Amsterdam: The city as museum

Rembrandt would recognize this place (and so would John Adams)

I came to Amsterdam to see The Night Watch, along with about a hundred others who crowd around Rembrandt’s 1642 icon at any given moment at the Rijksmuseum.

'The Night Watch': Holland's Golden Age, in a single painting.

Happily, few visitors actually linger to absorb this massive painting— which really, if you want to get technical, is titled The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq, and which, thanks to a restorative cleaning, actually depicts a daytime scene. Most just glide by for the quick hit, for that satisfying been-there-done-that experience. If you've caught the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, you know what I mean.

Any doubt that The Night Watch is the museum's star attraction is  quickly dispelled by location, location, location: The painting dead-heads the museum's Gallery of Honour, a vast space that resembles a princely reception hall, and one, not so incidentally, decked out with the pick of the litter by such Dutch masters as Vermeer, Steen and Hals. The Night Watch also gets other special treatment: Two guards are stationed on either side of the picture. The male and female guards, who rotate about every half-hour, are similarly imposing—all seemingly at least six feet tall.

Rejected by Bosch

For my meditation with Rembrandt, all I had to do was settle in on a nearby bench, bide my time, and read the picture at my leisure. Of course, The Night Watch is a complex narrative of the Dutch Golden Age: victory, defeat, status and religious unity, among other telltale social issues. But it's also always fun to hunt for the dead chicken among these seriously well-dressed dudes in the picture.

In modern Amsterdam, such sartorial splendor isn't so much in evidence. Yes, Amsterdam is still a Mecca for aging hippies and newly minted hip visitors attracted to its euphemistic coffee shops (really quasi-legal pot and hash parlors). And, yes, pathetic dirty old men still patronize the city's equally pathetic but legal Red Light District, whose whores— displayed in windows, no less— look like rejects from a Hieronymus Bosch vision of Hell. Bored ones, at that.

But hold the snarky Amsterdam jokes. The era when this city was the bed-in-for-peace capital (thanks to John, Ono and an expensive suite at the Amsterdam Hilton) is long gone. Call it the new Dutch Green Age. Here is a city of 800,000, swirling in thousands of commuters of all ages and from all societal strata on bicycles; crooked streets; a tram-based public transport system; and a seemingly universal disdain for the automobile. Gasoline is expensive, on-street parking difficult to find and garage parking priced, by American standards, at out-of-sight levels: about $100 daily for daytime parking. The result is the sound of silence: It's a delight to spend a day without screeching tires, roaring engines and recreational honking.

Boswell’s debauchery

Amsterdam is all about water, after all, and miles of canals continue to define neighborhoods, preserve land mass, and dam the otherwise menacing onslaught of the Amstel River that courses through the city. Constrained by the realities of building on reclaimed land (drained peat from former bogs), as well as a deep respect for the city’s defining structural aesthetic (canal manor houses with bell-shaped roofs), new building in Amsterdam's city center has been gladly held to a minimum.

In appearance, the city is an architectural wonderland of the 17th and 18th Centuries. John Adams, America's first ambassador to the Netherlands (who lived in a still-standing canal townhouse at Keisersgracht 529), would recognize the place. So would James Boswell, Samuel Johnson's celebrated biographer, who visited Amsterdam in 1764 to sample its culture and, ahem, bawdy houses. Even then, the girls were pretty raunchy.

“I was hurt to find myself in the sinks of gross debauchery,” Boswell confessed in a diary. “I had no armour, so I did not fight. It was truly ludicrous to talk in Dutch to a whore.”

Van Gogh to Anne Frank

Setting aside appearances and the pleasures of the flesh, contemporary Amsterdam's overall vibe evokes a more modern era, if you can get away calling Amsterdam's mid-20th Century sensibility modern in our newer century. Clang, clang went the trolley, if you know what I mean.

For the culturally minded, Amsterdam is really a city of museums. Dozens of them. For the specialized visitor, the Van Gogh Museum; the historical, the Amsterdam Museum; the hip Russian (with a Tsarist spin), the newly-opened branch of the Hermitage Amsterdam; the regal, the Royal Palace; the religious, the Jewish Museum; the quirky, the world's largest collection of handbags at the Tassenmuseum; the vulgar, the Heineken Experience; for the simply heartbreaking, the Anne Frank House.

But for many visitors, the Rembrandt brand— recognizing the greatest painter in Holland's 17th-Century Golden Age— trumps all. For a 3-D representation of The Night Watch— the figures of Frans Banning Cocq's shooting company, in bronze, life-sized representations— one need only visit Rembrandt Square. (These statues are similar to those of the Founders at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia). A bronze statute of Rembrandt himself is also there. Rembrandt's house, on Breestraat, is now an eponymous museum, too.

How things -- and reputations -- have changed.

Rembrandt’s rise and fall

Rembrandt van Rijn was born in 1606 in Leiden and subsequently moved to Amsterdam, where his painting was quickly heralded for its brilliance. Riches followed. So did a wife, Saskia, and her sumptuous dowry.

Rembrandt’s fortunes plummeted from there. Seven years later Saskia died, and Rembrandt fell into the arms of his son's nanny, Geertje Dircx, and then those of his housekeeper, Hendrikje Stoffels. Geertje, who was still in the picture, sued, charging her former lover for reneging on a promise of marriage. Meantime, Hendrikje confessed publicly that she had “engaged in fornication” with the painter. The result was her denial of the Eucharist in church— and a baby. Even in liberal Amsterdam, enough was enough. The conservative establishment— the art-consuming establishment, that is— was scandalized. Within less than ten years, Rembrandt was a broken man and a bankrupt. At his death in 1669, at 63, his remains were consigned to an unmarked grave.

Acid attack

Changing sensibilities— as well as a re-booted recognition of Rembrandt's genius— contributed over the ensuing centuries to the artist's local rehabilitation. But significant credit can also go to the Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands State Museum. Since its opening in 1885, housed in a multi-turreted building by Pierre Joseph Cuypers that looks more Disney than Dutch, The Night Watch has reigned as the collection's centerpiece  (except for six years during World War II, when, as a precautionary measure against predatory Nazi art thieves, it was rolled onto a cylinder and stored in a real castle in the north of the country).

Protecting the treasure has also taken a high priority, especially after three major vandal incidents, the most recent in 1990 when a deranged, unemployed schoolteacher attempted an acid attack. Guards intervened, saving the canvas.

Otherwise, it's been a love-fest. In recent years, The Night Watch has inspired rock and classical musical works; several films, including one by Jean-Luc Godard; and at least one book, by the renowned Portuguese writer Augustina Bessa Luis. Most important was an ambitious half-billion-dollar renovation of the Rijksmuseum main building, kicked off in 2003.

Viral on YouTube

At the heart of the project, part of a brilliant marketing scheme devised by the museum’s director, Wim Pijbes, was a revamped Gallery of Honour, with The Night Watch as its jewel in the crown. Queen Beatrix presided over the official opening in April, which coincided with the rollout of a massive, worldwide publicity campaign titled “Our Heroes are Back.” This promotion included a striking tableau vivant that the museum staged at a suburban shopping mall that quickly went viral on YouTube. (Click here.) All Pijbes and other museum curators had to do then was stand back and let the crowds begin.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the Rijksmuseum was lucky to attract about 1 million visitors a year. After the reopening, the museum began optimistically projecting about 1.5 to 2 million. Current, revised figures now put the 2013 attendance number at about 4 million. Yes, I too was part of that crowd.

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