Stuart Forster suggests exhibitions to view while visiting the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
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The Rijksmuseum is the Netherlands’ national museum and the most-visited museum in the country. Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Night Watch painting is by far the museum’s most popular object. My own favourite exhibit doesn’t even make the pages of the museum’s 250 Highlights book.
Don’t get me wrong, I am impressed by the famous group portrait of Amsterdam’s arquebusiers’ guild. Sash-wearing officers, Captain Frans Bannick Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch, stand in the foreground of the famous painting. This explains why the artwork is sometimes known as Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch is another alternative name for the vast painting.
The canvas measures a whopping 4.53 metres (nearly 15 feet) by 3.79 metres (almost 12.5 feet). Yet it was even larger when Rembrandt finished work on it, back in 1642. In 1715 the picture was moved to Amsterdam’s town hall and was too large to be displayed on the available wall space. Consequently, The Night Watch was trimmed. That sounds unthinkable today, criminal even, but sections were actually cut away from Rembrandt’s masterpiece.
The Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour
As you wander into the Gallery of Honour, on the Rijksmuseum’s second floor, it’s hard not to be impressed. A golden aura surrounds The Night Watch like the halo of a saint in some medieval altarpiece.
If that simile doesn’t convince you, take a look at the museum’s extensive collection of religious artwork, dating from the 12th century through to the Renaissance. The Night Watch draws your gaze from beneath an arched portal as you enter the grand hall containing dozens of oil paintings dating from the period today known as the Dutch Golden Age. During the 1600s overseas trade meant the newly independent Dutch Republic was experiencing unprecedented wealth and confidence.
The Rijksmuseum displays historic artefacts and artworks representative of a period of more than 800 years. They include paintings by Vincent van Gogh and a biplane dating from 1918, the oldest aeroplane in the Netherlands.
So you may wonder why I find a display of seven woolly hats so fascinating. Yes, my favourite exhibit in the Rijksmuseum features wool caps within a glass cabinet. Wander along to gallery 2.9, The Netherlands Overseas, if you want to see them.
The Dutch on Spitsbergen
The hats are not, as far as I’m aware, made of exquisite merino wool. Nor are they pristine. In fact, some of the headgear in question is heavily darned. It was once worn by fishermen, whalers to be precise, working on Spitsbergen.
The men whose heads the woolly hats once kept warm were employed in the Northern Company’s Smeerenburg settlement. They harvested oil from the blubber of whales.
Did the oil they produced help light an artist’s studio? Did the viscous fruit of their labour illuminate Dutch offices managing the trade of goods with colonies in the East Indies? Did captains of one of the world’s great sea empires view their charts at night thanks to the efforts of the whalers in Spitsbergen?
Cornelis de Man’s painting
Cornelis de Man’s oil painting of life at the Smeerenburg whaling station hangs above the glass cabinet. The artwork dates from 1639. The icy, jagged mountains that prompted the Dutch to name Spitsbergen are visible across the bay in which sailing ships lie at anchor. On the shoreline a whale is being cut into strips while men work at ovens, rendering down the blubber into vats while smoke spews from brick chimneys.
Gentlemen in broad-brimmed hats – not too dissimilar to those worn by the officers in The Night Watch – stand chatting in the foreground of the painting. They wear knee-length leather boots with cavalier-like flaps. The painting shows a fair day; the weather is calm.
I wonder if the men who wore the woolly hats displayed in the cabinet below would say the painting is romanticised? Life at Smeerenburg was harsh. The station was abandoned in 1657.
Excavating graves on Spitsbergen
In 1980 archaeologists excavated the graves of 185 Dutch whalers. Near to skeletons, they found the wool caps now displayed in the Rijksmuseum. They noted that each of the caps was different. The archaeologists surmised that the sub-zero temperatures of Spitzbergen forced the whalers to wear many layers of clothing. By necessity, only their eyes would remain exposed.
One of the caps has a rim, reminding me of the shape of a boat. Another is speckled orange, heavily patched and bears a bobble. Due to its narrow, elongated shape, it reminds me, anachronistically, of the headwear worn in the first series of Blackadder. A striped blue and beige cap has a felt-like appearance. One has a lump missing from its patterned rim. Perhaps the missing chunk was caused by a work-related accident or simply from years of wear and tear?
The hats allowed the men to identify each other, hence their unique designs. The names of their wearers are not displayed, suggesting they were forgotten centuries ago.
Perhaps long ago on an Amsterdam street, some of the men who worked in Smeerenburg passed by Rembrandt? Maybe they were acquainted with some of the guild members depicted in The Night Watch?
With so many outstanding artworks in the Rijksmuseum, it would be easy to walk past the woolly hats without thinking about them. Maybe it’s the story behind them that appeals to me.
Books about Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum
Planning a trip to Amsterdam the looking forward to visiting the Rijksmuseum? You may find the following books worth reading:
The Rijksmuseum’s 1600 to 1700: Dutch Golden Age:
Russel Shorto’s Amsterdam: A Short History of the World’s Most Liberal City:
Visiting the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam
The Rijksmuseum is at Museumstaat 1 in Amsterdam, near the city’s Museumplein:
Google Map showing the location of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Public transport in Amsterdam is easy to use and reliable. Several trams stop near the Rijksmuseum. Trams number 2 and 12 run to the national museum from Amsterdam’s central railway station. The 9292 website and or app is useful for planning journeys in Amsterdam on public transport.
Driving in Amsterdam? The Museumplein underground car park is at Van Baerlestraat 33b.
See the Rijksmuseum website for information about exhibitions, entry prices and opening times. To avoid queueing, purchase tickets to the museum online. The Rijksmuseum opened in 1885 and, following major modernisation and renovation, reopened in April 2013.
Thank you for visiting Go Eat Do and reading this post about visiting the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. If you’re interested in visiting the Netherlands and have an interest in art you may enjoy this post about art museums in the Netherlands.
Got a favourite exhibit or a tip for visiting the Rijksmuseum that you think readers may find helpful? You’re welcome to share that by leaving a comment in the comment field below.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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A version of this post was first published on Go Eat Do on 25 February 2015.