Dutch Master of the Golden Age

When the National Gallery reopened this year, they began with a free exhibition about the little known Dutch painter, Nicolaes Maes. Having learnt from the great master of painting, Rembrandt, Maes produced over 1000 artworks, 900 of which were portraits. This exhibition only contained 50 artworks but managed to provide a detailed journey of Maes’ artistic progress, beginning with historical and biblical scenes and ending with depictions of everyday life.

Nicolaes Maes was the second son of a wealthy cloth merchant Gerrit Maes and Ida Herman Claesdr. He was born in Dordrecht in the Netherlands in January 1634, but there is no record of his childhood. During the 1640s, he received a mediocre art education in his hometown but, unsatisfied he travelled to Amsterdam to train under one of the greatest artists in history: Rembrandt (1606-69).

Maes spent five years in Rembrandt’s studio alongside upcoming artists from all over the Dutch Republic. Together, they mostly learnt to paint histories, usually of a biblical nature, which Rembrandt believed to be a hard genre of painting to achieve. The students were not left to their imaginations; they were encouraged to encompass scenes from everyday life or use props and models. As well as this, Maes and his contemporaries were expected to copy works by Rembrandt as part of their composition training. As time went on, Maes began to incorporate his ideas with a blend of Rembrandt’s, eventually developing his unique style.

It is not easy to put Maes’ earlier works into chronological order because he tended not to sign or date them. His earliest signed and dated painting is Dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael, which he produced in 1653 during his final year with Rembrandt.

Loosely based on an etching by his master, Maes managed to convey the scene in an original manner. The painting shows a scene from the Book of Genesis. Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, is being dismissed along with her son Ishmael. Abraham’s wife had given Hagar to him so that he could produce an heir. Fourteen years later, Abraham’s wife Sarah miraculously gave birth to a boy, Isaac. Concerned that Ishmael would receive her son’s rightful inheritance, Sarah commanded Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. The constrained emotion on both Abraham and Hagar’s faces suggests neither of them was happy with the outcome.

Christ Blessing the Children is considered to be Maes’ earliest surviving painting, although initially wrongly attributed to Rembrandt due to the similarity in style and lack of a signature. It is also of contrasting size to the other artworks Maes produced while in Amsterdam. His paintings were “cabinet size”, but this biblical scene is much larger with a height of 81.1 inches (206cm) and a width of 60.6 inches (154cm).

Maes took inspiration for this painting from the Book of Mark when Jesus says, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:14-15) Following this, Jesus blessed every child in his presence.

The majority of Maes’ surviving early works are religious. Biblical stories include the Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22), The Death of Absalom (2 Samuel 14), Christ before Pilate (Matthew 27) and The Adoration of the Shepherds (Luke 2). Maes painted the latter after he had left Rembrandt’s studio and used an engraving by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) as a basis. Maes made a faithful copy of the engraving to the tiniest detail. The proportions are exact and the colour and shading he added to the image highlight the holy family and their visitors.

One of Maes’ religious paintings extends beyond the Bible. Using his imagination and traditional beliefs, Maes experimented with portraiture by painting The Apostle Thomas. The apostle, sometimes known as Doubting Thomas, established seven churches in India between AD 52 and AD 72. Maes imagined what the older man looked like during his mission in India and, at first, the portrait appears to be of a reticent elder. Painted in the manner of Rembrandt, Maes indicated the man’s identity with the subtle inclusion of a set square in his left hand. As well as being one of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas was a builder or carpenter, a profession that used a set square for accurate measurements. Some traditions believe Thomas was martyred by a spear that had a head resembling the set square, which has since become his symbol in works of art.

Maes returned to his hometown at the end of 1653 and married Adriana Brouwers, the widow of a Dutch preacher. It was around this time that Maes established himself as an independent painter, but his training was far from over. Maes had not been home long when he travelled to Antwerp, Belgium to study the works of Flemish painters. He particularly admired Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1549-1641), who are the most famous Baroque painters to have come from Antwerp. Painter and tapestry designer, Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), provided Maes with lots of artistic advice during his stay in the city.

During the mid-1650s, Maes moved from history paintings to genre paintings. His contemporaries, Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) and Pieter de Hooch (1629-84) had proved there was a niche market for genre paintings, which likely influenced Maes’ direction.

Generally, Maes’ genre scenes focus on women, but not in a sensual or erotic nature like the Renaissance artists before him. Maes did not discriminate between old and young, rich and poor, but used women of all walks of life as his inspiration.

