Amsterdam — Of course everyone who visits the Louvre in Paris must make a ceremonial pilgrimage to Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa,” but it is always a disappointment. The crowds are thick and the frantic push for a good viewing spot makes them none too friendly. Arms dart out with cellphone cameras, blocking your view, and if you happen to make it to the front of the mass, the painting is still far away and covered by thick protective glass. Like visiting the embalmed corpse of Lenin or Ho Chi Minh, the only reason to do it is to say you’ve done it, and once you’ve done it, there’s no reason to do it again. The Mona Lisa’s power as a living work of art has been effectively neutered.
At Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, where Rembrandt’s enormous 1642 group portrait “Night Watch” has much the same status as the Louvre’s “Mona Lisa,” the situation is entirely different. The museum, which reopened in April after a decade of renovation, was built around this oversized, bustling, boisterous canvas, and it is still the highlight of any visit. It sits at the end of a long, processional space, at the architectural heart of an 1885 giant, brick Gothic-revival building.