Rijksmuseum building, Amsterdam

Rijksmuseum Building

When the neogothic Rijksmuseum building on Museumplein opened in 1885, the design met with quite a bit of criticism in the mostly Protestant country. Catholic architect Pierre Cuypers (who also designed the Amsterdam Central Station, built 1881-1889) had created a very church-like building with towers, vaulted ceilings, murals and stained glass windows — it was soon nicknamed Cuypers’ Cathedral. King William III (1817-1890) even refused to perform the opening ceremony, saying he would never ever set foot inside “that convent” (which he never did). The building is owned by the state and has been a national monument since 1970.

South side of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

South side of the Rijksmuseum (October 2021).

Cuypers designed the building as two squares, each with an inner courtyard, surrounded and fronted by towers. He also designed every ornament and decoration, inside and out, as well as the gardens around the building, created between 1884 and 1916, surrounded by a wrought iron fence.

Additions & Renovations

After it opened the museum complex was restructured and expanded a few times:

  • The Villa (originally the Director’s home) was added in 1885. The museum directors lived here until 1945, now it’s used by the museum curators.
  • The Cuypers Library, the largest and oldest art history library in the Netherlands, was added in 1885.
The Cuypers Library in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Cuypers Library in the Rijks­museum (April 2022).

  • The Nightwatch room was added in 1906.
  • The Fragments building was created between 1890 and 1897 from various fragments and gablestones of Dutch demolished buildings, expanded in 1904. In 1909 the Drucker building was added to house 19th century art, expanded in 1916. This part is now called the Philips wing (after its sponsor), renovated in 1996. It was used as the main exposition venue during the museum restoration, united with the main building in 2013, together with a restaurant and café.
  • The Teekenschool (Drawing School) from 1892 was renovated in 1924. Art teachers were trained here until 1966, when they moved to the Rietveld academy near Stadionplein.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, seen from the Ruysdaelkade, on the left the Teekenschool

Side of the Rijksmuseum, seen from the Ruysdaelkade. On the left the Teekenschool, corner Hobbemastraat (June 2020).

  • The Nightwatch Room and Gallery of Honour were renovated in 1984.
  • The Asian Pavilion (Aziatisch paviljoen) in the gardens on a pond, between the main building and the southern extension, was designed by Cruz y Ortiz and opened in 2013.
View of the pond and Fragments building of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, from the Asian pavilion

View of the pond and the Fragments building from the Asian pavilion (October 2022).

  • In 2003 a complete restoration and restructuring started, designed by Spanish architects Cruz y Ortiz. Much of the original state was restored, a new climate system installed throughout, the two courtyards united and the basement transformed into an auditorium. The entrance got a glass roof and a wooden structure on the ceiling to dampen the reverberations. The renewed building opened in 2013, the total cost of the operation around € 375 million ($ 407.5 million).
Atrium, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, with entrance and glass wall with view of the passage

East side of the Atrium with entrance and the glass wall with view of the passage (March 2023).

How the Museum Started

The first Rijksmuseum (then called Nationale Kunstgalerij) was located in The Hague around 1800, in Palace Huis ten Bosch (current residence of King and Queen) — the collection consisted of some 200 paintings and objects, mostly from the properties of the Dutch Stadtholders and former VOC. The first painting bought to enlarge the collection was The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, between 1890 and 1905 on a photochrom picture

Rijksmuseum between 1890 and 1905, empty Stadhouderskade and Museumbrug (Photochrom Collection, Library of Congress).

French King Louis Napoleon, a passionate art patron and collector, moved the collection in 1808 to the top floor of the Palace on Dam square, called it Royal Museum and opened it to the public in 1809, with free admission. He added the city’s most important paintings, among them Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. After Emperor Napoleon had removed his brother in 1810, he transported the stadtholder collection to Paris. The paintings returned in 1815, initially to the Mauritshuis in The Hague.

Painting The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn, from around 1650

Painting The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn, from around 1650 (Rijks­museum).

After Napoleon had been defeated in 1813 and William I had returned from England and became king, the museum moved to the Trippenhuis on Kloveniersburgwal in 1816. That building was not ideal and soon became too small as the collection expanded, especially after Amsterdam banker Adriaan van der Hoop left 224 paintings to the city in 1854. In 1862 a foundation made plans to create a museum for Dutch cultural heritage art.

Left front side of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, at night

Left front side of the Rijksmuseum at night (October 2022).

Start of the Building

After a contest, the various submitted plans were rejected because they exceeded the maximum cost level. The government then reserved extra money in 1872. Amsterdam would supply the needed terrain for free, added some money to the budget and promised to give the municipal paintings collection on permanent loan to the new museum. Pierre Cuypers won a second contest and in 1877 the build started with 8,000 foundation poles. The museum opened in 1885, work on the outside still ongoing. Around 150 paintings from Pavilion Welgelegen in Haarlem also came to the new museum.

The southwest side of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, seen from the garden

The southwest side of the Rijksmuseum seen from the garden (March 2020).

Rijksmuseum Exterior

Apart from the art contents, the building itself is also worth a closer look because of its many ornaments, sculptures and tile tableaus. If you look up every now and then while walking around the building you will discover many details, both big and small. All Renaissance style ornaments and decorations were designed by Cuypers as well.

Two details of the Rijksmuseum building, Amsterdam, ornaments on an arch and rainpipe

Left a detail on the southend, right an ornament on a rainpipe (June 2021).

