The renovated Rijksmuseum, a cathedral of art


Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” is restored to its place of honor. (Iwan Baan/Rijksmuseum)

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.

Crowds flock to “Night Watch,” and yet the painting holds its own. A solitary guard tends it with the cheery and serene Dutch indifference to any thought of actually having to intervene in its defense, and the crowds, though eager for a cellphone snap, don’t bother to push all the way to the thin metal stanchions that form a buffer zone. While the “Mona Lisa” has passively surrendered to the assault of the crowd, “Night Watch” is still full of confrontational energy, pushing back at the teeming mass, as if its civilian militia is still eager to step out of the picture and surge across the bridge on which Rembrandt assembled them almost 400 years ago.

Perhaps that’s because “Night Watch” encompasses and condenses the Rijksmuseum in a way that the “Mona Lisa” doesn’t at the Louvre. Leonardo’s masterpiece is an icon among icons, a treasure elevated above a horde of masterpieces. But “Night Watch” embodies and summarizes all the energies that make Dutch Golden Age painting so vigorous and interesting.

When the museum reopened this spring, the Rembrandt was the only painting returned to exactly where it sat before the renovation, at the end of a long, almost religious space known as the Gallery of Honor. The Gallery, which lies at the core of the building designed by Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, is based, architecturally, on religious precedents, but with a secular veneer.


The Rijksmuseum great hall resembles a cathedral. (Jannes Linders/Rijksmuseum)

“It wasn’t meant to be a temple, like other great national museums,” says Taco Dibbits, director of collections at the Rijksmuseum. “It was a cathedral.”

Washington’s National Gallery, designed by John Russell Pope and built in the late 1930s, puts a classical pediment front and center, as does William Wilkins’s 1830s National Gallery in London, self-consciously envisioned as a “Temple of the Arts.” Cuypers’ s building instead centers on a long, rectangular space, with side “chapels” for smaller works, and at the end, a high altar for the Rembrandt.

Cuypers was also Catholic, and that helped determine how the Dutch thought about their national museum for decades. The building, with pointed towers, long, vertical windows animated by Gothic stonework, and a richly decorated interior with vaulted ceilings, was seen by many critics as a Catholic monstrosity in a culturally protestant and democratic country. The Dutch king at the time refused to attend, deriding it as an “archbishop’s palace.”

Over the past century and more, directors and designers of the museum have fought the building, filling in its interior courtyards with a warren of exhibition rooms, whitewashing and covering over its rich ornament, and cluttering its grand spaces, including the dramatic Great Hall (replete with soaring stained windows), with a bookstore and information booths. For a while, after the Second World War, when overt nationalism was out of favor, they even hung “Night Watch” on a sidewall, to deemphasize its quasi-sacred power. That 90-degree turn mimicked the classic Dutch reorientation of Catholic churches, with the pulpit facing the congregation, perpendicular to the length of the nave.

Leaders of the Rijksmuseum were responding not just to the decorative eccentricities of Cuyper’s palace, but to the expansion of the national collection, and the burgeoning tourist crowds that flocked to its unrivaled collection of 17th-century Dutch masters. Unlike other great national museums, the Dutch included both history and art under the same roof, so everything felt overstuffed, and a bit chaotic.

Arthur Wheelock, curator of the northern baroque paintings at Washington’s National Gallery, remembers visiting since the mid-1960s. There were always long lines, an awkward entrance that led to narrow, claustrophobic stairwells, and the flow of the space didn’t encourage visitors to head to the architectural hub of the Gallery of Honor.

“You were trapped into a kind of route,” he says, circulating in such a way that you passed enormous tracts of Dutch art, but weren’t in fact encouraged to go directly to the core spaces. Connoisseurs relished the delicious jumble of all and everything, but ordinary visitors were often overwhelmed. “The building was not built for the kinds of crowds that were going there.”

