impersonal manner. Bellevue II is an unsettling and provocative masterpiece, turning viewers into voyeurs.

© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. c/o Pictoright Amsterdam/Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

More information: 

Credits header image: Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the original building (A.W. Weissman, 1895) and the new building (designed by Benthem Crouwel Architects). Photo: John Lewis Marshall

Related article: Top 10 masterpieces Rijksmuseum Amsterdam