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  • Writer's pictureBen West

A Brief History of the Museum Willet-Holthuysen in Amsterdam

What is Museum Willet-Holthuysen?

Museum Willet-Holthuysen is an elegant canalside Golden Age house that gives a glimpse of how Amsterdam’s super-rich lived in the late 19th century.

Museum Willet-Holthuysen

Txllxt TxllxT, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Museum Willet-Holthuysen History

Imagine living in one of the grandest of Amsterdam’s Golden Age canalside houses during the 19th century! This was an exciting time, sometimes called Amsterdam’s Second Golden Age, as key buildings such as the Centraal Station, the Concertgebouw and various museums were constructed. Fortunately, by visiting the Museum Willet-Holthuysen you can catch a glimpse of this fascinating world. Built in 1687 by the smart Herengracht canal in the centre of the city for Mayor Jacob Hop, the exterior of this elegant double-fronted townhouse was redesigned in 1739 in the then fashionable Louis XIV style.

In 1895 its owner, Sandrina Louisa Geertruyda Holthuysen (known as Louisa), bequeathed the house and its contents, which included extensive art collections amassed by herself and her husband, Abraham Willet, to the city, on condition that their former home should become a museum named after them. They had lived in the house together since their wedding in 1861, Louisa having inherited it from her father, a successful plate glass- and coal-merchant, and enjoyed an opulent and rather wild lifestyle, living well beyond their means. Abraham was described by one friend as ‘good-natured, but a spendthrift and a compulsive buyer,’ who ‘went bankrupt every couple of years’. The couple acquired an impressive number of French and Dutch paintings – including works by Adriana Johanna Haanen and Jacob De Witt – as well as collections of German porcelain, silver and Venetian glass. Abraham also collected photographs, prints, weapons and rare books, and his Arts and Crafts items were particularly noteworthy.

There’s some fabulous antique furniture here, as you would expect, and many indications of their opulent lifestyle on display. In the basement, the reconstructed kitchen and scullery indicate the considerable amount of work the domestic staff would have had to do to keep the household running. As you walk around, you’ll also notice some wonderful decorative features, such as the original wall tiling. There’s a video room that shows a film about the history of the house and its inhabitants.

On the ground floor, you’ll find the long hallway and reception areas where the couple received their guests. There’s also a ladies' salon, where Louisa received visitors, and a dining room with a 275-piece Meissen dinner service. The gentlemen's parlour features a wonderful painted ceiling and is where Abraham held art appreciation evenings, and there’s a grand ballroom appointed in the style of Louis XVI, which would have been used for costume balls, literary evenings and music recitals.

The gazebo-like conservatory, where Louisa would take tea in the summer months, has a view of the immaculate French Classical-style garden, which runs alongside Amstelstraat. This was reconstructed in the 1970s. Climbing the staircase and passing three sculptures depicting the mythological Judgement of Paris, you’ll reach the principal bedroom with its large four-poster bed, the library, and Abraham's octagonal collection room. There’s a lot to see, but as the museum isn’t known to many tourists, you can take your time, soaking up every detail throughout the house’s handsome rooms.

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