Rijksmuseum, by P. J. H.

The Rijksmuseum, Museumplein, Amsterdam. Petrus Josephus Hubertus (Pierre) Cuypers (1827-1921). 1876-85.

Cuypers won the commission by a unanimous decision of the jury in July 1876, and construction started in the following year. The museum opened in 1885, in the presence of members of the Dutch royal family. Built of brick, with granite for the basement, window-sills etc, and with "bands, arches and tympans, entablatures, columns, etc., in white lime and sand-stone and ... besides iron," the building is constructed "in the order of architecture which characterises the transition period of the Gothic to that of the Renaissance, in as much that the entire architectural construction is based on the golden rule which should be the true guide of Architecture: all the forms that are not suggested by the construction are to be rejected and the exterior should be the reflection of the distribution of the interior " (Obreen, relying on information from Cuypers, 7). Note the arrangement of the windows on the central towers, following the internal structure of the stairs.

Left to right: (a) Entrance from Museumplein. (b) A sample of the decorative work on this façade. (c) Entrance from the other (north) side. Source: Library of Congress photochemical print, c.1890-1900, Reproduction no. LC-DIG-ppmsc-05764.

The building has a wide tunnel through the middle, and can be entered from either side. Cuypers' choice of a highly decorated mixed Gothic/Renaissance style proved controversial: "The enemies' view was that the result was far too Gothic, which meant also far too Catholic" (Kiers and Tissik 12), while the Times correspondent was thoroughly negative about its "bastard Gothic." Nevertheless, the latter thought that at least in "size and spaciousness" the building was "worthy of the city in which Rembrandt lived and died." The decoration depicts an extraordinary range of historical and emblematic subjects, as well as artists and artisans, and its various materials, scope and prominence vividly illustrate two things. Most obviously, it demonstrates Cuypers' belief that different forms of art should be united in their service to architecture; concerned at the lack of skilled craftsmen at this time, Cuypers opened the Quellinus School of Applied Arts in 1879 (see Van Dijk 15). But more generally it was an outward and visible statement of the redefinition of the Netherlands as a nation, in which groups like the Catholics themselves (however much others might demur) were now integrated (see Bank and Van Buuren 58-59).

The former entrance hall. Left: View of the stained glass windows by W. F. Dixon in the recently restored hall © The Rijksmuseum. Right: The hall as it was in the early days.

Here too there is a grand and all-encompassing scheme of decoration, rising from the earth to the heavens through the different planes of being, each level being richly illustrated by mosaic work, architectural sculpture, painting, and of course the stained glass itself. Like his contemporaries, Cuypers was drawn to the idea, paralleled or inspired by theosophy, of "eradicating the distinction between art and life" and "penetrating to a universal organising principle" (Van Dijk 15); in England, one thinks of William Lethaby later in the century (see Related Material below).

Left: A caryatid in the Rembrandt Hall, from Obreen 43. Right: The Grand Gallery.

As for the Grand Gallery (recently magnificently restored) Obreen writes: "In the construction of the grand gallery, with the cabinets or recesses connected with it, a combination of bricks and iron has been made, in a manner hitherto — 1880 — not yet applied i),The central gallery has been entirely covered by cross- and ribbed-vaults in brick, while the key-stone of the arched roof — formed by a stone ring supported by the vault ribs and closing them — emits daylight for lighting the nave." He also points out that the rafters are of "welded and wrought iron", allowing light to be brought in from above, and at the same time "framing the different divisions into one whole." Besides, he says, with his information coming straight from Cuypers, "the manner of decoration is peculiar and new; faithful to the principle once adopted, the construction is at once the point of departure for the ornamentation, even in its minutest details; for instance, the projections and clinch-nails of the iron beams are used as motives in the painted ornamentation" (36-37). Hence too the at once supporting and highly decorative caryatids, like that shown on the left here. it is fascinating to see the international currency of these "true principles." The result here is utterly unlike their later application by, say, William Morris in England, but then Cuypers was presenting a showcase for the nation's art.

Children of the Sea, by Jozef

Children of the Sea by Jozef Israëls (1824-1911). 1872. Oil on canvas, 48.5 x 93.5 cm., a work in the public domain downloaded from the Rijksmuseum Digital Collection (see sources).

Nothing needs to be said about the Rembrandts, Vermeers and other great works here, but the collection of later work is also very fine, and has its own artistic and historical significance. This is one of the many paintings in the nineteenth-century gallery. It is a subject that Israëls first painted in 1863 and then painted many times thereafter: the fisherman's children are dressed in rags and have simple pleasures, but are absorbed in them, against the large background of sea and sky. The frail little boat they are united in watching reminds us of their own fragility in an increasingly uncertain world. It is not difficult to see why such a subject appealed to this artist, who seems to have been of a melancholy cast of mind, and who enjoyed considerable success in Britain too (see "Jozef Israëls").

Photographs, except where otherwise noted, image downloads from Obreen and the Library of Congress and Rijksmuseum Digital Collections, and commentary by Jacqueline Banerjee [Except for the copyrighted image, which is reproduced here by kind permission of the Rijksmuseum, you may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer/source and (2) link your document to this URL or cite it in a print one. Click on the images for larger pictures]

Related Material


Bank, Jan, and Maarten Van Buuren. Dutch Culture in a European Perspective: 1900: The Age of Bourgeois Culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print. (This has a wonderful photograph of Cuypers in his workshop at Roermond, supervising his craftsmen, p.150.)

"Explore the Collection." Rijksmuseum website. 9 August 2013.

"Jozef Israëls." Your Paintings (BBC website). 9 August 2013.

Kiers, Judike and Fieke Tissink The Building of the Rijksmuseum: Design and Message". London: Scala/Rijksmuseum, 1992. Google Books, very partial view. Web. 9 August 2013.

"The New National Museum at Amsterdam." The Times. Thursday 13 August 1885: 13. Web. 9 August 2013.

Obreen, Frederik Daniel Otto. Guide to the National Museum of Amsterdam. 2nd ed., enlarged. Schiedam: H. A. M. Roelants, 1890. Internet Archive. Web. 9 August 2013.

Van Dijk, Hans. Introduction. Architectural Guide to the Netherlands: 1900-2000. By Paul Groenendijk and Piet Vollard. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2006. 8-54. Google Books, full view. Web. 9 August 2013.

Last modified 12 August 2013