Seeking artistic Amsterdam as Dutch masters head to Sydney

Photo of William Yeoman

Ahead of a blockbuster exhibition of artworks by Rembrandt, Vermeer and the like opening at the Art Gallery of NSW, William Yeoman finds inspiration aplenty in Amsterdam. 

Even in the middle of summer, during the peak tourist period, you feel like you’ve stepped into one of those tranquil streetscapes by Johannes Vermeer or Pieter de Hooch. It’s something to do with the texture of the city, and the way light and sound move through the still air.

We’d flown into Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport in the early morning before being whisked off to Sofitel Legend the Grand Amsterdam. A grand name indeed, which befits the stately edifice that started life as a 16th century monastery before becoming an Admiralty Building, then the City Hall and finally a five-star hotel.

In a beautiful and historic part of town, The Grand is one of the finest hotels I’ve ever stayed in, by a long shot. 

It’s also not far from the Red Light District. Which may be a bonus, depending on how you look at it. For my part, I was quite alarmed to walk one afternoon past one of the many sex shops and observe the enthusiasm with which a group of tourists was handling the merchandise.

I don’t want to sound like I’m protesting too much, but my own experiences in Amsterdam, like those of my fellow arts journalists, were of a more elevated nature. There was the welcome cocktail party in the hotel garden, followed by a two-hour boat cruise through Amsterdam’s canals. There were the divine breakfasts at the hotel’s Michelin Star Bridges Restaurant. Another cocktail party, this time hosted by The Floral Designers at The Floral Boutique of the Sofitel. A four-course dinner prepared by Sofitel executive chef, Andres Delpeut served in the garden. (Just tell me to shut up when you want.)

There were personal tours of the Rijksmuseum and intimate conversations with key museum personnel such as curator Pieter Roelofs, conservator Petria Noble and director Taco Dibbits. A tour of Rembrandt’s house preceded by a leisurely walk alongside the Prinsengracht (Princes’ Canal), the Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal) and the Herengracht (Gentlemen’s Canal) and assorted 17th century canal houses. 

A lecture by NEHA professor of business history, Joost Jonker, at the former headquarters of Dutch East India Company, on the Dutch economy in the 17th century.

There was a string quartet recital at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam’s acclaimed concert hall. Lunch at De Hallen in the Oud-West neighbourhood, a wonderful bike ride through the Jordaan area and a private visit to the House of Brienen, built in 1620 for a wealthy Amsterdam jeweller and apparently one of the finest canal houses in Amsterdam. A visit to the Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age at the Hermitage Amsterdam. (OK, I’ll shut up now.)

But why, I hear you ask, Dear Reader, had I and my colleagues been brought to Amsterdam in the first place? To preview a very special exhibition soon to open in Sydney.

Of the art of the past, none has the ability to speak as simply and directly to modern viewers as that of the 17th century explosion of prosperity and creativity known as the Dutch Golden Age. 

The moving self-portraits of Rembrandt in old age. The silent domestic studies of Vermeer and de Hooch. The leafy landscapes and tumultuous skies of Jacob van Ruisdael. Still lifes spilling over with fruit and flowers, plates of cheeses and glasses of wine, animals and insects, books and musical instruments. This is a celebration of the everyday.

Luckily for us, from November through to February you won’t have to travel quite as far as I did to test that proposition. Because Amsterdam’s famous Rijksmuseum and the Art Gallery of NSW have teamed up to present, in an Australian exclusive, one of the most extraordinary exhibitions ever to visit Australia: Rembrandt & the Dutch Golden Age: masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum. Masterpieces (and I mean masterpieces) by the above artists are included, along with spectacular works by Frans Hals, Gerrit Dou, Rachel Ruysch, Judith Leyster, Jan de Bray and Aelbert Cuyp — more than 70 paintings and etchings in all.

“One of the really interesting things about this exhibition and Dutch art of the Golden Age in general is that it represents a defining moment in the history of European art, where suddenly subjects that hadn’t been treated before come to the fore,” AGNSW’s Peter Raissis, a co-curator of the show, says. “And that includes a lot of things that we take for granted today. One of the Dutch co-curators is Pieter Roelofs, curator of 17th century Dutch painting at the Rijksmuseum. “The paintings that are in this show are marvellous,” he says quite simply. 

Rijsmuseum general director Taco Dibbits calls these paintings “friends from afar”. He says these kinds of travelling exhibitions widen people’s horizons by showing how artists of the past discovered a new way of seeing the world.

“Each artist looks differently at the world,” he says. 

“But to think they could change the world by changing the way we see a teacup or a bucket! Yet that’s what they do. The most beautiful painting of the most normal objects suddenly brings you very close to the world.”

That’s what made seeing these works and exploring modern Amsterdam at the same time so transformative. 

I started out photographing cobbled streets, sparkling canals and narrow Bentheim stone canal buildings.

 But I ended up focusing on things such as the raking light across a wall’s peeling paint, an old bicycle with a wheel bent out of shape or a brindle cat cleaning itself in a window. 

That’s what art and travel have in common: they not only bring us “very close to the world”. 

They allow us to see it anew.

Fact File


William Yeoman travelled as a guest of Singapore Airlines.


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