Vincent van Gogh once said that he could sit in front of Rembrandt’s “Jewish Bride” in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum for a fortnight with just a crust of bread to eat.
It would be interesting to know what he would have made of the lavishly renovated and remodeled Rijksmuseum, which is reopening after a decade-long restoration -- five years longer than planned -- and which cost $500 million, overshooting the budget by tens of millions of dollars.
Vincent would still recognize the original building, designed by the architect Pierre Cuypers and opened in 1885. Part of the project, rightly, has been devoted to refurbishing this masterpiece of 19th-century architecture.
Added to it are a new entrance atrium, a cafe, and all the smart appendages that 21st-century museums require. The collection itself has been rearranged and reinstalled, and is still what Van Gogh saw: the world’s finest array of 17th-century Dutch art. Personally, I love Dutch art, and you’ve got to love it to love the Rijksmuseum.
It isn’t, like the Louvre or the Prado, an ex-royal collection with a selection of art from throughout Europe. Nor is it an institution, like London’s National Gallery, that has set out to form a representative collection of post-Renaissance painting.
With a few exceptions -- a fine Goya portrait and excellent Far Eastern pieces in a brand new pavilion -- what you see here is Dutch.
The best of the best is contained in one very large, very grand space: Cuypers’s Gallery of Honor.
Inside, it’s more or less a masterpiece a minute, leading up through Vermeer, Frans Hals and the other great masters, with Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Night Watch” a major highlight.
Here, like Vincent, you really could linger a long, long time in front of Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid,” “The Jewish Bride,” or dozens of other marvelous pictures.
Because so many highlights are gathered together, once you leave the Gallery of Honor, the tension tends to drop. The biggest innovation of the new installation is that the Rijksmuseum’s fine collection of sculpture and decorative arts is now displayed side by side with the pictures, as in the new galleries at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
In one way, this is good. The 17th-century Dutch were among the first societies to discover the pleasures and pains of middle-class consumption. Pictures and other luxuries were not just for aristocrats; successful traders also liked to flaunt their wealth.
So it is instructive to see eye-poppingly ornate glass and silverware next to a painting of the same in a gigantic image of a banquet by Adrian van Utrecht.
If you like blue Delft china, the Rijksmuseum certainly has it, including some flower holders suitable for containing tulips -- that hot asset which, for a time, became the object of an early market bubble.
The downside is that, quite often, the decorative arts upstage the pictures. A fantastic bronze by Adrian de Vries blows away everything else in the same gallery. Nothing on the walls can compete with the almost 4 meter (13 feet) model of the warship “William Rex” from 1698.
On other floors, there are extensive galleries of 19th-century art, mainly for specialists, and -- a new addition to the Rijksmuseum -- 20th-century works.
Basically, the Rijksmuseum is now a cool version of a 19th-century monument to national artistic splendor, repackaged for 2013.
The reason you come here is to soak yourself in the painting and culture of the people who almost invented modern bourgeois life.
While in Amsterdam, make time to look at the works of Vincent, that wonderfully non-bourgeois Dutchman, whose own museum reopens on May 1.
The Rijksmuseum reopens to the public on April 14. Tickets and information from http://www.rijksmuseum.nl.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Martin Gayford in Amsterdam at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/martingayford.
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