As one of the top museums in the world with 8,000 objects on display (out of the almost 1 million items they have) spread out over 80 “rooms” spanning a timeline of 800 years, it’s unnecessary to say seeing it all is impossible.
So the next question is, what to see at the Rijksmuseum? Well, of course, it depends on your interests. There is a consensus on the most essential pieces of the Rijksmuseum.
In this article, I’ll leave out all art forms that are not paintings. We’re going to focus on Rijksmuseum Famous Paintings instead.
It would be too easy to copy and paste just the list from the Gallery of Honor, as this is where the Rijksmuseum showcases its most precious art from the Golden Age because there is more.
Did you know art in the Gallery of Honor, as a rule of thumb, does not travel to other museums?
Except for “Marten and Oopjen.” But more about them later.
But, of course, we do start at the Gallery of Honor. I highlight the best of the best. But take at least an hour to explore the other works at this central showcase.
After the Gallery of Honor, I also want to take you to a few other famous paintings that were significant for their time.
Get comfortable, grab a glass of wine, and dive in.
Table of Contents
The Rijksmuseum Building – Pierre Cuypers’ Gothic Design
When you approach the Rijksmuseum, does it look familiar?
If you’ve been to Amsterdam Central Station before, you may naturally think this. The same architect designed both buildings, and they look almost identical. Additionally, they’re nearly directly across from each other if you were to draw an invisible line.
Central Station was built as a train station but also had to function as a “city gate” for the new Noord suburb to be built.
The Rijksmuseum was built as a national gallery but also had to function as a city gate for the still-to-be-built Southern suburb. Now very much part of the classic Amsterdam center. Because of this, there is a road through the Museum. Until the 1930s, cars drove through this tunnel, which was a condition by the city. Today, it’s bicycles and pedestrians only.
The city was expanding rapidly, and Amsterdam wanted something grand to remind of the past (think city walls with gates). Still, at the same time, they tried to embrace the future.
It might be hard to imagine today, but when the Rijksmuseum opened in 1885, it was at the city’s edges. It was farmland beyond. No Concert building across, no Van Gogh Museum, and no Amsterdam Zuid yet.
The Rijksmuseum building fascinates with its blend of both Gothic and Renaissance architectural styles. When you enter the great hall, you might think you are entering a church.
And that was Cuypers’ intention.
The Rijksmuseum is a place where you worship art. And to Cuypers, the most significant artist was Rembrandt, which will become very clear soon.
When you’re in the Great Hall, take a moment and look around. It’s quite something.
Can you find Rembrandt in the stained glass windows?
As you enter the “Gallery of Honor,” your eyes are instinctively drawn to the end, where you find the most important painting of the Rijksmuseum: “Rembrandt’s The Night Watch” at the “altar.” We’ll talk more about the painting later, but it’s interesting for the “church effect” of where it takes your eyes.
Today you might be in awe when entering the Great Hall and the Gallery Of Honor. But Cuypers’s design was controversial when the Museum first opened.
Critics said the design was overly grand. And the extensive decorations were distracting from the artwork on display. The King of that time even refused to visit. It was too un-Dutch and a disgrace. (Juicy detail: his wife did go and loved it).
Despite initially facing controversy, people have recognized the Rijksmuseum building as a masterpiece of 19th-century architecture.
A Rijksmuseum Tour With A Live Guide
I highly recommend joining the Rijksmuseum Highlights Tour if you have the time. Don’t book an external tour. That is just a waste of your money.
The Rijksmuseum Guides are incredibly knowledgeable and take you to the most essential pieces of the Museum. And the best part: it’s only €5 per person.
I’ve visited the Rijksmuseum countless times. I took this tour for the last time in April 2023. I loved it! Especially how little I had to pay. The Rijksmuseum does an excellent job here to make art accessible.
There was also room for requests, so if you have a favorite work and it’s not part of the “regular” tour, the guide might still take you there, time allowing. I asked for the dollhouse.
You can book your separate tour tickets at the information desk inside the Museum (the round desk). They are usually in the morning and early afternoon.
Suppose you are not visiting during tour hours or prefer a private tour. In that case, I recommend booking a private tour through the Museum, which will still be much more affordable than external tour companies other bloggers usually recommend.
Only consider an external Rijksmuseum tour like this one when the Museum has none available.
Self-Guided Rijksmuseum Audio Tour
Let’s first start with a tip. Download the (excellent) Rijksmuseum App on your phone before your visit, and bring your headphone.
