These fascinating paintings will make you redefine Amsterdam

The Dutch capital will fuel your appetite for art. No, seriously!

Which city de-criminalized homosexuality as early as the 1800s and celebrated the first legal same-sex marriage in 2001? Where do hundreds of ‘coffee shops’ offer a menu of cannabis products openly? Where does one find a famed red-light district with legit sex shops, theatres, peep shows and even tours for those who are game? On a lighter note, for the less risky traveller, which city allows the thrill of bicycling without helmets? That’s illegal too!!

Full marks for guessing. But labelling the original ‘Sin City’ as a frivolous hippie destination is not fair play. Amsterdam’s controversial liberal policies owe credit to a centuries-old culture of tolerance and assimilation. Maybe that’s how it ended up with such a prolific art scene. So, retune that radar and get ready ogling of a different kind.

Where it all started

The Dutch National Museum, Rijksmuseum, delivers matchless masterstrokes from the Middle Ages to the present. The spectacular brickwork facade and quaint towers announce the glory that lies inside. Over 8,000 paintings and objets d’art spread over 100 galleries over four floors. There’s a Royal Collection, 14th to 17th centuries Flemish art, luxury inlaid furniture, brilliant Delftware, pristine porcelain, extraordinary 17th-century dolls’ houses, and even finds from a 16th-century Dutch ship stranded on a Russian island. Now, don’t be greedy, make your choices.

Recommended must-do: Trace the blossoming of Dutch art during the 17th-century Golden Age. Find the common theme through these Baroque artworks. One, a sense of richness and grandeur. Two, dramatic use of emotion. Reason? Catholic versus Protestant struggle for survival in 17th-century Europe. Catholic artists used all forms of art to drive home their message…and with such elan! Masters of Flemish Baroque like Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen, Paulus Potter and Frans Hals encouraged countless painters to produce a rich heritage of 5-10 million artworks (portrait art, still life and landscapes) for middle class homes. Objects for embellishment and investment, free of encumbrances of spirituality and religion. A wave of unforgettable images in a photographically realistic style, where the stars were ordinary people…merchants, professionals, wives, servants, children, soldiers, clerks, tradesmen, living in ordinary households and going about their ordinary lives. Unassuming, unpretentious. Staring at these masterpieces of average people immortalised as fine art, you feel uplifted.

The terrific trio

Johannes Vermeer, master of tranquility and stillness thrills you with four rare paintings. Gazing at the small canvas of ‘The Milkmaid’, you can almost hear the trickle of the pouring milk. The work of Jan Steen offers a delightful slice of 17th-century Dutch life. Think of it as light entertainment sprinkled with folk wisdom. Children teaching a cat to dance. Merrymaking at a family gathering. Seemingly insignificant subjects that would have evoked contempt from many a conventional artist of the time.

Vermeer-Milkmaid
Vermeer, Milkmaid. 1657. Courtesy: Wikipedia
Vermeer - pearl earring
Vermeer’s iconic, Pearl Earring. 1665 (displayed at Mauritshuis, Hague) Courtesy: Wikipedia
Jan Steen - Cat
Jan Steen, The Dancing Lesson. 1679. Courtesy: Wikipedia
Jan Steen-Dancing Couple
Jan Steen, Dancing Couple. 1663. Courtesy: Wikipedia

But, it is the Rembrandt collection that really takes your breath away. And you know why this Dutch genius is considered one of the greatest visual artists of all times. The paintings have a photo-like ‘realness’. His uncanny ability to capture the wrinkle of the skin and the twinkle of light, fill you with silenced awe. Hushed whispers and stunned gazes from the audience speak volumes about the impact of his craft. Refer to the audio guides for a succinct, yet apt gist of each framed beauty on the walls. Broad thick brushstrokes, layers of glazes for extra gravity, restrained colour palette dominated by dark earth tones and golden highlights, brilliant lights and heavy shadows to illumine faces, jewels and rich fabrics and rich, dark, transparent backgrounds will have you transfixed.

Rembrandt-Three Singers
Rembrandt, Three Singers. 1625. Courtesy: Wikipedia
Parable of the rich man, by Rembrandt
Rembrandt, Parable of the rich fool. 1626. Courtesy: Wikipedia

As you scan the paintings for little details that the audio guide describes, feel yourself nodding in understanding. The mini-tutorial on Rembrandt’s art style and life is revealing…and the fact he that actually went bankrupt towards the latter part of his life, will shock you. How would he react if he knew that one of paintings sold for a record $180 million USD million at Christie’s recently!

Rembrandt, Marten Soolmans & Oopjen Coppit
Rembrandt, Marten Soolmans & Oopjen Coppit. 1634. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Close by, is the Van Gogh Museum, home to the largest collection of one of the Netherlands’ most famous artists. Take a coffee break first, and neutralise your senses because Van Gogh is a complete departure from the realist Dutch Baroque style. His creations are the perfect example of symbolism, truly characteristic of the Post-Impressionist era. 

