Museum Marathon in Amsterdam

Treats for the Mind - Museums & Exhibitions

Art Lovers Delight

AmsterdamLondon, Paris, Rome, Madrid. Amsterdam certainly needs to be mentioned in the same breath as one of the great cities of Europe. The abundance of marvelous museums in The Netherlands rates it a top destination for art lovers. And if you want to know what Amsterdam is all about, just retro back to the 17th century. Known as Holland’s Golden Age, it has made its indelible mark everywhere. It especially dominates the museums. And justifiably so. It was the age of Rembrandt, Franz Hals and Vermeer. It was also the age of Delft and elaborate dollhouses for girls from aristocratic families.

It’s tempting to try to do a museum blitz as I did in Amsterdam, when I covered six museums in three days, wanting to totally absorb just what made this era so great. But the paintings are so emotionally charged and gorgeous and Amsterdam is such a vibrant city that every visitor needs to allow time to breathe and experience its contagious urban gaiety and excitement. Try a beer at a café on a canal. Feel elegant as you stroll through the riot of colors at the Flower Market. It is just a stone’s throw away from the charming Albus Grand Hotel, where I was given lots of personal attention and enjoyed the dinners of a creative young chef. Visit the Anne Frankhuis until 9 pm seven days a week during the summer, until 7 pm the rest of the year. Eat some pancakes or sausage; and watch out for the bikes whizzing by and the frequent but cumbersome trams that stop in the middle of the street in both directions. They will take you almost anywhere in ten minutes.

Amsterdam Flower MarketAmsterdam’s Historische Museum adeptly reveals the chronological history of the city and provides an excellent starting point.

Amsterdam began as a small fishing village in the 12th century on the Amstel River. Exempt from tolls on its locks and bridges, it quickly became a major seaport. Merchants (many specializing in diamonds) and artists gravitated to Amsterdam and a new class of moneyed intellectuals emerged. Along with wealth and power, it became one of the world’s leading commercial towns and a center of learning and culture. No one could be persecuted because of his faith; people flocked to the city from all over Europe, including Protestants from England, Huguenots from France and Jews from Spain and Portugal. By the 17th century, it was the center of world trade and its famous canals encircling the city and connecting its 90 islands were built.


The history museum is in the center of town not far from the Dam and the Royal Palace. The Town Hall, designed by Jacob van Campen in 1665, is now the Queen’s Royal Palace when she is in Amsterdam. The museum was originally the municipal orphanage, funded by wealthy merchants who felt it was their duty to help the poor. Art, maps, objects and imposing Civic Guard paintings unfold to tell of the rise and fall and rise again of this fascinating city.

By 1597 the United East India Company (VOC) had carved out the sea route to India, reaching it by going round Africa. In 1611, the stock exchange was established. By 1620 the city’s population had reached 100,000. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, Avercamp and others chronicled these historic events with unforgettable landscapes, genre scenes,  portraits and group portraits.

Our next visit takes us to the great Rijksmuseum, located on Museumplein. The imposing building is still undergoing renovation, so only a portion of it is open. Luckily, the exhibition currently on view is what most people always come to see at the Rijksmuseum. It’s called The Masterpieces. Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn’s  emotionally charged self portraits are especially poignant. See his Night Watch, commissioned in 1642 by  a group of young male citizen required to enlist in the town guard to defend the city. The lush fabrics of his Isaac & Rebecca, The Jewish Bride 1665, a colorful double portrait, suggest comfort, love and intimacy.

The genre paintings of Dutch Golden Age artist Gabriel Metsu (1629-1677) chronicle scenes of everyday life—a sick child, a young man writing a letter, a kitchen maid peeling an apple. This special exhibition will be on view at the Rijksmuseum from December 16, 2010 until March 20, 2011.

Museumplein is a cultural wonder: also on the large park-like square are the Van Gogh Museum, the Overholland Museum  and the Stedelijk Museum,  devoted to presenting excellent quality contemporary art (closed at the moment for renovation). Its inventory of 100,000 works of art includes works by Monet, Chagall, Picasso, Mondrian and Rodin. The nearby Concertgebouw is the concert hall of The Netherlands’ world famous orchestra.

