For years now, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has been partly closed for rebuilding. William Fiennes likes it better that way—less Gallery Fatigue, more time for Vermeer and Rembrandt ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2010
Some friends had a spare ticket to a Radiohead concert at the Heineken Music Hall in Amsterdam. I’d never flown anywhere just for a night, and I’d probably have said no if I’d had time to think and feel guilty about it. But I wanted to see the band, I’d never been to Amsterdam, and it was close enough to my birthday for me to call the trip a present to myself. I didn’t have to rush back early the next morning. I’d have the best part of a day to walk the canals and see the famous Vermeers in the Rijksmuseum.
Strange, in a way, that I was so intent on going to the Rijksmuseum. Visiting new cities, I’d never gravitated to the museums. In my teens and 20s I’d traipsed round hallowed national galleries more out of a sense of cultural obligation than private hunger. I worried that it meant some failure on my part, that I couldn’t respond to paintings or sculptures the way I did to books or pieces of music. The image that stays with me from the National Gallery’s blockbuster Caravaggio exhibition in 2005 is a man in a tweed jacket standing at the back of the crowd, looking at “The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula” through binoculars.
Still, I was determined to visit the Rijksmuseum. I wanted to see Vermeer’s painting “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter”. Nothing special, of course, in falling for a Vermeer (“Everybody loves Vermeer, except me,” Francis Bacon protested), but I loved that picture: the stillness; the woman’s concentration; the pale blue smock over her pregnancy; the mystery of what she might be reading; the way the inner world implied by reading was equal to the world represented by the map hanging on the wall behind her. I’d stuck a postcard of the painting above my desk, and wondered if I’d ever get to see it in the flesh.
So I was excited that morning in 2006 when I set out from the hotel near Central Station. I liked the wateriness of Amsterdam, the way the tram bells tolled like clocks in medieval churches, the longhorn handlebars of the bicycles and the upright postures of their helmetless riders, the varieties of tulip bulbs on sale in the flower market along the Singel Canal: Flaming Kiss, Line Dancer, Chinatown, Honkey Tonk, Lemon Snow Parrot, American Dream. I walked with a pilgrim’s sense of purpose. I was seeing Vermeer everywhere. The waitress in the café on Utrechtsestraat wore a blue headscarf. I knew how to get to the Rijksmuseum, but asked her for directions anyway. She told me, in perfect English, then added: “But I think it might be closed.”
She was half right. The actual Rijksmuseum was closed, and had been since 2003; it isn’t expected to open again until 2013, when the overhaul by the Spanish architects Cruz & Ortiz is completed. But a small part of the collection was, and still is, on display in the southern wing: an exhibition of paintings and other objects that’s more an idea of the Rijksmuseum than the thing itself, or even a different museum altogether, a museum with such distinctive character and impact I’m sad to think it will only exist for ten years, before being subsumed once more into its parent body.
“Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” was in Room 10, alongside two other famous paintings by Vermeer, “View of Houses in Delft” and “The Kitchen Maid”. I wasn’t disappointed. I stood in front of each painting for a long time. I stepped closer, seeing the pocks, blemishes and nails in the white wall behind the kitchen maid, and followed the line that ran down the middle of her headscarf and continued down her nose and the cleft in her chin and the front of her tunic and became the stream of milk, the line of her concentration. I peered at light glinting off rivets on the blue chairs either side of the woman reading the letter, and saw how the rivets were part of an arrangement of vertical and horizontal lines, a grid in which the woman’s inner life was fixed and centred. Visitors—tour groups, couples, art students with Daler-Rowney sketch pads under their arms—gathered round those three pictures, held by more than their reputations. Each painting conveyed the experience of concentration, of being fully absorbed in whatever you were doing; it made you part of a moment of absolute focus and self-forgetfulness. Even as I left Room 10 to see Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” downstairs, I was looking forward to the day I came and stood in front of that wall again.