As with pretty much all world-class museums displaying countless art masterpieces and historical treasures, it can be difficult to know where to even begin in Amsterdam’s monumental Rijksmuseum. The Rijksmuseum highlights include some of the most famous paintings in the world, as well as some genuine hidden gems which deserve a share of the limelight.
There are over a million items in its immense collection – around 8,500 of which are on display at any given time – so exploring this royal repository of culture can be a bewildering experience. A myriad of amazing paintings, sculptures, antiques, and architecture compete for your eyeballs at every step inside and out of Pierre Cuypers’ magnificent building.
You can dive in head-first, and meander the labyrinth of ornate halls and galleries in Brownian motion, simply revelling in the pageantry of elite art appreciation. But while the epic spectacle of the Rijksmuseum will sustain your wonder for a while, you’ll soon find yourself bamboozled by the sheer number of works on display, and masterpiece fatigue can set in if you don’t pace yourself properly.
With that said, visiting the Rijksmuseum is greatly improved when you know what to look out for, and arrive primed with a bit of fun context to frame those ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ with. So, we’ve compiled a list of the Rijksmuseum highlights, from the most famous paintings to the lesser-known hidden gems that you could miss in the sea of art and antiques, as well as some handy information about visiting Amsterdam’s royal art museum.
Here’s everything you need to know before visiting the Rijksmuseum.
Famous Paintings at the Rijksmuseum
The Night Watch – Rembrandt van Rijn
Let’s start with the obvious one here. There are a lot of famous paintings at the Rijksmuseum, but the museum’s piece de resistance is unquestionably Rembrandt’s atmospheric masterpiece, Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. Never heard of it? That’s probably because it’s better known by its nickname: The Night Watch.
Interestingly, its night-time atmosphere and nickname resulted from multiple layers of varnish which darkened over time, giving people the impression that Rembrandt had intended to paint a night-time portrait, when actually the painting was originally a day time scene. Day Watch just doesn’t have the same ring to it though.
The painting hangs within its own dedicated mini gallery at the end of the Rijksmuseum’s hallowed Gallery of Honour, and is top of every Rijksmuseum highlights list for good reason.
This is more than a box you have to tick off on your visit; it’s a genuine masterwork with an intriguing story. Close inspection is rewarded with intricate layers of symbolism and secrets. There are unfortunately no hidden elephants, despite Rembrandt’s affinity for drawing them.
Measuring a whopping 3.63 x 4.37 meters, The Night Watch is, to use the proper Fine Art nomenclature, gimungous. It portrays a merry band of musketeers from Amsterdam’s kloveniers civic guard militia in 1642, getting ready to begin their rounds of the city. By that point these civic guards were principally ceremonial, as peace had broken out between the Netherlands and Spain years earlier. And they’ve been friends ever since.
It’s thought The Night Watch was commissioned to commemorate a visit to Amsterdam by the exiled French Queen regent, Marie de’ Medici. She was greeted with citywide pomp and celebration, which included displays of the various bands of civic guards strutting their stuff. It was a diplomatic coup for the newly formed Dutch Republic, and what better way to honour a Medici than a masterpiece painting? Enter Rembrandt.
Contrary to the established norms of military group portraiture though, which tended to emphasize sober uniformity within the ranks, Rembrandt painted a scene that oozes atmosphere, character and dynamism. Displaying his deft perfection of chiaroscuro – a Baroque art style that creates stark contrast between light and shadow – The Night Watch seems to leap from its enormous canvas, with personality and purpose afforded to each of the subjects portrayed. Before The Night Watch, military group paintings were all a bit like those awkward class yearbook photos.
Rembrandt’s informal approach captures the human essence of the scene, and the various hierarchies and foibles that emerge in all groups of people, even those with dashing sashes and important muskets.
It’s not exactly the vibe that Cocq and his band of dandies had probably imagined when they commissioned the work. But, they hung it in their headquarters anyway, before it was moved to the Town Hall (now the Royal Palace) on Dam Square. It was here that it was infamously trimmed at three sides to fit the room.