Many of Maes’ paintings show women at work in the home. In the present day, these scenes reveal the Dutch social stereotypes of the 17th century. Occupations such as sewing and lacemaking were symbols of domestic virtue and humility. Maes usually painted these women alone, using chiaroscuro to evoke the presence of a warm fire or candle, suggesting their work was a peaceful activity rather than a chore.

In contrast to these scenes of domesticity, Maes produced humorous, light-hearted paintings, often with a moralising message. A series of six works known as the Eavesdroppers, show women listening to an incident occurring in another room. The eavesdropper looks out of the painting at the viewer as though making them complicit with the act. Maes also painted the scene the eavesdropper can hear but not see.

In one of the paintings, the woman holds her finger to her lips, asking the viewer to be quiet. She can hear the voice of her maid, who is chatting to her lover through a window. In another, the mistress of the house playfully smiles while eavesdropping on a pair of lovers. A man with a lamp has discovered the couple in the basement, and the woman is eager to hear what happens next. A third painting reveals a woman enjoying the sounds of an argument. Although only one person is visible in the other room, it is easy to imagine he is reprimanding someone hidden behind a curtain.

Another amusing painting is The Idle Servant, which is similar in composition to the Eavesdroppers paintings. Maes has painted two scenes, the smaller of which is visible through the doorway, but it is the larger scene where the action (or inaction) takes place. The lady of the house has come into the kitchen to refill the wine decanter and discovers her maid asleep. Rather than waking her, the lady smiles indulgently at the viewer, indicating she finds the situation rather comical. 

The Account Keeper differs from Maes’ other comical genre scenes in that it only contains one figure. By looking at the painting, the viewer feels as though they are the one to have found someone slacking on the job. The older woman has fallen asleep while sorting out her account books. Critics have read a lot into this painting, suggesting there are many moral messages. Counting money is often a sign of greed, whilst dozing is associated with laziness. The sleeping woman is also a sign of distraction and lack of concentration. This, along with the map of the globe on the wall, may suggest she is preoccupied with worldly affairs.

Maes’ focus on genre painting drifted towards the end of the 1650s and by 1660 he had dedicated himself almost exclusively to portraiture. Tax records indicate Maes was a wealthy man, which suggests he earnt a lot from his paintings. He was also well respected and was a lieutenant in the civic guard.

When Maes first started producing portraits, they were rather austere paintings of typically dressed people against a dark background; not too dissimilar to those by his master, Rembrandt. During the 1660s, Maes was influenced by the Flemish style of portraiture, particularly those by Van Dyck. Maes began to think carefully about composition, paying attention to the furniture and surroundings as much as to the sitter.

Portrait of Margaretha de Greer is a cross between Rembrandt’s style and the Flemish style. Whilst the background is still dark, the details of the sitter and the chair in which she rests is much clearer. Margaretha de Greer (1583-1672) was the wife of Jacob Trip (1576-1661), a wealthy weapons dealer from Dordrecht who Maes painted several times. They came from families that belonged to the most powerful clans in the Dutch Republic. Rembrandt had painted their portraits, which goes to show they trusted his student as much as the renowned painter himself.

During the 1670s, Maes’ style of portraiture changed again. He attempted to lighten the mood by staging the sitting in elegant gardens and introduced props to make the composition more intriguing. He painted his sitters in less rigid poses, as though captured mid-movement. When painting children, Maes often depicted them in the guise of a mythological character and styled the background accordingly.

Portrait of a Girl with a Deer and Portrait of a Boy as a Hunter were both painted in 1671 and could be the portraits of two siblings. Their style of dress implies Maes was imagining them as characters from another period. The girl, for example, wears an elegant silk dress with a low neckline, which was not a typical style in the Dutch Republic. With one arm hugging a small deer and the other holding a large shell, Maes was likely portraying her as the fictional Princess Granida.

Granida was a play by the Dutch writer Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft (1581-1647). Known as an example of pastoral literature, the first part of the play is set in a Persian field where a shepherd and shepherdess were tending their flock. Granida, a princess who had become separated from her hunting party, found herself in their field. After offering her a drink from the stream (potentially in a large shell), the shepherd fell in love with the princess. It is this scene Maes captured in paint.

The identity of the character the boy in the other portrait portrays is less certain. His attire, particular the sandals, imply he is a figure from Roman mythology. Slung on his back is a quiver full of arrows, suggesting he is out hunting with his dog. Yet, sitting on his hand is a bird attached to a leash so that it cannot fly away. The meaning of this is ambiguous. Has he caught the bird, thus showing he is a skilled hunter or is the bird a symbol of something else? Both dogs and birds are known for their ability to learn, which may represent the young boy’s upbringing and education. Likely a robin on account of its red breast, the bird could also be a symbol of spring and rebirth. In some Christian traditions, the robin was a childhood friend of Jesus.