Van Gogh-self portrait
Van Gogh, Self portrait. 1887. Courtesy: Wikipedia

200 paintings and 400 works on paper adorn its crisp modern walls, including The Bedroom, Irises, Wheat field with Crows and a number of self-portraits. Dramatic, imaginative, rhythmic, and emotional canvases with dense, sharp, swirling brushstrokes in a bright, opulent palette convey his frenzied thoughts and make inanimate objects pulse with life.

Van Gogh-Bedroom
Van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles. 1888. Courtesy: Wikipedia
Van Gogh Irises
Van Gogh, Irises. Courtesy: Wikipedia
Van Gogh-Wheatfield with crows
Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows. 1890. Courtesy: Wikipedia

In the Sunflower series, a wide spectrum of hues express the entire lifespan of the flowers, from the full bloom in bright yellow to the wilting and dying blossoms rendered in melancholy ochre. The brightness of the Provencal summer sun and the artist’s mindset appear in perfect sync. His ecstasy alternates with depression, from the sun-drenched colors and brilliant blue sky of South France to one of his last works, where the dark canvas shows with roads leading nowhere, and ominous black crows taking flight. Hadn’t he walked into a field like this one…and shot himself?

Van Gogh-Sunflowers
Van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1889. Courtesy: Wikipedia
Van Gogh-Six Sunflowers
Van Gogh, Six Sunflowers. 1945. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Art appetite satiated, stun your taste buds with some characteristic fusion food that the city flaunts with abandon. More works of art…on your plate this time. Between the gourmet bites, snatch a peek at the skinny gabled merchant houses and delicate church towers lining the charming canal waterways outside the windows. Moment of truth…Amsterdam and art seem synonymous with each other. Creativity flows like blood through the veins of Europe’s best-preserved 17th-century city. Quaint and jarring, traditional and contemporary, relaxed and inviting, delightful and adventurous. Unique. Individualistic. So comfortable in its own skin. Isn’t that what art is all about?

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Discover the arty side of Amsterdam

Spectacular, sensational, spiritual. One evening. In my city.

Tune in to the rhythm of Indian classical music…

When you’re living in Delhi, you’re not just living in India’s bustling capital. You are in a city with an enigmatic past, deeply entrenched in time as far back as 3500 BC! The enduring seat of political power over centuries, right from the Pandavas to the Mughals and the British…a perfect backdrop to experience the abundant culture heritage of one of the oldest civilisations of the world. Today Delhi hogs the limelight as India’s cultural hub and I highly recommend my city for a plethora of fascinating events all year round. Come winter, it hosts some matchless cultural extravaganzas, music fiestas, theatrical shows and food festivals. Enticing enough…

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Immerse in the most authentic of Spanish experiences

Feel the vibrance and verve of the Flamenco…

Craving for some pure Andalusian vibrance? Pining for the real cultural vibe that defines the heart of Spain? Tell you where to find it? It practically oozes from every inch of the ceramic tiled walls of Seville, Andalusia’s 3000-year old capital. If you are a true heritage lover, you can’t avoid falling in love with this medieval city. It is feisty, flamboyant and fun, with unmistakable Moorish influences that entice from every colourful corner. See this article of Lonely Planet magazine and tell me you’re not itching to go…

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Make sturdy clogs to woo her? No diamond?

Marken boys proposed to girls with shoes, not rings!

If you’re looking for quaint cultural experience of a different kind, venture just half an hour from Amsterdam to Volendam. Then, if you can tear your eyes away from the picturesque waterfront, board a ferry across the lake to Marken, an island surrounded by a dyke, where a tiny population of 2000 lives on reclaimed land.

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I was shocked to see graves under my feet

Tombs on cathedral floors…

I craned my neck to marvel at the grandeur of the Gothic 225-feet high western twin towers of the 700-year old Westminster Abbey. Steps away, across the road, were the stately Big Ben and the illustrious Houses of Parliament. It was difficult to decide which was more impressive…London’s premier worship portal or the political powerhouse.

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How I curated comfort for museums

It’s not for everyone, but once you start…

Last month, I read a question by someone on a travel forum…“Is it worthwhile to visit the Louvre Museum in Paris?” Her question didn’t surprise me that much, though Louvre is amongst the most-visited spots in the world. Anyway, I was curious to know the replies, so I scrolled over the comments till I reached the most interesting one. “Don’t waste your money on the expensive ticket. Shop for LV at Galleries Lafayette instead.” This fashionista was advising a splurge on a logo-splattered Louis Vuitton piece of leather arm-candy rather than investing a few hours and a few euros on real art. Talk of divergent perspectives…specially when it comes to value for money!

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Does reverence need a voice?

How about hushed silence instead…

During a short trip to Gwalior, we happened to visit the 9th-century Sahastrabahu Temple in the complex that houses the glorious turquoise stone-studded Gwalior Fort. It was the first ‘ancient’ Hindu temple I had seen.The marvellous architecture and the exquisite carvings left me stunned. But other than the beauty, what struck me most was the peaceful aura created by the absence of idols and worshippers (to clarify, it’s not a working temple anymore).

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