When you open the app and select “You’re in the museum,” you will have access to the same audio tours as the device for rent at the Multimedia desk. It’s a quick €5 per person saving and more hygienic.
The 12 Rijksmuseum Famous Paintings
And now, let’s finally begin with our tour of this beautiful Museum with the first selected famous painting in the Gallery of Honor. This painting is recognized worldwide:
1. The Milkmaid (c. 1660), Johannes Vermeer
“The Milkmaid” by Johannes Vermeer is a serene snapshot of domestic life in the mid-17th century. A young maid seems frozen in time and is engrossed in pouring milk, lost in her peaceful world.
Vermeer’s treatment of light and detail creates an intimate, real-life narrative, making the painting unique. Not only is the maid frozen in time, but so are we unconsciously looking at the scene, if only so briefly.
The room, bathed in a warm glow, is a symphony of hundreds of tiny, colorful dots, a testament to Vermeer’s keen observation and attention to detail.
Can you find the nail in the wall?
And the broken window?
But is it just a mundane scene? Or is there more to the story? Where is she with her mind? What does the Cupido tile mean at the bottom? And the footwarmer?
A 17th-century painting is hardly ever what it seems to be at first sight. Intriguing.
If you’re a Vermeer lover like me, there is enough to stay intrigued with for a while. In this room, there is more Vermeer. Here you’ll also find the “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” and “The Little Street.”
2. The Merry Family (1668), Jan Steen
Jan Steen’s “The Merry Family” is a cheerful tableau of a family immersed in music and drink. Jan Steen is known for his humorous yet moralistic style.
It all looks like a lot of fun, but there certainly is a moral to the story. Every member contributes to the symphony of clamor: the father, with a glass held high, belts out a tune as if he were on a grand stage; the mother and grandmother echo his merriment with their vibrant chorus. And the children are far from quiet spectators, one puffing on a long pipe, the other drinking wine.
But then there is that note dangling from the mantelpiece, revealing the message at the heart of the scene: ‘As the old sing, so shall the young pipe.’ It’s a powerful commentary on the influence of adult behavior on young minds. If the parents dance to a tune of recklessness, what can we expect the children to follow?
Another fantastic painting by Jan Steen in the Gallery of Honor is “The Feast of Saint Nicholas.”
The Feast of Saint Nicholas is a holiday controversial today, but a children’s feast for hundreds of years, and still celebrated today (December 5th).
Kids who behave receive gifts—those who do not get some twigs.
The happy girl takes center stage in the painting. But can you also find the crying boy? And even harder to find the winking grandmother?
You see Dutch treats at the forefront. Some say a Stroopwafel. I’m not sure about that. I have never seen them like that. It’s a bit of wishful thinking. But it all looks so tasty nonetheless.
3. The Threatened Swan (1650), Jan Asselijn
Jan Asselijn’s “The Threatened Swan” is a highlight inside the Gallery of Honor. Did you know that this is the first painting the Rijksmuseum acquired?
The depiction of the Swan is so life-like. The details in the feathers are almost translucent on the edges. How unbelievable is that? You’d think animal paintings were his specialty looking at this painting. But it was his only one.
While seemingly just a wildlife scene, this painting became a potent political symbol of the Dutch Republic later that century because another painter added text.
The Swan was later interpreted as the Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt defending the country from its enemies (by inscribing “Holland” in the Egg. And above the dog, there is a text now that reads: “The enemy of the state.”)
4. The Jewish Bride (c. 1665-1669), Rembrandt van Rijn
Rembrandt’s “The Jewish Bride,” from 1665, is a heartfelt depiction of love. It shows a couple, tenderly connected through a man’s gentle touch on a woman’s chest.
Isaac disguised his deep affection for Rebecca as they pretended to be siblings to protect themselves from King Abimelech and death. However, when they thought they were alone, their true feelings emerged and were witnessed.
Rembrandt captivated their emotions so beautifully. Just look at the eyes. And then the technique, the thick paint applied? You can look at it forever.
Do you know who also loved this painting?
Vincent Van Gogh.
It’s weird to phantom, but the Rijksmuseum opened during his lifetime, and Rembrandt was a major inspiration for him.
He famously wrote to his brother about this painting: I would give years of my life to sit in front of this painting for two weeks straight.
I can see why.
