New-look Rijksmuseum puts Dutch masterpieces into context

AMSTERDAM, April 4 Thu Apr 4, 2013 5:03pm EDT

AMSTERDAM, April 4 (Reuters) - The Dutch national museum reopens this month after a decade-long overhaul in which nearly everything has been changed except for the setting of its most famous painting.

Rembrandt van Rijn's "The Night Watch" will be the only work still hanging in the same place when Queen Beatrix officially opens the Rijksmuseum on April 13 after a 375 million euro ($482.02 million) renovation to a treasure trove of Dutch art.

"We've had a complete transformation, everything is new," General Director Wim Pijbes said at a press preview on Thursday. "The only thing that hasn't changed is the place of 'The Night Watch'."

Rembrandt's large masterpiece shows Amsterdam's civic guard setting off on a march and is approached along a "hall of fame" hung with works such as Johannes Vermeer's "Woman Reading a Letter", and "The Merry Drinker" by Frans Hals, as well as opulent displays of fruit and flowers.

The opening will be one of the queen's last official duties before she abdicates, showing off the country's art, its rich history as a naval power and society of merchants.

Many of the prize pieces in the collection of 8,000 works are now displayed in broader context, with related paintings, furniture, silver and ceramics arranged in close proximity to each other as part of the museum's new layout.

Rembrandt's portraits of a wealthy lady in a delicate lace ruff and a man wearing an exotic turban hang close to a portrait of Rembrandt by his friend, the artist Jan Lievens, with whom he shared a studio.

Nearby are works by another friend the silversmith Johannes Lutma and an oak cupboard inlaid with ebony and mother-of-pearl by Herman Doomer, whose work Rembrandt admired and whose portrait he painted.

"The 10-year renovation project gave us the opportunity to entirely reinvent our collection," Director of Collections Taco Dibbits said.

"You create the world in which they lived and give a feeling of the times."

Likewise, a room devoted to the country's history as a naval power contains an enormous model of the Dutch warship "Willem Rex" and a trophy of war - the stern carving from King Charles II of England's flagship "Royal Charles" which was captured by Dutch forces in 1667.

The ship was towed to the Netherlands where it was scrapped apart from its carving of a lion and unicorn. Nearby is an ink on canvas picture of The Battle of Terheide by Willem van de Velde. The artist, an early war painter, even includes himself in the work, shown sketching aboard a ship in the foreground.

The building itself has also had an extensive renovation.

Designed by Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, a Catholic, the museum opened to the public in 1885 but was deemed too showy by Protestant critics. So gradually, many of the interior decorations, from murals to mosaics, were covered up or removed. Those have now been restored.

"Cuypers's building was not well-received by the Protestants of Amsterdam because it looked like a cathedral, so they slowly covered up part of it," said Antonio Ortiz, one of the architects who worked on the renovation.

"It was dark, dim, sad, a labyrinth. We have brought the building as close as possible to its original splendour."

The museum hopes the overhaul will help catapult it up the rankings for visitors, and attract as many as 2 million visitors a year, up from about 1.2 million just before the renovation work started.

That's a far cry from the 10 million people who visit the Louvre in Paris each year. ($1 = 0.7780 euros) (Reporting by Sara Webb, editing by Paul Casciato)