Maes moved to Amsterdam in 1673, where he resided until his death. The art market in his hometown had been hit badly after France invaded parts of the Dutch Republic in 1672. Hoping to appeal to Amsterdam’s bourgeoisie population, Maes took his chances by relocating and was not disappointed. Before long, Maes was in great demand, and many people considered it to be an honour to have him paint their portrait. Maes also attracted many young painters who wished to learn from the popular artist.

In 1677, Maes, at the height of his career, received the commission to paint the portraits of the Van Alphen family. This wealthy family came from Leiden in the south of Holland, which reveals Maes’ painting skills were renowned well beyond Amsterdam. Maes painted individual portraits of the siblings Simon (1650-1730), Dirck (1652-1701) and Maria Magdalena (1656-1723), as well as their niece, Beatrix (1672-1728). The siblings are dressed in antique costumes from an indeterminate era, which was a common trick used in portraiture to make the paintings appear timeless. Maes captured the luxurious, lengthy waves of hair worn by the boys and the hairstyles worn by the girls, which were fashionable at the time, thus giving away the era the portraits were painted.

Whilst these portraits exemplify Maes’ skill, it is not the reason the National Gallery decided to include them in their exhibition. All four paintings are still in their original 17th-century frames. Typically, frames at that time were dark and plain but the ones surrounding the Van Alphen portraits are made from lighter walnut wood, decorated with gilded tin floral ornaments. These frames were purpose made for the paintings, either on the instruction of the family or the painter.

Also in their original frames are portraits of Ingena Rotterdam (d.1704) and Jacob Binckes (1640-77). These were painted to commemorate their betrothal, although they never married because Binckes was killed the following year by the French while defending the Dutch colony of Tobago. The paintings are more formal than the Van Alphen portraits, but it is the frames that makes them stand out. Known as trophy frames, they are elaborately carved and gilded, making the sitters appear to be people of importance. Binckes’ frame is decorated with nautical weapons and instruments, alluding to his position in the Dutch Navy. Ingena’s frame, on the other hand, is decorated with floral ornaments. On top of the frames are figures representing a god (Mars, god of war) and goddess (Venus, goddess of love).

Despite his success in Amsterdam, Maes waited until 1688 to register with the Guild of St Luke. Even then he did not consider himself a citizen of Amsterdam, merely a resident. His reasons for this are unknown but it certainly was not due to a lack of money. By his death, Maes owned 11,000 guilders in cash as well as two houses in Dordrecht and three houses in Amsterdam.

In his later years, Maes suffered from a few physical ailments, including gout. His wife, Adriana, predeceased him in 1690 and was buried in the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam. Maes passed away three years later and was buried next to his wife on Christmas Eve.

Although his name is not so well-known today, Nicolaes Maes was one of the most successful portrait artists of his time, producing over 900 portraits. Combining this with his other artworks, he far surpassed an output of 1000 paintings. Yet, unlike Rembrandt, Maes tended to avoid painting himself. Of all his work, there is only one painting that has been identified as a self-portrait, produced when he was around 50 years old. Reasons for the lack of self-portraits could be because he was a modest man or because he lacked time due to the number of commissions he received.

The exhibition organised by the National Gallery and the Mauritshuis, whilst no longer open, brought Nicolaes Maes to the attention of a new generation of people. Once popular in the 17th-century, Maes had almost fallen into obscurity until his paintings were resurrected in the 21st century. It is time Nicolaes Maes reclaimed his position as one of the most versatile Dutch artists and no longer merely Rembrandt’s student.

The Rembrandt House

“Painting is the grandchild of nature. It is related to God.”
Rembrandt
— As quoted in Rembrandt Drawings (1975) by Paul Némo

The Netherlands has provided the world with a large number of great artists but one stands out above all the rest: Rembrandt (1606-69). Generally considered one of the preeminent artists to date, Rembrandt is also the most important figure in Dutch art history. Not only was he an exceptional painter, he was also a draughtsman, collector and teacher. He excelled after his move to Amsterdam, the city rich in opportunity for artists at the time. In order to celebrate this famous Dutchman, the house he once owned has been restored to its 17th-century appearance and opened as a museum. The Rembrandt House Museum (Museum Het Rembrandthuis to the locals) gives visitors a complete Rembrandt experience with furniture, art and objects from that time.

NMG B 26/1977

Self-Portrait, Open-Mouthed, 1630

Rembrandt moved into the merchant house in St. Anthoniesbreestraat (now Jodenbreestraat) in 1639 but his artistic vocation had already begun long before. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born on 15th July 1606 in Leiden, a city in the Dutch Republic (now the Netherlands). He came from a large, well-off family, being the ninth child born to Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn and Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuijtbrouck. Although his parents had no creative background, it is thought that Rembrandt’s mother’s deep Roman Catholic faith influenced many of his religious works.

