The national collections of the Netherlands

Inspired by venerable French museums like the Louvre, the National Art Gallery, a precursor to the Rijksmuseum, had been founded in The Hague in 1800 to house national treasures from the Dutch Golden Age. However, its collection was moved to Amsterdam at the behest of King Louis Bonaparte in 1808, before a suitably grand building to house it all could be agreed upon. In 1809, its works of arts and objects were displayed in the top floor of the Royal Palace on Dam Square, which had previously served as Amsterdam City Hall. Visitors to the Koninklijk Museum (or Royal Museum), as it was then known, could already admire some of Amsterdam’s grandest artworks, including ‘The Night Watch’ by Rembrandt.

The Nightwatch Rembrandt

When William I of Orange-Nassau returned to the Netherlands as the new king in 1813, the ‘Rijks Museum’ (meaning: ‘state museum’) and the national print collection from The Hague was relocated to the Trippenhuis, a 17th-century neo-classical mansion on Kloveniersburgwal in the heart of Amsterdam – a building that would later become the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. However, this was also relatively short-lived as the building was not suitable as a museum, causing many of the artworks to be moved back to collections in The Hague and Haarlem.

The Rijksmuseum on Museumplein

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam John Lewis Marshall

In 1876 a design contest was held to find the architect who could provide the museum’s priceless collection with a permanent residence worthy of Jan Steen, Frans Hals et al. The winning design was by Pierre Cuypers, and his richly-decorated building literally name-checked the glories of Dutch art history in gold-leaf, finally opening to the public in 1885. Many of the City of Amsterdam’s paintings were hung in the Rijksmuseum, alongside objects and artworks bequeathed to the city and other major collections brought from around the Netherlands.

Cuyper’s Rijksmuseum became not only Amsterdam's largest museum but also one of the city’s most recognisable icons. And as more and more visitors flocked to see its masterpieces every year, the building eventually began to toil. The museum had undergone numerous renovations and expansions over the decades, but none were so dramatic as when its closed its doors in 2003 so that a major refurbishment could take place. Spanish architecture firm Cruz y Ortiz then worked to turn Cuypers’ original 19th-century building into a bright, spacious place, state-of-the-art facilities, restored galleries and an all-new Asian Pavilion. The building reopened in 2013 to massive acclaim.

The Rijksmuseum’s evolving collection

miro at rijksmuseum olivier middendorp

Masterworks such as Rembrandt’s ‘Jewish Bride’ and ‘The Night Watch’ have remained key fixtures in the museum over the centuries but the Rijksmuseum’s collection is never static. New acquisitions and donations arrive at the museum every year, from 18th-century masterpieces like Jean-Etienne Liotard’s ‘A Dutch Girl at Breakfast’ to furniture, fashion and design objects from the 20th and 21st centuries. And while today’s museum visitor can stroll through more than 800 years of art and objects in chronological order if they desire, annual exhibitions like Document Netherlands showcase the work of upcoming artistic talents. What’s more, fantastic works of art from around the world are also borrowed by the museum for its grand temporary exhibitions, while the works of major international sculptors are displayed in the Rijksmuseum garden every summer.