Scholars argue the butchery of The Night Watch actually took away from the sense of forward movement that the original composition of the painting implied. But it remains a lively scene nonetheless.
Take a close look at The Night Watch and you’ll start to notice some interesting symbolic quirks and details amidst all the shadowy kerfuffle. A dead chicken representing defeated enemies hangs from the belt of the cherubic company mascot who’s bathed in light at the centre-left of the painting. The chicken’s prominently featured claws are also a symbol of the kloveniers themselves, while it has been argued that the chicken is perhaps also a pun on the name of Captain Cocq!
One of the most minute details which you really need to look closely to spot is the shadow of Captain Cocq’s hand, which is cast against the cream-hued overcoat of Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch. Apart from being a photorealistic oil-painted shadow, which is impressive anyway, the shadow fits neatly over the stitched Amsterdam coat of arms on the hem of van Ruytenburch’s coat. This is a subtle allusion to the city being safe in the militia company’s hands – or perhaps, more cynically, still clutched in the shadow of war.
Best of all, though, is one of the more butter-fingered kloveniers accidentally firing his musket in the background, and narrowly missing the head of the dapper lieutenant van Ruytenburch. The erupting snout of the gun can be seen above the gentleman’s lovely hat, leaving a swirling ploom of smoke which is subtly disguised with Rembrant’s use of light. The look on the face of the guy behind him says it all!
During World War II, The Night Watch was moved to St. Peter’s Caves in Maastricht, along with a number of other artworks and masterpieces, so the Nazis would not loot them.
The painting has been vandalised a number of times over the years, with a knife slashing and an acid attack both leaving scars on the masterpiece. Thankfully it has been faithfully restored to its broody best. In case of an emergency or attempted art theft, there is also a failsafe trap door in the floor beneath the painting, which it can be lowered into at a moment’s notice.
The Night Watch certainly justifies a visit in and of itself, but there are other famous paintings at the Rijksmuseum that deserve a fair share of chin-scratching reflection, and are not to be missed.
For instance, you might have heard of…
The Milkmaid – Johannes Vermeer
Only eclipsed in terms of fame by a certain girl with a certain pearl earring, Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid is up there with the very best of the legendary artist’s oeuvre. It’s one of the top Rijksmuseum highlights, and, also located in the Gallery of Honour, it’s easily among the most famous paintings at the Rijksmuseum, if not the world.
The Milkmaid depicts a wistful-looking kitchen maid pouring milk into a traditional Dutch oven, where rough chunks of stale bread will be dunked and baked into a bread pudding. In contrast to the portentous drama of The Night Watch, this quiet, provincial scene evokes a very different set of emotions. Within the simplicity of the scene are rich textures of meaning and symbolism, which can offer a window into Vermeer’s conception of the world, the servant class, and perhaps also his views on women.
Like Rembrandt upended the military group portrait, Vermeer broke from the traditional depictions of servants, particularly women servants, which were commonplace before The Milkmaid. Housemaids, especially milkmaids, were often portrayed as promiscuous temptresses given to sin and laziness, who posed a threat to the honour and stability of the home.
While women in Dutch society during the 17th century did enjoy greater freedoms than in most of Europe, sexist tropes and stereotypes were pervasive in art. Vermeer had other ideas. Find out more about Vermeer’s work and the once-in-a-lifetime Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in 2023 here!
Vermeer’s treatment of the kitchen maid is unassuming and shows her as an attentive worker, carefully carrying out her task, while her slightly crestfallen expression connotes an ineffable sense of humanity that is immediately relatable. She appears not as a caricature or an object of a moralizing gaze, but as a real person. You can’t help but wonder what Vermeer’s Milkmaid is thinking about.
The image of Cupid on the Delft skirting tiles in the background may suggest that the maid is in love, or experiencing some kind of heartache. But, given the composition of the painting, with the tile tucked in the corner near the floor, Vermeer makes it clear that this is not her defining feature. The forlorn countenance affords her an inner emotional life that implores the viewer to respond with empathic wonder, rather than misogynistic suspicion.