By 2000, there was sufficient momentum (including government support) for a major intervention, a task which fell to the Spanish architectural firm Cruz y Ortiz Arquitectos of Seville. The goal was to return Cuypers’s building to its original glory, while updating the museum for the 21st century. It took more than a decade and some $500 million, and in the process, the curators reorganized the entire collection, mixing paintings with housewares, breaking down the divisions between art, craft and history.

They removed everything that had been built in the museum’s twin courtyard spaces, created a new underground entry atrium that links the two wings of the building, added a small modernist pavilion for Asian art, and deftly hid all the new systems in a moat-like trench that encircles the building. From the outside, not much has changed, and the paradox, Dibbits says, is that they actually ended up with less floor space than when they began.

“The public isn’t necessarily served by more works on display,” Dibbits says. Art that can’t be shown has been moved off-site to a storage facility about 40 minutes away. Curators will use rotation to give the public a sense of the enormous holdings that can’t be accommodated in the new gallery spaces.

So it has become a greatest-hits museum, except that the greatest hits just keep coming. A new track leads viewers directly to the Golden Age collection — roughly the 17th century — and a new guide book advises those with only an hour and a half to head straight to the Gallery of Honor, which has been focused on the highlights of the highlights, including Rembrandt’s “Jewish Bride,” Vermeer’s moody “Milkmaid” and classics by Frans Hals, Jan Steen and van Dijk.

Wheelock doesn’t remember the Gallery of Honor being terribly crowded in yesteryear, but now it is mobbed. While some earlier displays of the collection included an international range of art in the Gallery of Honor, now it is all Dutch, and almost exclusively from the Golden Age. That better reflects not just visitors’ interests, but also the gallery’s collection, which has never been strong in Italian, Spanish or French art.

The museum’s interior spaces are now resplendent, and thrillingly colorful. The Gallery of Honor has a dark mix of blue and gray hues on the walls, with a riot of colorful murals, decorated columns and bands of ornamental pattern work. It isn’t a strict historical re-creation of Cuypers original, but it gives one a good sense of the virtuosity and splendor of his 19th-century aesthetic.

The original museum sat just outside the center ring of Amsterdam’s historic canals, and it was meant to serve both as a palace of culture and a gateway to the city. And so it was and remains bisected by a busy passageway, now teeming with bicyclists. But by sinking a new central atrium under this passageway, and opening up windows into it, Cruz y Ortiz have created a much more appealing interface between indoors and outdoors.

The atrium, the Dutch hasten to tell, is an engineering marvel.

“As soon as you put a spade in the ground, you hit water,” says Tibbits, of the arduous and technically complicated construction process. The lowest level of the new space isn’t just below ground, it’s almost 30 feet below sea level. Divers constructed the space underwater, and one striking photo of the construction process shows a rowboat floating well above where the visitors now stand to buy tickets, check coats and peruse the bookstore.

This technical accomplishment has cultural overtones, too. The Dutch take great pride, down to the roots of their Calvinist sense of hard work, duty and election, in reclaiming land from water. While from the outside the museum has changed little (even the new Asian pavilion is tucked into a sunken square partly enclosed by two arms of the old building), it has pushed resolutely in the one direction that is most fraught for the Dutch: downward, into the water that permeates and surrounds the Dutch earth. The gesture is both humble and ostentatious at the same time.

Not everything is beautiful about this new building. Large, rectangular chandelier-like structures hang in the courtyards, and while they may serve a useful acoustical and lighting function, they are overbearing and ugly. The minimalist aesthetic of Cruz y Ortiz is often bland, and inert. But that, obviously, was the point: The goal was to make most of what is new disappear, or fit in seamlessly.

Overall the building works, the art is alive, and most important, despite the loss of floor space, and the trendy but questionable decision to punctuate painting with furniture, sculpture and dollhouses, the museum rewards multiple visits. It is still too rich for a single encounter. “Night Watch” still takes one’s breath away, still teems with energy, and still invites one to linger and look and probe its enigmas.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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