Given that I’ve ranted on this blog about my frustrations with the Vancouver Art Gallery, wrote about how I visited the best museums New York has to offer as an antidote, and started off this summer’s series of posts describing my week in Paris with two art-mad nieces, I would be remiss if I didn’t write about Amsterdam’s # 1 rated attraction (according to Trip Advisor).
No, I’m not talking about the Sex Museum.
The Rijksmuseum is home to the national art collection of the Netherlands. If you didn’t know, you will after visiting this museum how much the Dutch revere their artists. Most of the second floor is taken up by what they’ve named the Gallery of Honour, with The Nightwatch by Rembrandt as its focal point.
And if you didn’t know, you will after visiting this museum that there is a bike path that runs through the centre of it. The Rijksmuseum went through a massive renovation (was supposed to take five years, but dragged on for ten), reopening to much fanfare in 2013. One of the hold-ups was the plan to alter the entrance and remove the bike path.
Turns out the Amsterdammers didn’t much like that idea and the architects were sent back to the drawing board. (It is fascinating to me how much power cyclists have in this city. But that’s a topic for another post.)
For the rest of this post, I’m going to let these images speak for themselves. And make a recommendation that if you only have time for one museum during your next visit to Amsterdam, make it this one.
Of course, if you truly are a fan of Rembrandt, you really need to go to Museum het Rembrandthuis, or the Rembrandt House Museum. Located in Amsterdam on Jodenbreestraat, it is where Rembrandt lived from 1639 until 1658.
The museum provides an excellent window into how Rembrandt lived and worked. It is able to do this because there exists a comprehensive inventory of Rembrandt’s possessions and furnishings.
Why does such an inventory exist?
Because the guy went bankrupt. His possessions and the house were sold in 1658, after which Rembrandt rented a smaller house in another part of the city. He lived there until his death in 1669.
The house on Jodenbreestraat was bought by the city of Amsterdam in the early 1900s, and opened as a museum in 1911.
I’ve written before how much I like smaller art museums dedicated to a single artist; this museum is one of my favourites and I visit it every time I come to Amsterdam. The building next door to the original house is now a gallery where Rembrandt’s etchings are displayed. As fascinating as the reconstructed living rooms and studio are, the experience of seeing a roomful of Rembrandt’s etchings is easily the highlight of a visit to the Rembrandt House Museum.
Vermeer gets a lot of attention in this country, but then, so does Rembrandt van Rijn. He was born in Leiden and The Night Watch is arguably the most famous of famous Dutch paintings.
And so, when I went to Leiden, I decided to follow the Rembrandt trail. It’s not much of a trail, but it provided a nice structure to my four-hour walk through Leiden.
First stop: Rembrandt’s birthplace. The house is no longer standing, but here’s a plaque to mark the spot. Rembrandt lived here until he was 25.
Turn around, and you see this tableau in a little square called Rembrandtpark.
The building in the centre of this next photo is the Latin School, which Rembrandt began attending at age 10. All classes and exams were conducted in Latin, and it was here that Rembrandt had his first drawing lessons.
And the mill in this last photo is located directly across the Rhine River from the house where Rembrandt grew up. Rembrandt’s father was a miller and although this was not his mill, it is a reconstruction of one that stood on this spot when Rembrandt was a boy.
Rembrandt was a tad more prolific than Vermeer — it is thought he made about 300 paintings and 400 etchings in all. When I look at the above photo, what I see in my mind’s eye are the many landscapes he did of the Dutch countryside.
You’re all wondering how I could write a post on Delft and not make a single mention of one of its most famous residents.
That would be Johannes Vermeer, born in Delft in 1632, died in Delft in 1675. Painted maybe 35 paintings (that we know of), three of which are in the Frick in New York. (I still can’t believe that one collector got his hands on 8 percent of Vermeer’s oeuvre.)
If you’re a fan of Vermeer’s work, you might want to start your day in Delft at the Vermeer Centrum. It’s a small museum dedicated to his life and work.
One particularly innovative display allows you to put yourself in his studio, as if you were the subject of one of his paintings.
Be sure to ask at the front entrance for a map of the Vermeer Trail. It’s a self-guided walking tour of all the places in Delft significant to the life of Vermeer.
Including this street scene, supposedly the setting of The Little Street. My friend and I concluded it was a bit of a stretch — if it was the setting, both of the houses on either side have been completely rebuilt. (On the other hand, not far from this street is the street where my friend’s father was born and where he claimed The Little Street had been painted.)
One site there is no argument about is where Vermeer was buried. That would be in the Oude Kerk (Old Church). Here’s the memorial stone.