She is painted with rolled-up sleeves, and arms that are clearly used to manual work. Her tidy workspace and modest demeanor – as she upcycles stale bread – reflect the Dutch ideals of orderliness, prudence, and humble pragmatism, ideals that hold sway in the Netherlands to this day. As does the Dutch love affair with bread!
Threatened Swan – Jan Asselijn
No list of Rijksmuseum highlights would be complete without mentioning Jan Asselijn’s signature (cygneture?) work, Threatened Swan. While The Night Watch may be the most famous painting at the Rijksmuseum, Threatened Swan can lay claim to being the museum’s first-ever acquisition.
Threatened Swan was purchased in 1800 by the Nationale Kunstgalerij in the Hague – the direct predecessor of the Rijksmuseum, before Napoleon’s brother Louis decided to move the museum to Amsterdam.
It remains one of the most famous paintings at the Rijksmuseum to this day. It’s no surprise that it is also featured in the Gallery of Honour, so while you’re swanning around the museum’s elite wing, be sure to check out this incredible work.
A cautionary tale against messing with an angry swan? A political allegory? Or the world’s first-ever captioned art meme? Depending on your perspective, all could be true. The dramatic image shows a mute swan decidedly not living up to its name and defending its nest in an apoplectic rage against its mortal enemy: a pesky meddling dog. For anyone wondering how such a battle would unfold in real life, YouTube has answers. It can be distressing to watch though, so here is a recreation of where the smart money lies.
Wings splayed, beak squawking, and webbed feet set apart in an Angelina-esque power stance, while a plume of feathers bursts violently into the air, Threatened Swan is about as dramatic as animal paintings get. It’s one of those rare artworks that almost everyone is familiar with, and reproductions abound in living rooms around the world. But the story behind it is almost as interesting as it’s frantic atmosphere.
Until he painted Threatened Swan in around 1650, Jan Asselijn had been best known for his landscapes and battle scenes, leading to much speculation around the thematic elements that he intended in painting this unique animal scene. Many took the painting to be an allegory of Dutch resistance against foreign aggressors, with the white swan assumed to represent statesman Johan de Witt. He controlled much of the political, diplomatic and commercial interests of the province of Holland in the mid-17th century, and his family sigil was a swan. It’s easy to see how the connection was made.
Not wanting to leave any room for misinterpretation or ambiguity about the themes of the painting, an unknown person took it upon themselves to scrawl three fairly on-the-nose captions onto the canvas, after Asselijn had finished it. Above the dog is written ‘de viand van de staat’ (enemy of the state), between the swan’s legs is written ‘de raads-pensionaris’, which was Johan de Witt’s job title, while on the swan’s egg is written the word ‘Holland’.
However, in their zeal to hammer home the meaning of Threatened Swan as a nationalistic properganda message, the phantom inscriber forgot to do some basic fact-checking. As it turns out Jan Asselijn died a year before De Witt would even take office! So it’s unlikely that De Witt was intended to be the metaphorical subject of the painting, although interpretations of the painting as some kind of political allegory are still very much accepted.
The captions add a certain measure of historical intrigue to the painting, even if they are technically political vandalism of a masterpiece. If nothing else, the captions can be seen as ancient precursors to the distracted boyfriend meme format.
Self-Portrait with a Felt Hat – Vincent van Gogh
If anyone ever typified the tortured, enigmatic artist trope, it was Vincent van Gogh. The Dutch post-Impressionist artist was plagued by mental health issues throughout his life, and his work went largely unappreciated until after his death, at least by the buyers and art critics of the day. He suffered increasingly severe mental breakdowns, cutting off his own ear on one infamous occasion, and he died under mysterious circumstances from a gunshot wound many assumed to be suicide. No gun was ever found…
In death, van Gogh has come to be one of the most widely known, loved and revered artists of all time. He is known to have sold only one painting during his lifetime, but since then, his paintings have collectively generated a cool one billion dollars at auction. His signature works are among the most priceless and famous paintings in the world, and he even has his own dedicated museum, a stone’s throw from the Rijksmuseum, which houses the largest collection of his work in the world. But there’s one iconic work the Van Gogh Museum doesn’t have.
