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  • Writer's pictureMoorea Hall-Aquitania, MA

A Brief History of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

What is the Rijksmuseum?

The Rijksmuseum is the National art museum of the Netherlands that was founded in the late 18th century, and which holds the country’s most significant collection of paintings.


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Rijksmuseum History

The Rijksmuseum holds pride of place on the Museumplein in a newly renovated 19th-century building designed by Pierre Cuypers. The architecture of the museum combines Gothic and Renaissance elements with an abundance of national symbolism to create a grandiose setting for the story of Dutch art and history from the Middle Ages until the 20th century. Its architectural twin is the Amsterdam Centraal train station, also designed by Cuypers, and together they showcase the nationalistic spirit of the late-19th-century Netherlands. Perhaps most symbolic of its Dutch character is the bike tunnel that runs directly under the centre of the museum, through which commuters pass daily beneath works by Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer on display in the Eregalerij (or Gallery of Honour).

Although the Rijksmuseum is one of the most beloved and recognisable monuments in Amsterdam, it was actually founded in another city. In 1798, the National Art Gallery was established in Huis Ten Bosch in The Hague with a collection of around 200 paintings and historical objects gathered from various private and national collections. In 1808, Louis Bonaparte (the younger brother of Napoleon) ruled the Kingdom of Holland, and he moved the national collection to the Royal Palace in the country’s new capital of Amsterdam. Five years later, King William I moved the collection to the Trippenhuis on the Kloveniersburgwal, and christened it ‘Rijks Museum’ (or ‘National Museum’). However, the gallery occupied somewhat cramped quarters in the 17th-century palace, and the building was soon judged unsuitable for such a museum.

In 1876, the architect Pierre Cuypers won the contest to design a new home for the Rijksmuseum, which opened its doors in 1885 with an expanded collection including some of the city’s most prized paintings such as Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride. The museum continued to expand throughout the 20th century with new galleries added to accommodate both the ever-increasing collection and the rising number of visitors. Then, from 2003 to 2013, the museum closed for a decade-long renovation, which resulted in a sympathetically restored interior and a new presentation of the historic collection that brings together different artistic media to tell a single chronological story of Dutch art and history.

The Rijksmuseum contains the largest and finest collection of Dutch paintings in existence, particularly those from the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age when political, economic and religious circumstances created a unique and fruitful environment for the arts. The majority of paintings from that period were made not for the aristocracy or the church (the traditional patrons of art), but instead for sale on the free market. In 1640, the British traveller Peter Mundy wrote that ‘As for the art of Painting and the affection of the people to Pictures, I think none other go beyond’ the Dutch. Here at the Rijksmuseum, you’ll find some of the most notable works from this period, including the museum’s first acquisition, The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn (purchased for 100 guilders around 1800); The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer; Portrait of a Young Couple by Frans Hals; and, of course, Rembrandt’s magisterial The Night Watch, which is the focal point of the Gallery of Honour. This wonderful space has been compared to the nave of a Gothic cathedral with separate alcoves designated to the most celebrated artists of the Netherlands, and The Night Watch at the end of the gallery as a sort of secular altarpiece. Through its many incarnations over the past two centuries, the Rijksmuseum now shares the fascinating story of Dutch art and history with over two million visitors every year.

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