Many come to Amsterdam for the artistic treasures of the Golden Age, also on view around the Netherlands. And there’s much more to see in the city’s other stand-out galleries…
The 17th century witnessed a Golden Age in Dutch painting, never equaled anywhere before or since.
Some five million works were executed throughout the Netherlands from the 1600s to 1700s. Following the 80 Years’ War for Dutch Independence (1568 – 1648), social upheavals and splits with monarchist and Catholic cultural traditions forced Dutch art to reinvent. Calvinism was spreading across the land and religious images in art were distrusted. Great masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer could concentrate on more secular subjects.
As the new Dutch Republic dominated world trade, the resulting period of unprecedented prosperity ushered in the Golden Age. Holland led the world in science and the arts.
Held in stately galleries of world renown such as Amsterdam’s Rijks Museum (Rijksmuseum) and the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, the treasures of the Golden Age are still with us, on display for all to observe and revere.
Of course, Dutch art didn’t stop at the Golden Age. The Van Gogh Museum is one of Amsterdam’s biggest tourist attractions while striking images by contemporary photographer Rineke Dijkstra can be seen in the city’s other big-hitting gallery, the Stedelijk Museum.
Rembrandt van Rijn – Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul
Born in Leiden, the prolific painter and etcher Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669) is considered the greatest artist of Holland’s Golden Age. Rembrandt’s potent depictions of human emotions, light, mood, space and texture are the result of intense study.
‘Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul’ is one of more than 40 self-portraits, but the only painting in which Rembrandt depicts himself as biblical figure and creates a direct link with a saint.
The artist dons Paul’s traditional clothing and accessories, holds a manuscript, a sword and exudes an enigmatic expression.
He appears deeply melancholic — resigned and resolute — perhaps mirroring Paul’s sadness with his disciples, perhaps also Rembrandt’s disillusion with life.
The painting is one of many Rembrandts hanging in the Rijksmuseum on Museumplein in the heart of Amsterdam. This national treasure is still gleaming from a ten-year, state-of-the-art renovation completed in 2013, opening huge new spaces for its vast, permanent collection.
Vincent Van Gogh – Blossoming Almond Tree
Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853 – 1890) was one of Holland’s most prolific and influential Post-Impressionist painters. He created some 2,100 works in a little over a decade, most of them in the last two years of his life. Landscapes, portraits and self-portraits are characterized by bold colors and impulsive, dramatic brushwork. Originally shunned by the art world, Van Gogh’s works are today among the highest paid works of art in the world.
‘Blossoming Almond Tree’ (1890) is from a group of paintings made between 1888 and 1890, while Van Gogh was in the south of France. This particular work was created the year he committed suicide after long periods of poverty and mental illness.
Flowering trees against a blue sky were some of Van Gogh’s favorite subjects, representing hope and new life. This work was painted to celebrate the birth of his nephew, Vincent Willem, and its elements were inspired by Japanese printmaking.
It can be seen today at the Van Gogh Museum, whose striking glass entrance hall was unveiled in 2015 to coincide with the 125th anniversary of the artist’s death.
Rineke Dijkstra – Vila Franca de Xira, 1994
Rineke Dijkstra, born in 1959, is an influential, multi-award-winning, contemporary Dutch photographer. Her photo’s are collected worldwide and fetch the highest prices for contemporary photography.
Her photos, including this one taken in 1994, provide ample reason to visit the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. A vast collection of modern and contemporary art from the early 20th century onwards include pieces by Chagall, Matisse, Pollock and Warhol.
Dijkstra has been on the art world’s radar since early 1990, when she first showed ‘Beach Portraits’, a seductive series of young people, framed in all their self-conscious awkwardness, by the immense blue background.
Dijkstra lives and works in Amsterdam, and uses a Japanese 4×5-inch view camera, with a standard lens on a tripod, and a flash on another tripod behind.
The same set-up was for ‘Beach Portraits’, with a portable flash to reduce contrast and bring the faces out of a deep shadow. However, daylight is always her main light source.
Johannes Vermeer – Girl with a Pearl Earring
Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) specialized in interior scenes of middle-class life, and in his lifetime, was a moderately successful provincial genre painter. He produced relatively few paintings and left his family in debt.
He worked meticulously and frequently used very expensive pigments, yet accomplished a masterly use of light.
‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ is an oil painting from the 17th century. It is an example of a tronie, depicting an exaggerated facial expression or a stock character in costume. This tronie shows a European girl wearing an exotic dress, an oriental turban and a gigantic pearl earring.
Author Tracy Chevalier published an eponymous, historical novel in 1999, depicting a fictionalized relationship between the painter and a servant girl, Griet, later made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.
In the Mauritshuis Museum since 1902, along with other masterpieces from the Dutch Golden Age, the painting is part of its compact yet world-famous collection in The Hague.
Gerrit Adriaenszoon Berckheyde – The Grote Markt and Sint-Bavokerk, Haarlem
Gerrit Adriaenszoon Berckheyde (1638 – 1698) was a Dutch Golden Age painter, who worked in Haarlem, Amsterdam and The Hague, and is best known for his architectural views and cityscapes. His city depictions have documentary accuracy, but are never dry, achieving poetic harmony by a subtle use of light and shade.
Berckheyde favored views of monuments on large open squares, distinguishing himself from the other great Dutch townscape painter, Jan van der Heyden, who preferred canal views, sacrificing clarity for pictorial effect.
The painting depicts Haarlem’s market place from the northwest, beside the town hall, with its Doric portico on the right. The 15th-century Grote Kerk church of St Bavo is opposite the square with the Vleeshal (meat market) to the right. Not only is this painting a 17th-century masterpiece, it shows the Grote Markt in Haarlem almost the same today as it was nearly 350 years ago.
Haarlem’s Frans Hals Museum also contains many Golden Age portraits painted by its famed namesake.
This article is part of the magazine Amsterdam Luxury Selection dd September 2017.Request additional information >