Apart from his masterful Starry Night, Sunflowers, Starry Night Over the Rhone, and Potato Eaters, van Gogh is perhaps best-known for his self-portraits. Over the course of his career, he completed no fewer than 35 self-portraits, and in a twist of bitter irony, the unsung hero of his day is now perhaps the most instantly recognisable artist in history, going on his appearance alone. Far from an exercise in narcissism though, van Gogh painted self-portraits out of necessity, as he wanted to practice new techniques but was unable to afford models to sit for him. So, he painted his reflection.
Each one of these mirror-image works is unique and offers a window into the soul of a tortured genius. Often appearing downcast, gaunt, and serious, with his trademark red beard and piercing green eyes staring out judgmentally at himself, van Gogh’s mental state is often chronicled more openly in these paintings than in any of his letters to his brother Theo.
He tended to be quite aloof and guarded in writing, but his emotions were splashed across the canvas with raw honesty in his self-portraits. They form an integral part of his biography as much as his artistic oeuvre.
On display in Room 1.18, van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Felt Hat is not just one of the many Rijksmuseum highlights, it’s one of the most famous of all of the artist’s self-portraits, believed to be the fifth he painted. Completed around 1887 after Vincent moved to Paris, where his brother introduced him to the likes of Claude Monet and Paul Gauguin, this portrait depicts Vincent as a dapper-looking French gentleman, complete with a fancy hat. It’s not hard to imagine a smouldering cigarette in his hand.
The energetic brushstrokes and vivid colours of this self-portrait reflect the spirit of Parisian art at the time, and perhaps also van Gogh’s own feverish excitement to be suddenly surrounded by a thriving art scene with bold new techniques and stylistic schools emerging. His sunken cheeks are the only indication of his starving artist lifestyle, and the work is a poignant reminder of a brilliant man far ahead of his own time, but trying his best to fit in and be accepted in it.
The Battle of Waterloo – Jan Willem Pieneman
It takes a seriously colossal painting to make The Night Watch look small, but measuring 5.67 x 8.23 meters, The Battle of Waterloo by Jan Willem Pieneman is just such a work. Far and away the largest painting in the Rijksmuseum, it’s also one of the most important, and one of the most jaw-dropping. It hangs in Room 1.12, and given its gigantic size, you really can’t miss it. It takes up most of the entire gallery wall.
As the name suggests, this enormous painting depicts the fabled battle of Waterloo, where a coalition of British, Dutch, Belgian and Prussian forces defeated the once-all-conquering army of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon’s defeat ended twenty years of war and his reign as emperor of France, ushering in a time of relative peace in Europe, which laid the foundations for the modern alliance of nations on the continent today. It’s only fitting that such a momentous event is captured with such a huge painting.
Somewhere between a battle scene and a military group portrait, The Battle of Waterloo shows the Duke of Wellington, British commander of the Anglo-Dutch troops, sitting atop his noble steed, Copenhagen. He’s being informed of the good news that Prussian cavalry is on the way. This proved to be the turning point in the battle, and the sense of clamor and hope is captured in the frenzy of turned heads, as word spreads throughout the ranks that victory may be at hand in one of the bloodiest and fiercest battles in history.
Meanwhile the injured crown prince of the Dutch Republic, Willem II, is stretchered off the battlefield in the left foreground, while other less fortunate soldiers lie dead and dying around him. The Prince of Orange was later named the hero of Waterloo for his bravery. He would go on to become king of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, before voluntarily ceding his ruling power to a parliamentary system in 1848, before the people got any revolutionary ideas, which were all the rage at the time.
Far off in the distant background of the painting, you can make out the silhouette of Napoleon, ordering his men to charge – a symbolic last stand of the pintsize emperor lost in the bigger picture.
Rijksmuseum Hidden Gems
It’s not all iconic works and famous paintings at the Rijksmuseum. The place is a maze of amazing hidden gems and lesser-known treasures that are equally deserving of your attention.