The painting (and book and film) that has renewed interest in Vermeer and his work is The Girl With a Pearl Earring. The shops in Delft are not above exploiting the painting’s popularity.
None of Vermeer’s paintings are located in Delft, sadly. For that, you need to go to The Mauritshuis in Den Haag (some 10 kilometres west of Delft) or the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Or the Frick in New York.
Every time I am in Paris, I make sure to stop by the Musée Rodin. It is, in my opinion, the most perfect of art museums.
I love the Musée Rodin because I love Rodin’s work, for one, but I also love it because it is located in such a beautiful setting and because it is the perfect size for an art gallery: it’s neither too big nor too small.
There are a number of similar, smaller museums in Paris — the Musée Picasso and the Musée Delacroix come to mind — and if you have a particular artist you want to explore in depth, you would do well to spend your time in one of these smaller museums and avoid the larger museums where the tourists tend to gravitate.
The Musée Rodin is housed in an eighteenth-century mansion known as the Hôtel Biron. At various points in its lifetime, the mansion was home to a Roman Catholic cardinal, the Russian ambassador to France, and three nuns who opened a boarding school for girls. In the twentieth century, the owners began to rent space in the building to artists, including Henri Matisse, and then, in 1908, Auguste Rodin. Rodin took over the entire building in 1911.
Also in 1911, the French government became the new owners of the Hôtel Biron, and after exacting a promise from the government that the building would be turned into a museum of his work, Rodin donated most of his sculptures. In 1919, two years after the death of Rodin, the Musée Rodin opened to the public.
In contrast to the Louvre, the Centre Pompidou is a much more manageable art museum. For one thing, its permanent collection is displayed on two levels that are easily covered in one visit. And for another, its emphasis is much more focused: modern and contemporary art from 1905 to present day.
There are a couple of bonuses to the Centre Pompidou as well: the splendid view from the fifth floor, and the incredibly fascinating architecture of the building, which opened in 1977.
If the crowds of the Louvre prove to be too much for you, I recommend a visit to the Pompidou as the perfect antidote.
When you spend a week in Paris with a couple of art students, it’s inevitable that you end up spending much of that week in the city’s art museums.
And when you choose to visit the world’s largest and most-visited art museum, it’s inevitable that you end up spending a considerable amount of time in line waiting your turn to enter.
That art museum would be the Musée du Louvre.
The line was long. Very long. And here’s a pro tip: if you neglect to ensure you’re in the correct line before you begin your wait, you may well end up having to go to the back of yet another line, thus doubling your wait time.
Which is what happened to us.
Here’s another pro tip: do not try to see the entire museum in one go. It is physically impossible. The Louvre used to be a royal palace, and the result is a confusing layout that is more maze than museum. If you were to walk through every one of its 403 galleries and down every one of its corridors, you’d cover 14.5 km and 15 acres containing more than 38,000 objects and pieces of art dating from ancient civilizations to the mid-nineteenth century.
I’m exhausted just from typing out that last sentence.
My nieces and I started in the sculpture galleries and the girls were both awestruck by what they saw and overwhelmed by the crowds around pieces such as the Venus de Milo. Because we knew we had to pace ourselves, we stopped to have a bite to eat in one of the Louvre’s many cafés, intending to tackle the Italian Renaissance paintings after our break.
But fate intervened, and an announcement over the PA system in French and English that the Louvre had to be evacuated due to a “security incident” thwarted our plans. We never did find out what the incident was — I suspect it may have been due to the record-breaking rain storm earlier that morning — but when I told the story to a friend who had been in Paris a year earlier, she recounted her experience of being evacuated from Versailles for what they eventually discovered was a thermos inadvertently left unattended.
We had waited more than two hours to spend scarcely an hour inside the Louvre. But we also wanted to be safe, and these days, in Paris, you cannot blame the museum or the police for being overanxious and overcautious.
We never did go back to the Louvre — we had other museums to visit and the girls decided they had seen as much of the Louvre as they needed to see. For myself, I’m glad we didn’t make it as far as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. That gallery is a bit of a gong show and unless you’re small enough to squeeze to the front of the crowd or tall enough to see over the selfie sticks, you will walk away disappointed. At least my nieces were spared that.
This photo shows some more of the art you can see in New York. At left is a photo by Richard Avedon and to the right is a painting by Guy Pène Du Bois. The sculpture in between is by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an American sculptor and art collector.
When Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney offered her collection of work by American artists to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was refused. So she turned around and opened her own museum. The Whitney Museum of Art, which focuses on American art, opened in 1931 in Greenwich Village. It has had a number of homes since then, but its latest, a purpose-built building at the south end of the High Line, opened in 2015.
The real reason I went to New York last month had more to do with me wanting to visit another Met.
That would be the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I’ve written before about my love–hate relationship with the Vancouver Art Gallery. Which is why, after a rather trying visit to a popular exhibition at the VAG late last summer, I lamented to the friend I was with that I needed a proper art fix at a proper world class art gallery. Preferably in a city like Paris. Or London.
Or New York.
A few hours later, as I was pondering my meltdown outside the VAG, I suddenly remembered that (1) I had enough points for a plane ticket to New York and (2) it had been far too long since I had visited my friend in Brooklyn.
A few emails back and forth, a few online bookings, and, within a few days, a few plans were in place.
And a few months later, just a few hours after touchdown at JFK, I was standing at the entrance to what most people rate as one of the top art galleries in the world.
The first time I walked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on an earlier visit to New York, I did have a wee bit of a momentary breakdown. Its size almost did me in. I knew the Met was big ― I just didn’t realize it was that big. But within seconds, I shrugged off my frustrations. When you’re playing art tourist and you’re in the largest art gallery in the Western Hemisphere, there is no time to waste.
The trick to large art galleries is to get a map, and quickly zero in on what you want to see, picking a floor or wing to focus on. Don’t even thinking of trying to see it all. And don’t be afraid to ask for directions. Those gallery guards know their way around.
I tend to gravitate towards European Painting no matter what art gallery I am in. But if the Old Masters put you to sleep, not to worry. The Met has everything from Greek, Roman, and Islamic art all the way to present-day contemporary art. And if you’re there in good weather, don’t skip the roof garden. It has an amazing bird’s eye view of Central Park.
If oversized galleries aren’t your thing at all, then go to the Frick. The Frick was the perfect antidote to my morning at the Met. It’s so small you can see the entire gallery in a little more than an hour depending on long you linger in each room. Which is what makes it so delightful. The Frick is my idea of a perfect art museum, actually, as I truly believe art should be consumed in small doses before it all becomes a blur.
Henry Clay Frick, an industrialist who made his money in Pittsburgh steel, built the museum in 1914 as a private home for his family, although he fully intended it to be turned into a museum after his death. Many of the rooms remain furnished and decorated as they were when the Fricks lived there, including how and where the paintings are hung.
The collection focuses on European paintings, and has an entire room of Limoges enamels ― something I knew nothing about, but they are quite impressive. Old man Frick was quite the collector. How on earth did he get his hands on three Vermeers is what I’d like to know, given there are only about 35 in existence?
The Met and the Frick are both located on Fifth Avenue (aka Museum Mile). Still on Fifth Avenue, but further north, is the Guggenheim. This museum is worth a visit even if it is just to have a look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s amazing architectural design that is as much sculpture as it is building.
The Guggenheim focuses mainly on art from the last 150 years or so. I enjoy the Impressionist works and there are always interesting temporary exhibits.
Spending a long weekend zipping from art gallery to art gallery may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine, and I can’t wait to get back to New York for another art fix.
About 20 km south of Avignon is Saint Rémy-de-Provence. My friends and I ended up here solely because of an article I had read in some travel magazine. It was the photos accompanying the article that had caught my eye, so what’s odd is I don’t seem to have taken many photos of Saint Rémy-de-Provence myself. I must have been incapacitated by the town’s beauty.
I do have this one of the town hall. It gives you an idea. I mean, what town hall in Canada is draped in flowers?
Saint Rémy-de-Provence has a bit of a gastronomic reputation, and I do remember a delicious steak with Roquefort sauce followed by profiteroles smothered in chocolate sauce and ice cream. When the waiter put the plate down in from of me, he muttered “Mon Dieu!” under his breath — more to himself, it seemed, than to me.
Just outside of Saint Rémy-de-Provence is Saint Paul de Mausole Monastery. We stopped in because it was here that Vincent van Gogh spent a year as a patient at its psychiatric hospital. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place.
On the grounds of the monastery were a series of signs identifying the olive trees that van Gogh painted during his stay. The signs were positioned in such a way that you could see the view that inspired each painting.
Prior to his stay at Saint-Paul de Mausole (which still functions as a hospital), van Gogh lived in Arles for a year. A sketchbook he is reported to have filled during that time, which he later gave to the owners of the Arles café where he lived, was published this week to much controversy. Which has put Vincent van Gogh at the top of the news once again.
All I can say is: The more we talk about art, the better off we’ll all be.