History of the Rijksmuseum

History of the Rijksmuseum

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During the war, the Rijksmuseum's most famous piece, Rembrandt's Night Watch, had to be rolled up and smuggled out through a trapdoor to safety. It's been a turbulent 200 years for the famous institution, as Mindy Ran reports.



This week marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Rijksmuseum, one of the largest and most important of the Dutch museums. Like all national institutions it has weathered the fortunes of fate - and of war - to emerge proudly entering a new millennium.


The institution now known as the Rijksmuseum did not occupy its current building in Amsterdam until almost a century after its beginnings - it was originally named the National Art Gallery and housed in Den Haag.

It was largely comprised of the private collection of the last Dutch stadholder Prince Willem V who had fled to England five years earlier. It consisted of about 200 paintings, and in May 1800 the first public museum in The Netherlands opened its doors.

The first painting

The first purchase made by the new museum was The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn for NLG 95,00 at auction. It was, as they say, the start of something big. Eight years later, the institution moved to the upper rooms of the Royal Palace in the Dam square and its name was changed in 1815 to the Rijksmuseum, or State Museum.

At that time it was also lent several works from the city of Amsterdam, including the famous jewel of the collection, The Night Watch. It was in order to fit between two doors that it received the trimming that removed three people and a bit of the top.

The current Rijksmuseum building was designed by architect PJH Cuypers, who also created Amsterdam's Central Station. It is said his design took the Nightwatch as his central point. The Rijksmuseum and Central Station share the classically ornamented style known as Neo-Gothic and the external building with archway and gardens is worthy of a visit in itself.

A new home

The building was completed in 1883, opened in 1885 and installed in its final form in 1887. The new museum combined more than five major collections and their libraries, including that of the National Painting Museum, works by modern masters, the museum of history and art, plaster casts and statuary, national print and drawing collection and the library of each.

What was interesting was that each collection was to remain autonomous while forming part of a larger whole. The idea, though watered down and somewhat integrated over the years, is still operating today. The most recent addition was the Asiatic Art collection began in 1963.

Art in hiding

The museum weathered many wars and political upheavals to remain intact until the invasion of the Germans in the Second World War. In order to save their most prized collection of Dutch masters, including The Night Watch, the paintings were removed from their frames, rolled up into wooden tubes and smuggled out of the museum by use of a trapdoor in the Night Watch room which led to a small door in the garden. From there, they were transported by boot to a hiding place in the south of the country.

The Rijksmuseum was one of the few museums in an occupied country during the Second World War that was able to save its major collection. In the end, only a few minor pieces were lost. When the museum re-opened its doors in 1945, more people came to see The Return of the Masters than had visited during the entire war.

Since then the museum has continued to grow. Interestingly, the future plans include renovation to bring back more of the original structure and feeling of Cuyper's masterpiece.

Rembrandt masterpieces

Some of the highlights of the masters collection include Frans Hals' The Marriage Portrait of Issac, Self-portrait At a Young Age by Rembrandt (which is already showing the shadowy use of light and dark that was to become his trademark later in his career), and The Kitchen Maid by Vermeer (whose deftness of touch particularly in the use of reflected light provides an amazing contrast to The Night Watch).

It is also interesting to compare the other two group portraits in the room by Rembrandt's rival Barthlomeus van der Helst, which are full of light in stark contrast to chaotic and dark world shown by Rembrandt.

The huge and intricate Faience Tulip Vase made in Delftware offers a sense of the opulence of the Golden Age. You can see also parts of the maritime history as well as a beautifully ornate linen and silk tunic made for the funeral of Frederick Hendrick of Orange Nassau.

But the second favourite artefacts of the museum's collection - The Doll Houses are the most unusual. Even by the beginning of the 18th Century the doll houses of Petronella Oortman were famous. It was not a children's toy but rather an adult work of art which has now also provided realistic and fascinating detail to our knowledge of this period. There is also a collection of miniatures made by silversmiths of the time in the same room.

Threat of love

A personal favourite is the impish, marble statute of the Seated figure of Cupid by Eitienne-Maurice Falconet. This statute was once owned by Madame de Pompadour and represents the threat of love which can strike anyone, at anytime as he motions for silence misdirecting your attention away from the hand drawing the arrow from his quiver.

Or, past the sumptuous tapestries, beds and furniture of the 17th and 18th century, you will find the life-size porcelain Cockatoo by Johan Joachim Kandler.

Kandler was appointed the Meissen porcelain factory's first designer in 1731, known for his masterpieces of realistic rendering which sometimes, like this example, were left partially unpainted to allow the white of the porcelain to shine through.

If you have never been, it is well worth the time to explore. If you have, then now, with the huge Golden Age exhibition running to mark the Rijksmuseum's anniversary, is a golden opportunity to return.

Mindy Ran is an American-born freelance journalist living in Amsterdam and working for several major international media in print, radio and television.

Subject: Rijksmuseum


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