Here are just some of the things to keep an eye out for
Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer – 16th-Century Commando Lady
When your first name is this close to Keanu, being an action hero is all but second nature. Introducing the coolest wood merchant in human history, Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer – Kenau for short. This portrait of her is actually located just around the corner from The Night Watch, and shows her ready to open up a Kenau whoopass!
Having lived in the 16th century, the exact facts of her life are disputed, but what is generally agreed upon is that Kenau was not a woman whose bad side you wanted to be on. The fearless folk hero is said to have defended the city of Haarlem from Spanish invaders in 1573, throwing molten tar wreaths around the necks of the invaders – sheesh!
Legend has it that she also led an army of 300 women into battle, armed with nothing more than her courage, devout patriotism, and as many deadly weapons as is possible for one person to carry. History has blurred fact from fiction, but then, cold hard historical facts aren’t really the point of art, are they? Would you think twice before invading Haarlem now? Probably.
Explore the Rijksmuseum for any length of time, and a strange and an unmissable theme begins to emerge in many of the paintings: evil monkeys! The pesky primates pop up all over the place, hanging out and making mischief in artworks ranging from the 16th to 18th centuries.
Pictured below are just a handful of the cheeky creatures, but there is a shockingly high number of them. More often than not, the sinister simians are up to no good. You’d have to be bananas to chalk this bizarre phenomenon down to mere coincidence. So what’s really going on here?
Well, long before Darwin got around to being born, there appeared to be a fascination with monkeys that betrayed an unconscious inkling of the links between people and our little evolutionary cousins. At least in Christian art – ironically!
Monkeys were associated with baser instincts like temptation and lust, and presented as bad omens that warned against the dangers of hedonism and excess. Not that you’ll need any such warning in a city like Amsterdam…
The Dolls’ Houses
One of the Rijksmuseum’s worst-kept secrets is its stunning collection of 17th and 18th-century dolls’ houses. They are the 7th-most searched for item in the Rijks Studio – the museum’s online archive – and it’s not hard to see why.
The three dolls’ houses on display in the museum sit together in room 2.20. You’ll likely have to wait a minute to get a close look at these magnificent treasures, as space constraints mean really only one person at a time can enjoy a proper inspection. But it’s worth the wait if you appreciate adorable tiny furniture.
Far from child’s play, these three dolls’ houses are actually one of the best ways to see what homelife looked like back in the 17th century – at least for the megarich. These were not toys for kids, but the rather expensive hobby of well-to-do women who had a lot of money to throw around. At the time, some of these dolls’ houses actually cost the same amount of money to build as an actual canal house in the centre of Amsterdam. Obviously, the dolls’ houses are priceless these days. But clearly, there’s a correlation.
The Rijksmuseum dolls’ houses boast immaculate tiny furnishings that were commissioned and built to scale, featuring tiny porcelain that was imported from China, as well ornaments and decorations that were created by actual cabinetmakers, glassblowers, silversmiths, and basket-weavers, using the same techniques used to craft their regular-size equivalents. With an opulent lifestyle to maintain, these women were more than prepared for any kind of Honey I Shrunk The Kids accident!
Instruments of Death!
Much like the burnout of binging Netflix till the early dawn, perusing priceless paintings for hours on end can lead to overstimulation, and you may notice that the impact of each new piece begins to fade after that initial rush. Good thing the Rijksmuseum is well-stocked with exciting artifacts besides paintings, and one thing it’s got in abundance is weapons!
From European longswords and sabers to Japanese katanas and daggers, to muskets, flintlock pistols, axes, spears, ship cannons, swiveling turrets, and fancy suits of armor, there’s something for everyone, no matter your taste in laying waste.
One particularly cool hidden gem is a wooden case of duelling pistols which was reportedly taken from Napoleon’s travel carriage which had been abandoned near the aforementioned battlefield at Waterloo.