PS. If you also plan to visit his museum next door, check out my post: 10 Best Van Gogh Museum Tips And Highlights 👨🎨.
5. Marten and Oopjen (1634), Rembrandt van Rijn
These two life-sized paintings are extraordinary. For one, in that time, it is not done to portray yourself from head to toe, and then at this size? That was for Kings and Queens. But they hired Rembrandt to do it— the Jetset of their time.
Look also at their clothing, the quality of the lace, and the enormous rosettes on Marten’s shoes. I have a feeling they didn’t make for comfortable walking, but they look impressive.
I’m just fascinated by the masterful paintwork when I look at these paintings. It looks SO real from a distance, but when you’re right in front of them, it’s just a trillion little paint dots. How can white and grey suddenly become convincing glittering silver? Rembrandt makes it happen.
If the paintings are in the Rijksmuseum, you’re lucky because that’s only sometimes true.
France and the Netherlands bought these paintings for 80 million euros each. There is just one condition. The paintings can never be separated. And this is why they’re on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or the Louvre in Paris.
6. Still Life with Cheese (c. 1615), Floris Claesz van Dijck
I get hungry when I see this painting. That matured cheese falls apart. Wow.
And not just the cheese, the apples, the nuts, olives, and the bread. Everything looks so natural and just ready to eat.
Floris van Dijck, the artist behind this masterpiece, pioneered still-life paintings.
But this is the 17th century, so most likely, the painting has a deeper meaning. Cheese, in particular, was seen as a metaphor for perishability.
Was it to urge temperance?
7. The Night Watch (1642), Rembrandt van Rijn
Number seven on my list. But number one on most people’s lists when they visit the Rijksmuseum. A visit to the Rijksmuseum will not be complete without seeing this masterpiece.
Pierre Cuypers was a Rembrandt fan who designed the building with this massive painting in mind. As soon as you open the doors from the Great Hall into the Gallery of Honor, you draw your eyes toward the end, the altar where The Night Watch hangs.
Contrary to its name, this painting depicts a city guard in broad daylight.
Yet, the dramatic play of light and shadow, the movement, and the vibrancy catapult this 1642 painting from a typical group portrait to a legendary masterpiece.
“The Night Watch” demonstrates Rembrandt’s composition innovation and ability to breathe life into each character. A testament to the Dutch Golden Age, it’s an emblem of civic pride and the democratic spirit of the time, making it a timeless piece of art history.
Did you know that the little girl in the painting, an odd presence among all those men, is a non-existing person? They know Rembrandt made her up. Still, she looks so natural. Why did he do that? Nobody knows.
The painting used to be much larger. Some idiots cut it when it did not fit in a room once where it had to be displayed. Paintings were a lot more common back then, but who does that?
Thankfully there were copies of the painting from which we can tell what the image initially looked like. They hang on the sides of the actual artwork for you to see.
This Museum has many more Rembrandt paintings, which I won’t go into in this post because, of course, this is not a post about just Rembrandt, but if you are a fan, make sure to prioritize Rembrandt during your visit.
I would love to conclude this post with a few more famous Rijksmuseum paintings you should not miss before exiting this Museum outside the Gallery of Honor.
8. Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters (c. 1608), Hendrick Avercamp – Room 2.6
One of my favorite paintings is the winter landscape of Hendrick Avercamp. There is just so much going on in this painting.
Winter paintings were Avercamp’s specialty.
Here the rich and the poor all enjoy winter. And this one is a masterpiece.
Look closely; a few naughty scenes are hidden within the overall merriment. Can you find the barred bottom peeking out a toilet? Another gentleman is doing the same thing elsewhere. Can you see him? The love couple trying to hide? A guy that fell through the ice? The “graffiti,” aka his signature on a shed?
There is just SO much to discover here.
9. Still Life with Asparagus (1697), Adriaen Coorte – Room 2.24
This frame is only about 10 inches in diameter but grand in achievement. That is how I would like to describe this painting. I love it so much that I will order a canvas print for my kitchen.
Adriaen Coorte’s “Still Life with Asparagus” is a delight. Even though it’s so tiny, it still captivates you. It is humble – only a bundle of asparagus. Yet, it looks so natural. It could be a photo. Just look at the tips of the vegetables, exactly how they look in real life.
He reminds us that art doesn’t need to be grandiose to captivate. It celebrates minimalism hundreds of years before the concept was popular.
