AMSTERDAM – There are officially 1,200 museums in the Netherlands , a country that has produced some of the world’s greatest artists. But there’s only one I’m interested in seeing on a rainy summer’s day - the Hermitage Amsterdam, the Dutch branch of the famed Russian museum located in St. Petersburg. I dodge bicycles and trams trying to locate the Amstelhof, the historic building in which the museum is housed.
A local woman, Yvonne Zumpolle, sees the city map in my hands and the confused look on my face and comes to my rescue.
“See that lovely building over there,” says the woman with the blonde curly hair while pointing to a large red-brick structure that’s reflected in the Amstel River by which it stands. “Just cross the little white draw bridge and it will bring you right to the front door.
“But the Hermitage doesn’t open for another hour,” says Yvonne, who invites me to join her for a cup of coffee at a neighbourhood café, across from Rembrandt Square.
While sipping our java and watching rain drops cling to the café’s window, Yvonne, an art and golf lover like myself, says the Hermitage has been a great success since its Amsterdam opening in 2009. But Yvonne seems more interested in talking about the Amstelhof than the treasures inside.
Above: The recently refurbished Rijksmuseum looks as good as the art is houses.
“The Amstelhof (it means “Court on the Amstel” in Dutch) is one of the most beautiful buildings in Amsterdam,” says the local woman, who insists I have some apple cake with my coffee.
“It was built in 1682 and was, at first, a place where women whose husbands never came back from their sea voyages were taken in and cared for. Because so many men lost their lives at sea back then, there were a lot of widows (more than 400 at any one time) living there.”
The Amstelhof later served as a hospital before standing vacant for many years. That’s when the Hermitage Amsterdam planners decided the building with the classical style façade designed by famed city architect Hans van Petersom would be the perfect home for the Russian museum’s overflow works of art.
So, between 2007 and 2009, extensive work was carried out to create 23,380 square feet of museum space in the 138,270 square foot building. The Hermitage museum now occupies two large exhibition halls and several smaller rooms.
“The Amstelhof has a beautiful centre court garden, so don’t miss that,” says Yvonne as we trade business cards, say goodbye and I watch her disappear into the tourist mob gathered in Rembrandt Square.
A few minutes later, I’m standing at the entrance of the Hermitage Amsterdam, waiting in line with dozens of others who have come to see the great paintings of French master Henri Matisse, one of the pioneers of modern art, along with other works – 75 in total - by the likes of Picasso and Kasimir Malevich in an exhibition called “Matisse to Malevich.”
The exhibition is delightful. The halls are roomy and flooded with just the right amount of natural light.
The show whets my appetite for more Hermitage treasures. But there are no more to be found in the Amstelhof.
The Hermitage Amsterdam, apparently, only shows rotating exhibits from St. Petersburg, so the 75 paintings, which come from a collection of over three million treasures owned by Russia’s Hermitage, are all I get to see. What a disappointment, especially when you consider the Hermitage in St. Petersburg can only show 65,000 of its three million pieces at any one time. That leaves plenty left over that could, and should be used as part of a permanent exhibition in Amsterdam.
Above: Iconic Dutch paintings have a place of honour in the Rijksmuseum.
Although the Hermitage Amsterdam fails to live up to my expectations, I’m not discouraged. This city of Rembrandt and Van Gogh offers plenty of other museum options.
So, early the next morning, I jump on the No. 2 tram outside Amsterdam’s Central Railway Station and head to the Museum Quarter, where three of the country’s most impressive museums, the fabulous Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk Museum, featuring a collection of modern art, are grouped together surrounded by pools, fountains and gardens.
The Rijksmuseum is the Netherlands’ national museum and its largest. It attracts over 1 million visitors a year and houses some of the country’s most important artifacts, including Rembrandt’s priceless work, The Night Watch, from 1642.
The ground floor of the Rijksmuseum highlights Holland’s military and economic might during the 15th and 16th centuries. Its cases are filled with ivory-handled pistols, golden trinkets and other treasures brought back from far-off lands by the infamous East and West India trading companies, who made the Dutch the most prosperous nation of that era.
But it’s the Rijksmuseum’s brilliant art collection that puts it in the class of the Louvre and Hermitage. The wonderful paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dijck, Jan Steen, Johannes Vermeer and all the other Dutch Masters are what people come to see. And The Night Watch, in which Rembrandt introduced focused light on subjects into Dutch paintings, is the most spellbinding of all. People sit for hours just studying the canvas which is continually guarded by heavy security.
But while the Rijksmuseum is the largest of the Netherland’s great museums, the Van Gogh, built to house the works of the artist who simply signed his canvas with his first name, Vincent, is, judging by the long lineup waiting at the entrance is its most popular.
Van Gogh touches your soul with his brilliant but sometimes disturbing works. His self portraits, most composed as his mind drifted into madness, are haunting. His China blue eyes pierce and mesmerize onlookers. The deep brush strokes he employs gives his works a 3-D feel. This is a museum that’s hard to get into and even harder to leave.
Left: Rembrandt Square. Right: Amsterdam's famous museum quarter.
There’s no doubt the Hermitage Amsterdam had hard acts to follow. But if it’s to be taken seriously, additional space in the Amstelhof must be set aside so more pieces from the St. Petersburg collection can be showcased in Amsterdam.
Otherwise, the only thing of interest about the Hermitage Amsterdam, is the building in which it’s housed.