Surely the most impressive of all the war memorabilia in the Rijksmuseum is an actual FK 23 Bantam World War One fighter jet that’s tucked away up in the museum’s third floor (Room 3.2) – hiding in plane sight…
Protectors of the Peace
For all the evil monkeys running amok, vigilante wood merchants mowing down rows of hapless invaders, and deadly weapons on show, the Rijksmuseum still feels like a very calm and peaceful place. That might be down to the two enormous Temple Guardians that you’ll find in one of the newest and most tranquil wings of the museum – the Asian Pavillion.
Towering at nearly 2.5 meters-tall each, and specializing in warding off evil spirits, these Japanese Temple Guardians date from around 1300-1400, and were welcomed to the Rijksmuseum in 2007 with an authentic purification ceremony carried out by 11 Buddhist priests and as many sacred gongs.
Each of these figures wields a weapon called a vajra, which combines the mighty force of lightning with the indestructibility of diamond, which they use to crush ignorance. Their open and closed mouths represent the first and final syllables of Siddham (a script used to write Sanskrit): which symbolize the spoken sounds and scripts from all languages, and thus all knowledge.
It’s said that those who pass under the guardians’ gaze can acquire their infinite knowledge. But if that doesn’t work, there’s always…
The Cuypers Library
A bit like that scene in Beauty and the Beast, where Beast reveals his literary side in an attempt to win the affections of bookworm Belle – or the Citadel of Maesters in Game of Thrones, the Rijksmuseum boasts a pretty spectacular library hiding inconspicuously between its galleries.
You could easily walk past this multi-story treasure trove of antique texts, and many people do. It’s actually the oldest and largest art history library in The Netherlands and remains an active research library, where art history scholars gather in hushed clusters to brood and scribble esoteric ruminations on parchment, and listen to Spotify.
The typical library etiquette of silence is very much expected here, and you’ll be kindly reminded of this fact by a friendly staff member, should you fail to contain your excitement. You don’t need to be a fine art scholar to appreciate it either – simply stepping inside this immense book-scented chamber is an exhilarating experience in itself, and one of the often overlooked hidden gems in the Rijksmuseum.
Rijksmuseum Opening Hours and Directions
How to get to the Rijksmuseum
The Rijksmuseum is not hard to find. It’s located at Museumplein, a bustling cultural square in the heart of Amsterdam, which is unsurprisingly, where most of the city’s top museums are found. It’s a short stroll from the busy nightlife hotspot of Leidseplein and walking distance from literally hundreds of bars, restaurants, and the very chilled-out Vondelpark. If you’re looking to use public transport to get there, here’s a quick overview of the most common options.
From Central Station, take either tram 2 or 12 and hop off at the Rijksmuseum tram stop. Or, take metro 52 and stop at Vijzelgracht.
If you’re travelling from Zuid Station, take tram 5 (Rijksmuseum tram stop)
If you’re coming from Sloterdijk Station, take tram 19 and get off at Spiegelgracht tram stop.
From Amstel Station, take tram 12 (Rijksmuseum tram stop), or take the metro to Weesperplein, then hop on either tram 1, 7 or 19, and get off at Spiegelgracht tram stop.
If you are coming directly from Schiphol Amsterdam Airport, and want to make the Rijksmuseum the first thing you do in town, take bus 397, and it’ll whisk you all the way to the Rijksmuseum bus stop.
Rijksmuseum opening times
The Rijksmuseum is open seven days a week, from 9am to 5pm. The gift shop stays open until 6pm.
Visiting the Rijksmuseum safely
The Rijksmuseum has opened its doors again after the shutdown period, and has a few new policies and guidelines to ensure everyone can enjoy a safe visit. These are mainly common sense guidelines that we are all probably familiar with in the post-lockdown period, but here is a quick overview, so you know what to expect when visiting the Rijksmuseum.
Keep at least 1.5 meters away from other people, unless they are a part of your household.
Foot traffic in some parts of the museum is now split into lanes of one-way travel. Arrows indicate which direction you should be going, follow these as closely as possible.
It’s important to respect and follow any instructions issued by the museum staff.
Disinfectant hand gel is available at various points throughout the museum, and you’re encouraged to make use of them frequently.