Remaining in Leiden throughout his schooling, Rembrandt eventually became an apprentice to the local painter Jacob van Swanenburgh (1571-1638). Van Swanenburg was known for his religious paintings, which may also have influenced the young Rembrandt. He remained here for three years before travelling to Amsterdam where he became apprenticed to the history painter Pieter Lastman (1583-1633). However, Rembrandt did not stay here for long; six months later, he had returned to his hometown to set up as an independent artist.

Whilst Rembrandt was working in Leiden, he took on his first pupil, Gerrit Dou (1613-75) and began to receive important commissions from the court of The Hague. Life for Rembrandt was going well, however, in 1630 his father died and, without his support, Rembrandt’s financial worries began. Fortunately, he was able to borrow one thousand guilders from the art dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh (1587-1661) and moved to Amsterdam to reside as his lodger.

Through Uylenburgh, Rembrandt met his future wife, Saskia Uylenburgh (1612-42), who he married in 1634. For the remainder of the decade, Rembrandt continued to teach and paint successfully, culminating in the commission to paint The Night Watch, now found in the Rijksmuseum, in 1639. In the same year, after taking out a considerably large mortgage, Rembrandt and Saskia moved into the merchant house in St. Anthoniesbreestraat.

 

Although Rembrandt continued to receive commissions and was well-known in the art community, his family life was suffering due to circumstances outside of his control.  Of Rembrandt and Saskia’s four children, only the youngest, Titus, born in 1641, survived infancy. The following year, Saskia also died. Over the next decade, Rembrandt had relationships with two women, Geertje Dircx (1610-56), Titus’ nanny, and Hendrickje Stoffels (1626-63), his housekeeper. The latter gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Cornelia, in 1654.

Throughout his career as an artist, Rembrandt also collected a huge quantity of objects and artefacts, which can be seen in a couple of rooms in the museum. He also owned a large art collection, which would not have helped his growing debts. Finally, in 1658, Rembrandt’s property was sold at auction after he was declared bankrupt.

Nonetheless, Rembrandt continued to paint and deal in art, for which he enlisted the help of both Hendrickje and Titus. Sadly, they both died before him, Hendrickje in 1663, and his son in 1668. Rembrandt followed them the following year, shortly after welcoming his only grandchild, Titia.

The life of Rembrandt van Rijn is narrated via an audio guide as visitors make their way around the rooms of the Rembrandt House Museum. The museum also owns the building next door, which contains a small art gallery on the upper floors and the entrance to the museum on the lower. The tour begins in the basement with the keucken (kitchen), which, as with all the other rooms, has been refurbished to look as it would have during Rembrandt’s residence. The furniture and 17th-century objects have been sourced or reconstructed based on a list written by the Insolvency Office.

 

The kitchen was where everyone in the household cooked and ate. Unlike upper-class families, there were no separate dining areas for the family and staff. Not only that, the maid would have slept in the box bed in the corner. These types of beds were common in the Netherlands, they could be shut-up during the day, making additional bedrooms unnecessary. They were also particularly small because the Dutch would never lie completely flat to sleep. Lying down was associated with death, therefore, people slept in a half-upright position.

 

The tour continues up a twisted staircase to the ground floor and into the voorhuys (entrance hall). This is the room people would have seen on first entering the house. It is spacious and well lit and has a good view through the windows onto the street. Today, the entrance hall contains many paintings by “Pre-Rembrandts” and his contemporaries, including his teacher, Pieter Lastman. A tiny room at the back of the hall contained Rembrandt’s study where he kept all his important papers. Whilst it is too small for visitors to go in, it is possible to peer through the door to see how it may once have looked.

To the left of the entrance hall is the sijdelcaemer (anteroom) where Rembrandt held his art dealing business. Similarly to the previous room, the walls are full of paintings by Rembrandt’s contemporaries and pupils. Another box bed can be found here where a family member may have slept. The most interesting aspect, however, is the mantlepiece above the fireplace. Whilst the floor and pillars are made of marble, the mantlepiece is not, but without an audioguide, no one would know. It is actually marbled wood, a very fashionable feature during the 17th-century. This was a lot cheaper than real marble, but not many would be able to tell the difference.

On the same floor but at the back of the house was Rembrandt’s living room or sael (salon). The artist would also have slept here in the box bed by the door. The high ceiling allows room for numerous paintings to be hung, mostly by Rembrandt’s most successful pupils.