While right there, visit the Van Gogh Museum. It houses the world’s largest collection of works by the tortured Dutch artist. Paintings by Vincent and his contemporaries trace his artistic life—his beginning as a pastor to poor farmers, as seen in The Potato Eaters,  through his Japanese influence and French Impressionist phases to the immense depression that engulfed him  at Auvers-sur-Oise.

The most dazzling addition to the city is the new Hermitage Amsterdam museum, overlooking the Amstel River. Matisse to Malevich: Pioneers of Modern Art from the Hermitage, recently featured such Fauve artists as Matisse, Picasso, Vlaminck, Van Dongen, Derain  and other  early 20th century French avant-garde painters. Around 1900 these pioneers were reacting violently to French Impressionism and Pointillism by outlining in black the flat, bold colors, painted on often distorted, simplified forms. The Hermitage Amsterdam current blockbuster is The Immortal Alexander the Great, featuring 350 masterworks on view until March 18, 2011. The exhibition spans 2500 years, tracing his journeys  and conquests and the influence of Hellenism upon the cultures that he conquered.

Just a few blocks away from the Hermitage Amsterdam is the Joods Historische Museum, a museum of Jewish culture and history. It is actually a complex of four synagogues, linked together by glass walkways, dating from 1671 to 1752. The exhibitions range from religious objects to the rise of Jewish enterprise and its role in the Dutch economy. The Rembrandthuis, built in 1606 is located in the Jewish quarter. The artist lived here for 21 years, some with his beloved wife Saskia who died at a young age. Two hundred fifty Rembrandt etchings and drawings are exhibited here, as well as drawings by his teachers and pupils.

Across town located on the Prinsengracht canal is the Anne Frankhuis. The Jewish Frank family hid there for two years to escape deportation during World War II. Otto Frank, his wife, two daughters and several friends lived in the rear annex; its entrance was concealed behind a large revolving bookcase. Anne’s diary was found among the litter of the annex after the war and her father published it. Only Otto Frank survived; Anne died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945,  just two weeks before it was liberated.

Amsterdam MaurithuisAmsterdam’s oldest surviving building is the Oude Kerk (Old Church), built in 1306 to honor St. Nicholas in the red suit, the city’s patron saint. The Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) is the coronation church for Dutch royalty. Known for its 15th century Gothic basilica, the interior is sparse and church services are no longer held here.

It is well worth the one hour train ride from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station to Den Haag (The Hague). The highlight of the visit is surely the Mauritshuis, known for its Dutch masterpieces of the Golden Age. Three important Vermeers, fifteen Rembrandts, several Franz Hals and a Rubens and Brueghel collaboration  are among the treasures. This intimate, classical mansion with its exquisite detailing was built in 1640; it now also houses the royal collection. Johannes Vermeer’s (1632-1675) intriguing Girl With a Pearl Earring is here. Recently, The Young Vermeer focused on 3 large Vermeers, providing a new perspective on the artist who worked wonders with the distribution of light upon the human figure. A biblical scene, a mythological scene and a genre scene of everyday life reveal his evolution.

Upon returning to Amsterdam, just across the street from Centraal Station is the line up of canal cruises, exactly the perfect finale to a jam-packed few days in Amsterdam. The waterways are especially pleasant at twilight.

©2010 by Héloïse Levit


Amsterdam - Heloise Ginger Levit

About the Author

Héloïse “Ginger” Levit is a private art dealer specializing in French paintings with provenance and paintings by selected American and Virginia artists. She writes about art, antiques and travel for several publications. Contact her at


Many of Amsterdam’s most exclusive neighborhoods overlook picturesque canals.

Amsterdam’s famous Flower Market occupies several blocks in center city.

The Mauritshuis, located in The Hague (Den Haag) is known for its Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings of the Dutch Golden Age.

Author Ginger Levit visits the Anne Frankhuis on Prinsengracht 263—267 on a Saturday evening at 7 pm.



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