10. The Golden Bend (1672), Gerrit A. Berckheyde – Room 2.27
Gerrit Adriaenszoon Berckheyde’s “The Golden Bend in the Herengracht” from 1672 celebrates Amsterdam’s Golden Age prosperity. The painting features a stretch of the Herengracht canal, known as the “Golden Bend.”
The Golden Bend is the stretch where the most wealthy citizens bought their plots of land and had their lavishly sized houses built. The more expansive, and the more windows, the better.
The Netherlands was doing well, and the rich wanted to show off.
It’s something of all times.
Berckheyde’s painting, filled with a sense of order and tranquility, encapsulates the economic boom of 17th-century Amsterdam, fueled by overseas trade. But it’s not precisely depicted as to how it was. For example, he left out the trees, which were also there back in the day, just for a better composition.
Want to see the view from this painting yourself? That is possible. Head to the “Herengracht .” It’s the section between de Vijzelstraat and the Leidsestraat.
PS: Halfway is the Spiegelgracht. Look back, and you’ll see the Rijksmuseum where this painting hangs.
We’re full circle.
11. The Singel Bridge(1898), George H. Breitner – Room 1.18
Another Amsterdam city painting, but now from centuries later, can be found one floor lower in room 1.18. It’s a famous painting by Breitner, which is still controversial.
How did he dare paint like this? A snapshot, or a photo, even then. Not a piece of art. But achieving that sense of being a moment caught in time was revolutionary. He reached it with unconventional cut-off points.
You feel you’re on the bridge as another person is passing by.
In this 1898 city view, Breitner captures the fleeting moments of a city on the move – people hurrying under their umbrellas, the hustle of carriages, and the shimmering reflections on the wet streets.
This painting represents the dynamic nature of city life, a stark contrast to the tranquility of the Golden Age scenes from the previous paintings.
The painting is so well-known in the city. Locals even use his last name -Breitner- as a saying. When they say: “It is Breitner weather.” That means it’s a cold, bleak winter day.
12. Self-Portrait (1887), Vincent Van Gogh – Room 1.18
And finally, we conclude with another famous work of the Rijksmuseum in the same room as Breitner.
I’ve already talked about him. Vincent van Gogh, once a visitor himself, is now on display in the Rijksmuseum.
We’re not talking about his sunflowers or starry nights (at the Van Gogh Museum, next door) but his self-portrait instead.
One of the numerous he painted during his career. This work stands apart for its striking use of color and textured brushstrokes, a distinct change from Van Gogh’s earlier, more somber palette.
Today you see most visitors trying to come as close as possible to the work, but Van Gogh would not have liked that. He wanted people to watch his works from a distance.
Rijksstudio – Art From Home
I genuinely hope you enjoyed reading this post and that it makes you curious about visiting in person because there is nothing better than experiencing art in real life.
But there is something very close to the best. And that is the spectacular Rijksmuseum app called Rijksstudio.
Just visit the free Rijksmuseum Rijksstudio here.
Here you can look at high-resolution artworks (also those we discussed today) and hundreds of thousands more. It’s truly magnificent.
The art has no copyright restrictions, either. You can download it (they offer a download button for each work). And use it in your products. Have them printed, or do whatever you want with them.
Tips for visiting the Rijksmuseum
Ready to visit in person? This Museum is so large and so popular it can easily be overwhelming. Coming prepared is half the battle. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your visit.
- Buy tickets in advance – usually, it’s sold out on the day (get tickets here)
- Come early: book a timeslot at 9 am or 9:15, and arrive 15 minutes early.
- One hour is the minimum time you need (Gallery of Honor). Half a day is best.
- Plan your trip to the Museum in Google Maps. Please read my post on the best SIM card.
- You can store coats and backpacks in the lockers. NO deposit or coins are needed*.
- Download the app for the same audio tour, but then for free.
- The app also offers discounts at the museum shop, except for books.
- The cafe is fantastic! Artworks at the museum inspire the menu. It’s a great break.
- Dress comfortably. You’ll do a lot of walking in this place.
- And most importantly: you can’t see it all, so don’t try it. You’ll enjoy the rest more.
*When you read on other sites, you need a (50-cent) coin for the locker. Don’t be confused by that. You do not. That is just outdated information.
Which Rijksmuseum Famous Paintings Activity Are You Most Curious About?
I’d love to hear your thoughts: What is the #1 painting you want to see at the Rijksmuseum? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and let’s start a conversation 💬.
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