 

Up another flight of stairs is Rembrandt’s groote schilder caemer (large studio) where he painted many of his masterpieces. This north facing room receives a lot of daylight, which would have been perfect for an artist working throughout the day. Being a large room, it would have been possible to set up scenes with models and props from which to paint. If need be, the light could be adjusted by closing the shutters of some of the windows.

During the day, the museum demonstrates the 17th-century method of paint-making in this studio. Visitors are amazed that artists had to create their own paints, whereas, today, we only need to squeeze it out of a tube. Various pigments were ground together with linseed oil to create the correct consistency of paint. Artists were limited to what colours they could make because the range of pigment was rather small. Lead, for example, was used to create white, and insects’ blood and plants could create different shades of red and yellow. A demonstration of another art technique Rembrandt frequently used: the printing press, can be observed on the floor below.

In the attic is a cleyne schilder caemer (small studio) which would have been used by Rembrandt’s pupils. It is separated into five cubicles so that each artist could work undisturbed. Often, his pupils would produce copies of his own work, for example, Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, of which a version by Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) can be seen on the ground floor.

 

Opposite the large studio is a room titled kunstcaemer (cabinet) in which Rembrandt stored his exceptional collection of art and rare objects. It is easy to see how easily Rembrandt went bankrupt from the purchase of these extraordinary items. He collected everything from plaster casts of classical statues to beautiful butterflies and shells. Since he often painted stories from the Bible, classical mythology or history, Rembrandt would regularly use these objects as references to draw from – there was a method to his collecting madness.

 

It is a shame that there are not many paintings by Rembrandt in the museum. Being one of the world’s greatest artists, galleries are quick to purchase his work when they become available. Fortunately, the museum owns 250 of Rembrandts 290 etchings. Although they cannot all be displayed at once due to their fragility, a selection can always be found in the recently added print room. These highlight Rembrandt’s exceptional artistic quality and draughtsmanship.

 

I have seen various of his printed works which have reached this country; they are very finely executed, sensitively and skilfully etched. And I regard him unequivocally as a great virtuoso.”
Don Antonio Ruffo (1660)

Rembrandt’s etchings are equally as impressive as his paintings. He began learning the printing technique in 1625 when he was working as an independent artist in Leiden. Rembrandt’s etchings were produced by making spontaneous, sketch-like lines onto metal plates that would be covered in ink and placed in a printing press to transfer the image on to paper. (As mentioned, a demonstration of this is available during the tour.) The deepness of the lines would determine how dark the image would appear, therefore, Rembrandt was able to produce several tones to create dramatic lighting within his compositions.

An etching plate could be used to print several impressions, which made them very popular with collectors. Whereas only one version of a painting would exist, numerous copies of the same etching could be owned by different people. They were also a lot cheaper to purchase.

Unlike his paintings that mostly focused on popular stories from religious or historical contexts, Rembrandt’s etchings covered a much broader range of themes. Initially, Rembrandt practised etching by drawing his face making different expressions. He continued to use himself as a model throughout his career. He also studied the heads and faces of people on the street, resulting in a number of interesting characters.

Rembrandt would go for walks around Amsterdam with his sketchbook and come home to copy his sketches onto etching plates. As well as people, Rembrandt studied and drew landscapes. Nonetheless, there are also a few etchings of the typical classical and Biblical stories.

“Rembrandt’s extraordinary manner of etching which is characterised by the free and irregular use of line, without delineation of outlines, and which results in a deep, powerful chiaroscuro of painterly quality.”
Filippo Baldinucci, 1686

Since it was opened to the public as a gallery on 10th June 1911 in the presence of Queen Wilhelmina (1880-1962), the Rembrandt House Museum has undergone many changes. Initially, the house was used as an art gallery to display Rembrandt’s etchings. It was not until 1998, when the building next door became available, that the opportunity to restore Rembrandt’s house to its original appearance became available. Historians and curators have done a phenomenal job to present a realistic as possible 17th-century home in which the greatest Dutch painter lived and worked. Everything has been completed with painstaking accuracy to provide a true insight into the artist’s life.

The Rembrandt House Museum is continually being updated as funds become available in order to provide the best possible experience. The latest updates took place earlier this year, including the print room and Rembrandt’s study.

With helpful staff and audio guides available in several languages, the Rembrandt House Museum is a wonderful place to visit. It is educational in a variety of ways, from the background of the artist to the methods painters used in the 17th-century. It is also a great way of discovering what the inside of the tall Dutch houses once looked like, imagining how a family would cope in the narrow building.

