We had paid a brief visit to the Rijksmuseum in 1992, but all we remembered Reservists from that trip was the large "Galerie d'Honneur" on the second floor, stuffed full of Rembrandts and Van Dijks and Vermeers and Hals and all the other masters who painted for the wealthy seventeenth century Dutch merchants. This is truly a remarkable display, but today we saw the whole museum.
We began with the section on the history of the Netherlands. Here the museum curators had skillfully assembled a mixture of painting and objects to tell the story of the Eighty Years War with Spain, the Republic of the United Provinces, the Dutch East and West India Companies, the Golden Age, Colonialism, and the gradual diminution of the Netherlands' importance on the world geopolitical stage. It's one thing to read a short history of a country, and another thing entirely to see paintings with rich Dutch merchants being tended Vermeer's The Milkmaid by African slaves, and a model of a Dutch merchant's buildings built on an artificial island in Japan in the 16th century; when Japan closed itself off from outside contacts, the Dutch merchants were an exception but they weren't allowed to leave Japan!
The Rijksmuseum has three large floors of exhibits, and we'd only seen half of one floor with the history exhibit, so we walked on. There were even more paintings by Dutch artists, including many fine works and a few bad ones. The Netherlands had been torn by Protestant-Catholic wars for hundreds of years, with the result here that there are fewer Catholic religious objects and much more secular art -- portraits, landscapes, still life paintings. Even the museum building had been a source of controversy. When it was being designed, many people thought it had too much Gothic (i.e., Catholic) architecture.
There are lots of exhibits of porcelain, from all over Europe. They Rembrandt's Nightwatch conveyed an idea of history in addition to their artistic appeal. A set of beautifully painted dishes nested in a comfy traveling case made us wonder how many times the owners expected to move.
A room of elaborate doll houses showed the way furniture and draperies were used; these doll houses were created not for children but for adult women, as collectibles. The men had collectibles, too: an awesome collection of collectible cabinets includes intricate cases made of many kinds of wood, plus mother of pearl, lapis, and even thin wafers of painted marble.
We used to have a nice oak table with black inlay; we had bought it at a large warehouse in Los Angeles that was importing antique furniture from Europe. Art Nouveau comb We found its twin in the Rijksmuseum, as well as earlier versions with similar style and manufacture.
We both liked the collection of Art Nouveau objects. This is perhaps the best display of this art style that we've come across, with vases, decorative screens, wooden cabinets, chinaware, jewelry and hair ornaments arranged in several rooms. This particular style which flourished for just a few decades around the 1900s, is called Jugendstil in Austria and Germany, and features lovely curving lines.
The Rijksmuseum's combination of history and art is an inspired way to introduce one to The Netherlands, and should be on any tourist's list.