Amsterdam, famous for its bikes and canals, is home to some of the most priceless art in the world. I have had the privilege of visiting countless museums in the city and in other parts of the Netherlands. Dutch artists are famous for their religious depictions, portraits, landscapes, and Delft pottery and these are just a few of my favorite pieces I saw in Amsterdam during my semester abroad.
- Girl with the Pearl Earring
Location: The Mauritshuis House (The Hague, The Netherlands)
Artist: Johannes Vermeer
Girl with the Pearl Earring is the crown jewel of Vermeer’s masterpieces. Vermeer, the master of light, only created 36 works of art throughout his career, however, he is revered in the painting world for his depiction of genre paintings. Many of his paintings represented 17th-century Delft and featured women at work. Some of his other most famous works include The Little Street, The Milkmaid, and Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. Vermeer is praised for his compositions which capture seemingly simple actions in detailed and beautiful ways. His most well-known collector during his lifetime was Pieter van Ruijven but he wasn’t popular outside of Delft. It is curious for the time that Vermeer did not have any students and his teacher is unknown. Based on historical research, it is possible that due to his father’s death in 1652, he could not afford to study with a master and was self-taught. Girl with the Pearl Earring is one of several Vermeer pieces that feature a delicate pearl. In this painting, a girl wearing an “exotic” headscarf is painted against a stark black background. Shadows trace the folds of her clothing and the rich blue and yellow of her headscarf shine against the black background. The pearl’s reflective qualities are astounding. The sizable pearl reflects the light in the top left corner and looks real enough to be lifted out of the painting and into your hand. The girl’s face is the most notable feature of the painting. She sets her captivating stare on each viewer, and like the Mona Lisa, her eyes follow you from every direction. The values of her skin are perfectly blended and each feature is incredibly realistic. The consistency and depth in values that Vermeer was able to achieve is impressive given that painters were required to mix their colors by hand using pigments in their raw form. Vermeer’s impeccable technique and seemingly effortless strokes resulted in a globally recognized, mesmerizing painting.
The person who sat for the painting was a model. She was portraying a role; this was not her own identity. The model’s enigmatic stare has left people wondering—who was Vermeer’s model? What was her story and relationship with the artist?
Surprisingly, this painting was not always as valued as it is today. The painting was a part of Vermeer’s patron’s collection until it was sold by his son-in-law. Then its location was unknown for 200 years. The painting was eventually purchased for two guilders by a collector and after he died in 1902, Girl with the Pearl Earring was donated to the Mauritshuis, the famous museum in the Hague. The most recent sale of a Vermeer painting sold for 30 million dollars—a far cry from the original 2 guilder sale of Girl with the Pearl Earring. While Vermeer received most of his accolades posthumously, he would be pleased to learn that the largest collection of his works is currently on display at the Rijksmuseum and that the exhibition sold over half a million tickets! Girl with the Pearl Earring solidified Vermeer’s title as the genius of light and is one of the most famous paintings in the world today.
- Panorama of Scheveningen
Location: Panorama Mesdag (The Hague, The Netherlands)
Artist: Hendrik Willem Mesdag
Upon entry into the Panorama, you are immediately transported to the seaside town of Scheveningen circa the early 19th century. Hendrik Willem Mesdag, in collaboration with Sientje Mesdag-van Houten (his wife), George Hendrik Breitner, Théophile de Bock, and Bernard Blommers, created this amazing piece in just over four months as a commission for a Belgian panorama company. The painting is the largest in the Netherlands measuring 14.6 meters high (roughly 48 ft) and 114.5 meters long (375 ft) and 1680 (18,083 ft) square meters in total. Mesdag created his composition from the Seinpostduin which was the highest dune in Scheveningen. To achieve a realistic panoramic view of the town from the dune, Mesdag sketched the seascape on a glass cylinder so he would capture the town accurately and in its entirety.
This immersive experience is achieved through several different intentional choices by the artists. The top and bottom of the canvas are purposefully obscured so the painting feels like you are physically looking out at the scene instead of simply viewing a painting. This immersion is further emphasized by the distance between the viewer and the painting. The painting is set back from the viewing platform and physical dunes have been created as well as sparse plants, fishing nets, and a clog, as if the clog was accidentally left behind by a beach-goer. The buildings, church steeples, and sails of the boats are painted in painstaking detail. The people are tiny dots on the shoreline from the view of the Seinpostduin and the foam on the crashing waves looks real enough to touch. The looped sounds of cawing seagulls and ocean waves and wind also contribute greatly to the viewing experience of the Panorama of Scheveningen. Incredibly, four different artists were able to create such a fluid piece of art together.