The Rembrandt House Museum is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm and costs €13 for adults and €4 for children. The audio guide is included in the entrance fee. Guidebooks are also available for purchase in a number of languages. Photography is allowed throughout the museum unless a sign requests otherwise (no flash), however, be prepared to leave large bags in the lockers provided.

“Of course you will say that I ought to be practical and ought to try and paint the way they want me to paint. Well, I will tell you a secret. I have tried and I have tried very hard, but I can’t do it. I just can’t do it! And that is why I am just a little crazy.”
Rembrandt

 

 

Simeon goes to Amsterdam

32866310_10213968890207792_2656639836118581248_nMeet Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please). Instead of swinging from tree to tree in the subtropical rainforests of Bangladesh, Borneo or Sumatra, Simeon enjoys going on trips with his human friends. Fortunately, being a stuffed toy (do not mention that to him, it is a sore subject) Simeon can easily fit in hand luggage and be taken into all sorts of places where animals are not usually welcomed. This year, 2018, was a very special year for the small ape; in May, Simeon experienced his first trip abroad to the artistic capital of the Netherlands: Amsterdam.

Jetting off from London Southend Airport, Simeon landed at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol a mere 35 minutes later. It took less time to get from England to the Netherlands than it did to get from home to Southend! Schiphol is the main international airport of the Netherlands and sits nine kilometres southwest of Amsterdam. Despite being the third busiest airport in Europe, Simeon and friends whizzed through security to discover their luggage was already waiting for them on the conveyor belt – a complete contrast to most of London’s airports!

Without any to-do, Simeon found himself on a train heading to Amsterdam Centraal. Not only was this his first trip abroad, it was his first ride in both an aeroplane and a train! And what a good experience it was, too. Despite understanding little Dutch, it was quick and easy to get from A to B, the only issue being which exit to use at Centraal Station.

 

 

Soon to be connected to the Eurostar line, Amsterdam Centraal is the largest train station in the Netherlands and has been listed as a rijksmonument or national heritage site.  The Gothic/Renaissance Revival station building was designed by the Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers (1827-1921) and first opened for public use in 1889. Like the majority of buildings in Amsterdam, the station was constructed on the canals and required 8,687 wooden poles. The structure and surrounding area have since been redeveloped to make it more pedestrian friendly.

Despite renovations, Amsterdam Centraal Station is one of the most impressive buildings in the city; it looks more like a palace than a station. The building is richly decorated both inside and out. The façade is made up of red brick with prominent carvings on the towers either side of the main entrance. Each tower is topped with a spire and displays a large dial, however, only one of these is a clock. The other, which at a glance may look like a clock, is a read-out for the weather vane that sits on top of the station.

33401578_10213993463502109_6251086077671505920_nAmsterdam has an area of approximately 84.68 square miles, which is far too much for a little gibbon to walk. Fortunately for Simeon, there are 16 tram routes across that city, the majority of which begin their journeys outside Amsterdam Centraal. So, with 72-hour travel pass to hand (other time periods are available) Simeon was ready to check in and out of the trams as he made his way from one destination to another.

Although trams travel all over the place, the best way to experience Amsterdam is on the canals. There are plenty of canal trips to choose from of varying lengths that traverse the 60 miles of water. The most famous canals in Amsterdam are Prinsengracht, Herengracht, and Keizersgracht, however, the small ones are just as interesting to travel along – gracht means “canal” and Prinsen, Heren and Keizers can be translated to “Prince”, “Lords” and “Emperor’s” respectively.

 

 

Initially, the 17th-century canals were a form of defence but eventually became a means of navigating the city. Today, they are one of Amsterdam’s greatest attractions. Simeon opted for the open-top tour by the Blue Boat Company that took its guests around the more narrow canals in the city. The trip began at the company office on the edge of the water in Stadhouderskade, which is a short walk from the Museumkwartier where the major museums are located.

Depending on the tour company and guide, not only does a canal trip offer extensive views of the city, it provides a lot of interesting information and local knowledge that may not necessarily crop up in guidebooks. On an hour and 15-minute ride, after Simeon had got over his disappointment about not being allowed to drive the boat, he learnt a lot of fascinating facts about Amsterdam.

The name Amsterdam comes from Amstelredamme, indicating its origins as a 12th-century fishing village around a dam in the river Amstel. Although the city has lots of canals, it sits around two-metres below sea level. Originally, the area was farmed for peat, which was used to heat houses, resulting in the low level of the land. Due to this, Amsterdam was not inhabitable as a city until grand developments in the 14th and 15th centuries when the majority of canals and original buildings were constructed.

Most of the buildings in the city look fairly old, however, they do not date back as far as the conception of the city. Many of the buildings in Amsterdam were built during the 17th century and, as Simeon was amazed to see, stand rather crookedly, leaning forwards, backwards or even sideways. There are a number of theories for this strange sight but do not worry, they are unlikely to topple over.

