Amsterdam – food, art and bicycles (Netherlands Part 1 of 5)
After cruising around the Baltic sea for a couple of weeks aboard the MS Koningsdam we returned to our first port of call Amsterdam and spent a week exploring the city and getting a taste of its food, culture and art. I have been there before and knew what to expect but still, every time you visit a place you get a different sense of it, partly because places change over time and partly because you are in a different place in your own life with new interests and perspectives. Everything evolves.
The ship spilled out its passenger cargo early morning and we headed to a hotel booked by our travelling partners and in-laws who were returning to Canada in a couple of days while we stayed on in Amsterdam. We stayed at the Radisson Blu and although I wouldn’t describe it as “charming”, it had large rooms and was situated in a convenient location within walking distance of just about everywhere in the center of Amsterdam.
First on my “must see” list were the museums: the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh museums for sure and if possible also the Rembrandt House museum and Anne Franks house. The latter two did not materialize but it’s more of a reason to go back to Amsterdam next time we are in Europe. Also on the must do list was a trip to The Hague, to see the Girl with the Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer.
The Rijksmuseum was quite an experience, standing in front of one masterwork after another. The “signature” piece is Rembrandt’s 1642 “Night Watch”, a painting guarded by two armed security persons at all times. It is a portrait of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and his lieutenant Ruytenburg with a group of 16 members of their militia company whose names are inscribed on the shield that apparently was added later. In the 17th century Spain occupied the Netherlands, creating military, economic and religious conflicts (Catholic Spain vs. Protestant Netherlands). The militia companies were formed to defend gates to the city and maintain order in tenuous times. However, according to an Art expert and historian Walter Wallace in “The Legend and the Man” at the time Rembrandt painted this image the militia no longer was required to defend the city and it’s role was mostly ceremonial and convened for sporting and social events, which is likely the subject of the painting. In any events, portraits of the various militia were commissioned and displayed in their assembly halls. Rembrandt’s painting is huge (about 13ftX15ft) and rather dark but it was not intended to portray a night scene. The name “night watch” was given to the painting a couple of hundred years after it was painted, when it had darkened considerably by time and grime and assumed to portray a night scene. Although it was meant to be a daytime scene, you can certainly see the influence of Caravaggio and Baroque style in its use of light and dark. In terms of the composition the work is unique because unlike other paintings of the time that depicted militia companies usually seated or standing in rows, the people in Rembrandt’s painting are painted in various stages of action, giving it a perception of energy, motion and action. I read that the painting was vandalized in 1975 by a disgruntled person who slashed it with a knife in several place. Imagine that. The painting has been restored and the canvas repaired.
We were lucky to visit Rijksmuseum in September as we were treated to a rare sighting of another Rembrandt masterpiece: the formal portraits of husband and wife Marten and Oopjen. The two paintings were displayed side by side on the wall next to the prestigious Night Watch. Rembrandt painted these portraits at age 28 in 1634, perfectly depicting the intricate details of their magnificent costumes. These painting stayed in private collection for 400 years until they were acquired earlier this year by the Netherland and French governments and were on display until Oct 2 when they were removed for restoration. It was agreed between the two governments that they will be always displayed together. Watch for them at the Rijksmuseum or the Louvre in Paris, were they will be displayed alternately in the next several years.
Of course one of the highlights of the Rijksmuseum are the painting by Johannes Vermeer, one of the most prominent Dutch painters of the late 17th century whose relatively small scale paintings are considered masterpieces of universal importance. The Rijksmuseum is showing the famous Milkmaid depicting a pensive kitchenmaid slowly pouring milk from a pitcher into an earthenware “Dutch oven” in the kitchen. Historical and artistic analysis of the painting concluded that the milkmaid is preparing a bread pudding from pieces of stale bread. A milkmaid after my own heart. When you look at the painting you are immediately drawn into the scene by the light streaming from the window and the real simplicity of the scene. I stood there looking at it for a long time before I vacated my spot to allow other to move in (it wasn’t too busy when we visited).
After visiting the museum for several hours we stopped for a bite to eat at the museum’s cafe. The cafe occupies a beautiful space on a mezzanine above the entrance area and has an airy and light feel. We had tomato soup and an open face sandwich with dutch cheese and an herbal tea afterwards. It was fun to sit and watch the going on and slowly digest the beautiful art we were privileged to have seen.
Next instalment: The Hague.