Museum Guide

5 Unmissable Paintings at the Rijksmuseum

From Vermeer to Rembrandt, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is host to some of the greatest ever works of Dutch art 

Located in central Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum is home to an unparalleled collection of Dutch and Flemish art. Having undergone serious renovation at the start of the last decade, the museum reopened its doors in 2013 and is now host to millions of annual visitors who come to see the very best art of the Dutch Golden Age.

1. 'Woman Reading A Letter' by Johannes Vermeer
Little is known about the life of the 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer and his art is often similarly shrouded in mystery. Observing this painting we immediately find ourselves wondering what the letter’s about. Look closely and you’ll see that Vermeer has left us with some visual clues; the way in which the woman clutches the paper in both hands and parts her lips means she’s probably just received some important news. But is that billowy robe covering a pregnant belly? Will the contents of the letter change not only her life, but the baby’s? We’ll never know, but the ambiguity of Vermeer’s paintings means that we’re fascinated by them 400 years later.

Woman Reading a Letter Johannes Vermeer c. 1663 (From the collection of Rijksmuseum)

The painting hangs in the Rijksmuseum next to The Milkmaid, another iconic work by Vermeer. Take a look below on Museum View:

Museum View of Woman Reading a Letter Johannes Vermeer c. 1663 (From the collection of Rijksmuseum)

2. 'The Merry Family' by Jan Steen
Jan Steen’s paintings are known for their playful representation of chaotic family dynamics. Looking at this image we can almost hear the uproar as music is played, songs are recited, and drinks are spilled. Zooming into the top right corner reveals a hanging piece of paper with the inscription “Like father, like son”, suggesting that while a life of drunkenness might be fun, it's probably not the best example to set for your children. Then again, we shouldn’t see Steen as a strict moralist—after all, joy like this is rarely seen in art, and it’s clear that he enjoys indulging, as well as critiquing their vices.

The Merry Family Jan Steen 1668 (From the collection of Rijksmuseum)

The Merry Family is exhibited next to other works by Steen and his contemporaries— but it's certainly the largest and most eye-catching composition. Have a look on Museum View:

Museum View of The Merry Family Jan Steen 1668 (From the collection of Rijksmuseum)

3. 'The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede' by Jacob van Ruisdael
Jacob van Ruisdael might not be a household name but he is one of the greatest artists of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century. The Windmill at Wijk contains all the elements you’d associate with a Dutch landscape: a windmill, low lying flat land, and overcast skies. There’s no story here other than the dramatic scenery itself; there’s a battle brewing between light and dark as a golden glow emerges from behind the clouds.

The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede Jacob van Ruisdael c. 1668 - c. 1670 (From the collection of Rijksmuseum)

van Ruisdael's painting stands out among other beautiful landscapes from the Dutch Golden Age. Explore them all in Museum View:

Museum View of The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede Jacob van Ruisdael c. 1668 - c. 1670 (From the collection of Rijksmuseum)

4. 'The Night Watch' by Rembrandt van Rijn
This ensemble portrait was the first painting to show the members of a city militia (or citizen’s police force) in action. They’re brave men, no doubt, but what makes Rembrandt’s painting so interesting is the fact that he’s made them all seem human rather than unapproachable heroes. Some are bleary-eyed, others possibly a bit drunk (one hiding right at the back might be Rembrandt himself); they all seem in good spirits as they get ready for the night ahead, despite the heavy darkness that envelops them.

The Night Watch Rembrandt 1642 (From the collection of Rijksmuseum)

The Night Watch is on such an epic scale, that it occupies an entire wall of the gallery by itself. Check it out on Museum View below:

Museum View of The Night Watch Rembrandt 1642 (From the collection of Rijksmuseum)

5. 'Cimon and Pero (Roman Charity)' by Peter Paul Rubens
An elderly man, Cimon, is imprisoned and starving; he's kept alive by his daughter, Pero, who breastfeeds him back to strength. Historically the story was used as an example of the lengths devoted families go to help one another, and Rubens’ famous interpretation of the subject does seem largely drained of eroticism. We get a sense of Cimon’s desperate hunger from the way his ribs protrude through loose-fitting skin and Pero’s expression seems to be one of discomfort rather than pleasure.

Cimon and Pero (Roman Charity) Peter Paul Rubens 1630/1640 (From the collection of Rijksmuseum)
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