Original buildings were built on wooden poles so that they would be raised above the water level. Unfortunately, due to the peaty quality of the soil, the poles began to sink into the ground as they tried to sustain the weight they were holding. This may be the cause of many of the slanted buildings around the city. Thankfully, the situation has been rectified by filling up the gaps below houses with cement so that they would not sink any further.

What surprises some people to learn is that some of the structures were deliberately built at a slant. This is known as op de vlucht bouwen and was a building regulation pre-1800. This may have stemmed from medieval times when the top floor of a wooden building traditionally jettied out further in order to prevent rain from flooding the floors below. The strongest reason for the leaning buildings is for economical purposes. As a staple port, Amsterdam was receiving daily deliveries from merchant boats of cotton, spices and so forth. Warehouses tended to be situated in the attics of the buildings along the canals and in order to store the crates, they were winched up on ropes from a hook on the top of the building. In order to prevent damages to the walls and windows, buildings were slanted forwards to provide enough room for the boxes to swing without hitting anything.

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One thing that will not go amiss, regardless of whether you take advantage of a canal tour or not, is the width of the tall, Dutch buildings. Typically, houses are three windows wide and four windows high and were built as such due to heavy taxes imposed upon the people of Amsterdam. Similarly to London, Amsterdam had a window tax meaning that the more windows a building had, the more its owners would have to pay. Another tax was on the width of the houses – the wider, the more expensive. Large families were forever going up and down narrow, spiralled staircases in order to navigate their tall but thin houses. Any buildings wider than three windows were likely owned by the wealthier people of Amsterdam.

33167034_10213993573304854_4090493120037257216_nA good thing about travelling via the canals is, at least in Simeon’s opinion, you are not at risk of being hit by any of the 881,000 bicycles zooming around the city … or so you would think. To the astonishment of the people on the boat, the tour guide revealed that 15,000 bikes are pulled out of the canal every year. These are not necessarily a result of clumsy cyclists; thousands of bikes are parked against railings on the edge of the canals or bridges every day. It only takes one to fall over before a domino effect pushes them all into the water. Cars are also parked by the side of canals and risk falling in, fortunately, only five unlucky drivers are affected by this!

Returning to the Museumkwartier, Simeon had the opportunity to visit two of the most popular museums in Amsterdam. The city itself is one of the most visited cultural places in Europe and it is without a doubt in part due to its most famous museum, the largest museum of art and history in the Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum. Opened in 1885 and designed by Cuypers in the same Gothic-Renaissance style as his station building, the Rijksmuseum houses a number of different collections including 19th-century art and art from the middle ages. The most well-known section, however, is the masterpieces of the 17th-century painted by the school known as The Dutch Masters.

 

The majority of artworks in the museum are of Dutch origin and can be found in all the collections, however, the artist visitors flock to see is the magnificent Rembrandt (1606-99). The Rijksmuseum owns 20 of his works including the extraordinary Night Watch or De Nachtwacht, which impressed Simeon with its colossal size (363 cm × 437 cm). Initially called Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq by the artist, it portrays the eponymous company being led out by Captain Frans Banning Cocq and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch, who are captured in a dramatic use of light and shadow, giving the impression of movement. Traditionally, portraits of military groups were static and posed but Rembrandt broke away from this custom.

Visitors also get to see paintings by other famous Dutch artists such as Vermeer (1632-75), Hals (1582-1666) and Van Gogh (1853-88). Simeon was particularly ecstatic to see The Milkmaid (Het melkmeisje) by Vermeer as well as look at examples of sculpture and decorative arts.

Amsterdam is a great city for art-lovers and on the opposite of the Museumplein is a museum devoted to one of the greatest Dutch artists from the 19th-century. Vincent van Gogh was born in Zundert, a small town in the south of the Netherlands. Although he spent a large amount of his artistic career in France, the Van Gogh Museum has brought 200 of his paintings back to his home country. As well as paintings, the museum has an enormous collection of drawings and letters made by van Gogh at various times during his life.

Visitors are not allowed to photograph the exhibits, however, they have provided a couple of areas where snap happy tourists can record a few memories. Simeon was pleased to discover that one version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was in one of these areas – this vain, little gibbon loves having his photograph taken!

The museum is set out in chronological order so that guests can learn about the artist’s life as they peruse his paintings. This also allows the more art savvy to notice and compare the development of van Gogh’s paintings as he progressed through his ten-year career. These are interspersed with artworks by other notable painters who inspired van Gogh or had a personal connection to him, for instance, his friend-cum-enemy Paul Gauguin (1848-1903).