Unfortunately, these panoramic paintings lost popularity with the rise of film. The company received fewer and fewer visitors and eventually went bankrupt. Mesdag acquired the painting and eventually opened a museum centered around the Panorama, which is the only panorama still in its original location. Museum Mesdag now features works by Hendrik Mesdag and his wife Sientje Mesdag-van Houten and highlights their other seaside works that captured the 19th-century beachside town; through their art, the Mesdag family preserved coastal images of the late 1800s for viewers over a hundred and forty years later.
- Young Woman with Dog Puck
Location: The Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
Artist: Thérèse Schwartze
Year: January 1888
Thérèse Schwartze is one of the most famous female artists of the 19th century. Her father was an artist and began training her as a child. She was first commissioned to create portraits for the Van Loon, Borski, and Sillem Families who were high society members of Amsterdam. These families would go on to become lifelong clients and for the Van Loon Family, Schwartz would paint fifteen members of their family over four generations. When her father died, she, her mother, and her sisters took over the family business. She exhibited all over the world and was never in a shortage of commissions . Schwartz created beautiful, detailed, and extremely realistic portraits in a very short time which lent itself very well to portraits of children who couldn’t sit still.
In Young Woman with a Dog Puck, Schwartz’s talent for realism is on display. The woman’s features and skin look extremely lifelike. The Rijksmuseum says, “Schwartze achieved a playful and lively effect through a combination of pasty and finer paint strokes. The folds in the sleeves of the young woman are roughly painted here, while her face and locks of hair are very detailed”. The colors are very vibrant and the combinations of different strokes create her own unique style. Over the course of her career, Schwartze created over 1000+ works and is a renowned Dutch portraitist.
- Let me be myself
Location: The Straat Museum (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
Artist: Eduardo Kobra
A huge multicolor portrait sits upon the door to the welding shed at the Straat Museum in Amsterdam Noord. This 240 square meter mutual is painted by Eduardo Kobra. This piece was commissioned by “Street Art Today and Stichting NDSM-Werf, in collaboration with the City of Amsterdam and Instituto Plataforma Brasil”. Kobra’s area of expertise is creating huge street portraits. He has painted portraits of people Mandela, Einstein, Malala, etc. all over the world. Anne Frank is a national and global icon for peace and perseverance. NDSM writes, “[Anne Frank’s] message of resistance, hope, freedom, and courage is a powerful symbol against dictatorship, oppression, and war all over the world.” The colors, at their brightest, mimicked the same patchwork of Anne’s beloved diary, Kitty, paying homage to her diary that has changed the world. This piece is a copy of the famous photo of Anne Frank smiling, showing the world that positivity is key to combating the greatest of foes. This piece of street art is a modern interpretation of a key piece of the Netherlands’ history.
These were just a few of my favorite works of art that I saw in the Netherlands and I really hope this inspires you to visit museums in Amsterdam—they are fantastic!
de Baaij, Jeroen. “Thérèse Schwartze: Societyschilder Van de Koningin.” KunstVensters, November 20, 2022. https://kunstvensters.com/2022/09/22/therese-schwartze-societyschilder-van-de-koningin/.
del Re, Sonia del. “Two Etchings by Rembrandt and the Art of Being Human.” National Gallery of Canada, December 31, 2018.
“Let Me Be Myself (2016): Kobra.” NDSM, July 19, 2017. https://www.ndsm.nl/en/location/let-me-be-myself-2016-kobra/?context=340.
“Panorama of Scheveningen - Europe’s Biggest ‘Circular’ Painting.” Panorama of Scheveningen - Europe’s biggest “circular” painting - Holland.com, June 24, 2022. https://www.holland.com/global/tourism/discover-the-netherlands/visit-the-cities/the-hague/panorama-mesdag.htm.
“Thérèse Schwartze.” Rijksmuseum.nl. Accessed May 17, 2023. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/stories/nederlandse-meesters/story/therese-schwartze.
“What’s so Special about Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring?.” Google Arts & Culture. Accessed May 11, 2023. https://artsandculture.google.com/story/what%E2%80%99s-so-special-about-vermeer%E2%80%99s-girl-with-a-pearl-earring/WQWBl7zQJhT3KQ?hl=en.
Zelazko, Alicja. “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed May 11, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Girl-with-a-Pearl-Earring-by-Vermeer.
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Hi! My name is Rachel Alliker and I am a Junior Psychology major and Spanish and Honors Forum double minor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY! I am from Greenwich, CT and I’m excited to be studying abroad in Amsterdam with IES (Spring 2023). At Skidmore, I am one of the head tour guides, a Writing Center tutor, a sustainability office volunteer. I’m also a part of the Positive Psychology Lab and Co-Vice President of the Honors Forum. Outside of academics, I love to bake, read, spend time with my friends and my dogs.