Overlooking Amsterdam’s Museumplein park, the Rijksmuseum is no slight undertaking, as far as museum visiting goes. Boasting a collection of some 6,000 pieces, it can easily take five hours to explore in its entirety.
If that’s too big a bite out of your time in Amsterdam, we offer suggestions for 11 works of art there that you should seek out. These recommendations span many of the greatest names from the Dutch Golden Age of painting, as well as a smattering of works from other periods and places.
You may notice that this list is overwhelmingly white and male. That is because the Rijksmuseum is notably limited in terms of diversity.
When it comes to Dutch classical painters, however, there is much to be seen.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch (1642)
Without a doubt, Night Watch,by Dutch Golden Age painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), is the heart of the Rijksmuseum. Not only is it the museum’s largest and most important work, but the entire collection is literally built around it, with the Night Watch Gallery at the core of the museum opening into the Gallery of Honor. This enormous, true-to-life-size painting is famed for its dramatic play of light and shadow as well for being an innovative portrayal of a group in motion rather than a static military scene.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Sampling Officials (1662)
In the Gallery of Honor just outside the Night Watch Gallery, The Sampling Officials is another impressively huge work. Larger than life, it shows a handful of city bureaucrats at work. But unlike most group portraits from the period—for which the subjects would typically pose—the officials portrayed here seem to be in mid-action, their task interrupted by the viewer.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait With Disheveled Hair (1628)
Produced when Rembrandt was just 22 years old, this self-portrait is striking for its use of chiaroscuro, which obscures the artist’s face. It presages what are considered Rembrandt’s greatest works—his psychologically charged self-portraits, of which there are nearly 80 known.
Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid (c. 1660)
While Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) was among the greatest painters to emerge from the Dutch Golden Era, during his lifetime he was only modestly regarded. It wasn’t until nearly 200 years later that he was finally recognized for his exacting attention to light, color, and form. One of the painter’s many domestic scenes, The Milkmaid showcases the artist’s technical prowess.
Judith Leyster, The Serenade (1629)
One of just 24 women whose work hangs in the Rijksmuseum, Judith Leyster wasn’t credited with this masterpiece for some 250 years. Well regarded in her time, she was almost completely forgotten after her death, and for several centuries her works were entirely attributed to the famed painter Frans Hals or to her artist husband, Jan Miense Molenaer. In the late 19th century she finally received the recognition she deserved. The Serenade in particular is known for its masterful rendition of light.
Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, Self-Portrait (c. 1533)
Predating the Dutch Golden Era, Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen played a major role in shaping the aesthetic that was to rule the art world a century after his death. With this piece, he produced what was among the first self-portraits to emerge from the Netherlands—a sign of the growing self-awareness artists began to hold in regard to their role in the artistic process.
Lucas van Leyden, Worship of the Golden Calf (c. 1530)
This triptych is among the most famed Bible-based works ever produced. It portrays the story of the Israelites who worshiped the golden image of a calf, thereby provoking the wrath of God. Created during the calamitous years of the Late Renaissance, it is known for its attention to detail and narrative cohesion.
Francisco de Goya, Portrait of Don Ramón Satué (1823)
While on the surface this work by Goya seems like a fairly straightforward piece of portraiture, it is anything but. It was painted just after the Peninsular War, during which Spain was temporarily occupied by the French before the Spanish reclaimed the region, and X-rays have revealed that the present painting was applied over a previous one thought to be of a French rather than Spanish official. Experts theorize that Goya painted over the original portrait to hide his affinity for the French upon the return of Spanish rule.
Karel Appel, Square Man (1951)
The Rijksmuseum has a fairly small collection of modern artworks, among which Square Man by Karel Appel stands out. While bold and colorful, the painting is far from playful. Rather, with its staring eyes, spread fingers and exposed genitals, the figure is a study in assertiveness.
Shiva Nataraja (c. 1100–1200)
The Rijksmuseum houses a small but impressive collection of Asian art, among which is this almost thousand-year-old statue of the Hindu god Nataraja, King of Dancers, creator and destroyer of the world. Standing nearly over five feet tall, it cuts an imposing figure at the center of its gallery.
Guanyin (c. 1100–1200)
Tucked away in the lowest level of the Rijksmuseum is this statue of Guanyin—the Buddhist deity considered the savior of people in peril. It is said to be a portrayal of his meditation on the reflection of the moon on water, which represents Buddhist concepts of illusion and transience.