The museum is located in two buildings joint together by way of underground passage. One side houses temporary exhibition and the other contains three floors of van Gogh’s work and timeline. Designed by Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964), and eventually completed in 1973, the museum is a stark contrast to the Rijksmuseum. The architecture is modernist and features wide open spaces, although, once the crowds enter, there is not much space left!

Already seen in the Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands boasts another famous artist, however, to discover more about him, Simeon had to move away from the Museumplein and get the tram to Rembrandtplein. This artist is, of course, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.

Rembrandtplein, originally called Botermarkt, was established in 1668 as the central square for a dairy market. Today, it lies in homage to the 17th-century Dutch artist with a large cast iron statue of Rembrandt standing in the middle. Although Rembrandt was born in Leiden, South Holland, he bought a house nearby in Amsterdam, making him a significant famous association with the city.

In honour of his 400th birthday in 2006, a bronze-cast representation of his famous painting, The Night Watch, was erected in front of the statue of Rembrandt. Tourists are drawn to the square like magnets thanks to the brilliance of these figures produced by the Russian artists Mikhail Dronov and Alexander Taratynov. With so many cameras around, Simeon had to be quick to get his photograph taken with the majority of the characters.

The house Rembrandt owned is not on the square but a short walk will bring you to the very building now known as Museum Het Rembrandthuis. Decorated to look exactly how Rembrandt lived, Simeon enjoyed exploring the 17th-century rooms and seeing hundreds of collectable items that the artist had amassed during his career.

Rembrandt both lived in and worked from this building between 1638 and 1658, painting and teaching new students. His studio, kitchen and sleeping areas give the impression of an artist’s life during the 17th-century. People were shorter and did not need tall doorframes, causing visitors to duck in order to enter a room – not a problem for Simeon! Their beds were also much shorter but not because of their stature; the Dutch slept sitting up in fear that lying down would cause the blood to rush to their head and kill them.

With the main art museums fully explored, Simeon had time to visit smaller, lesser-known museums in Amsterdam. These were Cromhout Huis and Het Bijbels Museum. The former is a canal-side house once owned by the Cromhout Family who lived there for almost two centuries. The house faces the Herengracht canal and is decorated as splendidly as it would have during its Golden Age. An audio guide educates visitors about the seven generations of the Cromhouts, their ups and downs, and their unique pieces of furniture and art collection.

On the top floor of the house is Amsterdam’s Biblical Museum where the Bible is mixed in with art and Dutch culture. The collection features rare Bibles, including the oldest printed copy in the Netherlands (1477), Egyptian artefacts and many other treasures. Simeon’s favourite was the model of the Tabernacle and the 19th-century model of Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

There may be many museums in Amsterdam but there are so many other things to see. Dam Square, where the national monument and Koninklijk Palace can be found, provides several photographic opportunities and is surrounded by souvenir shops. However, the best places to buy mementoes is at one of the city’s markets, particularly the Bloemenmarkt situated along the Singel Canal. This flower market has been a tradition since 1862 and is open all year round so that both locals and tourists can benefit from the brightly coloured plants. The best time to visit this market is in the spring when the Dutch tulips are in full bloom, however, at any other time of year, the market is full of fake but beautiful tulips (Simeon thought they were real), or you can purchase bulbs to take home to plant in your own garden.

Simeon was only in Amsterdam for a few days, and although he visited so many places, there is still so much to explore. Amsterdam is the type of place tourists can visit time and again and discover something new on every trip. There is, of course, the “other side” to Amsterdam that gives it a bad name and evokes the saying “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go to Amsterdam” but that is an extreme exaggeration. Nonetheless, Simeon has compiled his top tips for those wanting to visit the Dutch capital city.

Simeon’s Top Tips

1. Be careful crossing the road. Bicycles and trams have right of way.
2. Don’t take photographs in the Red Light District. This is where all the prostitution and sex-oriented businesses can be found.
3. Avoid Coffee ShopsYou may end up purchasing 5g of cannabis with your order!
4. Try the Stroopwaffels (syrup waffles) but make sure it does not contain a certain ingredient … Marijuana
5. Book museum tickets before you go. Particularly the Van Gogh Museum, it works on a timed entry system and runs out of tickets quickly.
6. Don’t fall in the canalThat would be silly.
7. Don’t eat the cannabis lolly pops or ice creamIt may look yummy but might not do you any good.
8. If purchasing tulip bulbs, make sure you can legally bring them homeSome bulbs need special licenses to be taken abroad.
9. Always check in and out of tramsNot just in.
10. Be prepared to pay by cardNot all shops take cash.