Bart van Hove and François Vermeylen were chosen to create the statues, Georg Sturm would do the murals and tile tableaus, William F. Dixon would create the stained glas windows. The façade and towers have many friezes with the seals of Dutch cities, the tile tableaus on the outside walls show various important moments in Dutch civilization. Busts and names of artists are on the outside walls.

Two details of the Rijksmuseum building, Amsterdam, ornaments on a pillar and on a rainpipe

Left a detail on the north side (May 2021), on the right a detail on the south side (March 2022).

On the front (north side) are two statues called Labor and Inspiration by Van Hove, at the very top the statue of the Roman goddess Victoria by Vermeylen, cast by Compagnie des Bronzes from Brussels.

Gallery of Honor in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, seen in southern direction

Gallery of Honor, in southern direction (February 2022).

Rijksmuseum Interior

The vaults are decorated with allegorical figures and national heroes, the wall decorations show various aspects of Dutch art. The Nightwatch of course has its own room (almost an altar) at the end of the Gallery of Honor, which has Rembrandt’s initials on walls and pillars. Don’t forget to look at the intricate brickwork and beautiful terrazzo floors every now and then.

View of the interior hall near the Klokkentoren in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

View of the interior hall near the Klokkentoren in the Rijksmuseum (February 2022).

Rijksmuseum Passage

One of the remarkable features of the Rijksmuseum is the passageway through and under the building, where the entrances to the museum are located and countless bicycles and pedestrians pass each day. The city originally wanted the new building to act as a gateway towards a planned luxury neigborhood to the south of it on Museumplein (which never happened).

Rijksmuseum Passage viewed towards Museumplein, Amsterdam

Rijksmuseum Passage viewed towards Museumplein (June 2021).

City planner Jacob van Niftrik had presented an expansion plan for the area in 1866, with the museum 400 m (437 yd) to the southeast of the current location, the new central road running beside it. The city council rejected the plan as being too costly and accepted a cheaper plan by Jan Kalff, who projected the museum on top of the road — which meant the city would be left with more land next to the museum which they could sell.

Exit of the Rijksmuseum Passage on the side of Museumplein, Amsterdam

Exit of the Rijksmuseum Passage on the side of Museumplein, Drucker building on the right (June 2021).

When the Rijksmuseum was designed, the city set the condition that a public passage would be included. Architect and museum directors were livid, but the city council did not budge. Thus a 40 m (43 yd) wide road was constructed underneath the museum. Originally the passageway (Museumstraat) was open to all traffic, nicknamed the country’s shortest highway. There were even plans at some point to create a horse-drawn tram connection along this route, which were never executed.

Southern exit of the Rijksmuseum Passage, Amsterdam

Exit of the Passage to the south (July 2022).

From 1931 on cars and trucks were no longer allowed to pass because the vibrations would damage the building and the art collection. The passage remained open only to cyclists and pedestrians. In the 1980s there were again plans to build a tramway along the Museumstraat, but this was shelved due to the same concerns for vibration damage and because of the the heated protests by citizens.

Entrance on the south side of the Rijksmuseum Passage at night, Amsterdam

Entrance on the south side of the Passage at night, looking northeast (July 2022).

Over the years museum directors have lobbied to close off the Passage and make it part of the museum. During the big renovation from 2003 to 2013 the fierce fights about the bicycle lane continued, but in the end the cyclists won and the passage remained open. The bicycle lanes were moved to the center and the museum entrances moved to the widened sides. Underneath the passage is an underpass which unites the museum’s two parts of the internal Atrium courtyards (on each side). Glass walls allow the pedestrians and cyclists a view inside the Atrium from the Passage and the museum’s visitors a view of the Passage and its passers-by.

Southern exit of the Rijksmuseum Passage, Amsterdam, with stained glass windows

Southern exit of the Passage with stained glass windows (June 2021).

Street musicians and violin players (often students from the Amsterdam Conservatorium) love the passage because of the wonderful acoustics.

An Exit for the Nightwatch

There is a slot in the ceiling of the passage to the south, called the Nachtwachtsleuf (Nightwatch-slot), which allows the large Nightwatch and other paintings to be quickly removed in case of calamities. The museum directors had this slot created in 1934, when Hitler started to rise in Germany. In 1939 — the year before WW2 started — the Nightwatch and many other paintings left through this slot to be secretly stored in the marl quarry caves near Maastricht. The slot was never used after that, except during the renovation from 2003 to 2013, after which the Nightwatch to its current location.

Rembrandt's Nightwatch, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, with platform used during public restoration

Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, in front of it the platform used during the public restoration of the painting (February 2023).

Rijksmuseum Collection

The Rijksmuseum holds over 1 million objects, of which 8,000 selected items are on display in over 80 halls. There are around 5,000 paintings of Dutch masters, many sculptures and engravings and a big collection of Asian art.

Two views inside the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, near the Vlaggentoren

Two views inside the building near the Vlaggentoren (February & November 2022).

By the way: all objects in the Rijksmuseum are property of the Dutch state, except for the Nightwatch and many other paintings from the original Amsterdam Collection. These are still owned by the city, just on permanent loan to the museum. The text beside them shows “On loan from the City of Amsterdam”.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, viewed from Van Baerlestraat across Museumplein

Rijksmuseum viewed from Van Baerlestraat across Museumplein (August 2020).

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