As Amsterdam’s national museum, the Rijksmuseum is loaded with famous paintings, including iconic Rembrandt paintings and Vermeer paintings.
While its vast collection of Rembrandt paintings – especially Night Watch – are the pride of the museum, here are other must-see famous paintings in the Rijksmuseum:
1. Johann Vermeer: The Milkmaid
Of the 36 fully attributed Vermeer paintings (or 35, according to the Rijksmuseum), four are housed in the Rijksmuseum.
The Kitchen Maid is typical of later Vermeer paintings with an interior with one or two women engaged in an everyday activity. Here, a maid focuses intently on milk streaming from her pitcher, the only movement in this otherwise still painting.
Vermeer includes typical objects found in a bourgeois house like the brazier, or footwarming box which held burning coals or fire. Careful inspection of the Delft tile by the brazier reveals Cupid. This may be a nod to the allegedly shady reputation of milk maids.
Many art history experts believe Vermeer used a camera obscura. This ancient optical tool projects images and renders reflections as small blobs or points of light, like those on the pitcher’s rim and the maid’s apron in The Kitchen Maid.
A recent infrared photo of The Milk Maid reveals that the wall above the footwarmer had originally featured a map. However, its elimination makes the maid, in her vibrantly-hued clothing, the focal point.
Investigate other Vermeer artwork like Girl with a Pearl Earring.
2. Frans Hals: Wedding Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen
Even for a painter as untraditional as Frans Hals, this wedding portrait was unusual by 17th century standards. There are two reasons:
- it was rare to show sitters smiling; and
- it was unusual for a couple to be sitting so closely to one another.
But as a wedding commission, this work has traditonal references to fidelity and love. In the “garden of love” on the right is eryngium thistle, known in Dutch as mannentrouw or male fidelity. The creeping ivy, which stays green year round, symbolizes eternal love.
3. Rembrandt: Jeremia Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem
Jeremia is based on the Biblical story in which Jeremia warned his king that Jerusalem would be leveled if the king didn’t acquiesce to his opponents’ demands. After this grim prophecy was ingored, the king was blinded and Jerusalem was set on fire.
Jeremia himself is painted in extraordinary detail – individual hairs of his beard and tufts in the fur trim are discernible. The brocade at his feet is so luminous it reads as three dimensional, yet the background – with Jerusalem afire and the king rubbing his newly blinded eyes – is barely worked out. The focus remains Jeremia’s sorrow.
Explore more Rembrandt paintings in the Rijksmuseum.
4. Judith Leyster: Serenade
The influence of Frans Hals is apparent on Judith Leyster (1609-1660), who worked in his studio during her groundbreaking career. One of the first women of the 17th century to earn her living as a painter, Leyster was also the only female master painter registered with the artists’ guild.
In Serenade, the singing lute player is shown di sotto in su, or from a low vantage point. Leyster painted his breeches out of focus to create the illusion that a viewer gazes up at the lute player from near by.
Learn more about Judith Leyster and see other artworks.
5. Jan Willem Pieneman: Battle of Waterloo
Fought near the village of Waterloo, south of Brussels, Battle of Waterloo is a composite painting of events that did not happen concurrently. The conclusion of these events was the final defeat of Napoleon, ending twenty years of war.
Wellington, bathed in sunlight, learns (from the hatless man 1/3 of the way over from left) that Prussian troops will shortly arrive to reinforce the Anglo-Dutch army against the French.
Crown Prince William of Orange served as Wellington’s adjutant and commander of Dutch troops. The so-called “Hero of Waterloo” lies wounded on a stretcher but smiles at the news. The commander of the British army, Arthur Wellesley, the duke of Wellington, is on horseback and points toward the approaching Prussians with his tricorne.
There’s no subtley here — note how dark storm clouds hover over the French while the heroes are illuminated with sun and light.
6. Rembrandt: Early Self Portrait
Rembrandt (1606-1669) first studied painting with Jacob van Swanenburg, a painter in his native Leiden, and then moved to Amsterdam to work for one of the most recognized landscape painters in northern Netherlands, Pieter Lastman. After that apprenticeship, Rembrandt returned to Leiden where he worked with Jan Lievens for several years before moving permanently to Amsterdam in 1631.
By then, he had begun painting himself, a lifelong endeavor that would ultimately yield over 50 Rembrandt self-portraits. One of the earliest and most enigmatic is his Self Portrait at an Early Age, created when Rembrandt was about 22 years old.
This self-portrait clearly demonstrates that he relished experimentation with light and shadow, portraying himself in raking light, light which hits diagonally and generates high-contrast shadows.
Rembrandt gazes intently and boldly at the viewer, while the most expressive portion of his face is heavily shadowed.
His use of shadow makes you look, and look again. I suspect that’s just what Rembrandt intended.
7. Rembrandt: The Military Company of Captain Frans Bonninck (Night Watch)
After the recent extensive cleaning of Night Watch, it became clear that this wasn’t a night scene at all — but I’ve a hunch that this nickname isn’t going anywhere.
Read here about Night Watch. And if you haven’t seen how the Rijksmuseum advertised its re-opening with a brilliant use of Night Watch, this exceptional 1 1/2 minute video will bring a smile. Promise.
8. Pieter de Hooch: Interior with Women Beside Linen Cupboard
Like many Dutch painters of genre scenes, Pieter de Hooch (c. 1629 – 1684) often conveyed moralizing messages in his works. Hooch’s individualized touch was a view of outdoors or an interior room seen through an open window or door, as in Interior with Women Beside Linen Cupboard.
As a child plays with a kolfstok, a type of hockey stick, two women are at work after hitching their skirts to keep them clean. With brightly illuminated canal houses seen outside, Interior juxtaposes the world of adulthood with that of childhood – work and play; painting and sculpture; age and youth; interior and exterior worlds.
9. Therese Schwartze: Portrait of Lizzie Ansingh
Therese Schwartze (1851-1918) was a celebrated Dutch portraitist who exhibited and received commissions in both the U.S. and Europe. A member of the Amsterdamse Joffers, a group of female painters active around 1900, Schwartze was its most distinguished member. Remarkably, she became a millionaire from her society portraits.
This informal portrait of Schwartze’s niece, fellow painter Lizzie Ansingh, is painted with vigorous, confident brushstrokes; the contrast of the red accent against Ansingh’s chartreuse dress radiates power, which affronted some in Dutch society with Calvinist leanings. Nonetheless, Schwartze was one of the most highly sought-after portrait painters in the early 20th century. It’s astonishing how little she is known in the U.S.
10. Jan Asselijn: The Threatened Swan
The first acquisition by the Nationale Kunstgalerlj, the forerunner of the Rijksmuseum, The Threated Swan has become a symbol of Dutch national resistance, although it’s not certain if its creator, Jan Asselijn (1610-1652), intended it as such.
A swan is ferociously attacking a curious dog, barely visible in the lower left, which approaches her nest. After The Threatened Swan was completed circa 1650, additional inscriptions were added – one egg reads “Holland” while “enemy of the state” is inscribed next to the dog. The swan was then intrepreted as symbolizing the Dutch politician, Johan de Witt, who was assassinated in 1672 while protecting his country.
Regardless of whether Asselijn intended this work as political commentary, he has captured a menacing swan in a breath-taking reality that underscores its ranking as one of the most famous paintings in the Rijksmuseum.
Like reading about the history behind famous paintings?
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